Flawed embankment strategy converts Bihar into watery grave

The engineering solutions put in place to tackle the issue of floods has created more problems than solutions in Bihar, says former IIT professor and doyen of water experts Dinesh Mishra
<p>The usual attempt to shore up an embankment in North Bihar (left) and an embankment is breached in the Kosi basin (right) [Images by: Rajiv Sinha]</p>

The usual attempt to shore up an embankment in North Bihar (left) and an embankment is breached in the Kosi basin (right) [Images by: Rajiv Sinha]

Dinesh Kumar Mishra of Barh Mukti Abhiyaan, an authority on the river network of North Bihar, speaks about the flood problems of the state, the skewed flood control policy of the government, the Kosi breach of 2008 and the gargantuan interlinking of rivers project.

How do the locals perceive and deal with floods and sediments in North Bihar?

There are three kinds of people living in any river basin as regards floods and its control or management. First, there are people living within the embankments who do not like to be there. They were rehabilitated after the flood control measures were taken up. This comprised mainly of building embankments along the rivers.

Second, there are those living outside the embankments but very close to it. These are the people on whose lands the embankments are built. They were the people who sacrificed their land for the rehabilitation of the embankment victims. Much of their land also became unproductive because of water logging subsequent to the construction of the embankments. They are also the first victims of deluge if there is any breach in the embankment. They demand continued raising and strengthening of the embankments so that they remain safe. Unfortunately, they don’t realise that the danger will be more pronounced with higher embankments.

Then there is a third category of people who live far away from the embankments in the countryside. The floodwater of the river may not reach them at all even after a breach. They have not made any sacrifices like the first two categories of people and have no stakes in flood control measures whatsoever. Their number is more than that of the first two. They are more vocal in pronouncing judgement at the cost of the other two.

The investment in the flood control sector in the country is on the rise while the flood-prone area of the country continues to grow. What kinds of flood control measures have been undertaken by the government and what went wrong with them?

The shortcoming of the embanking technology was known to the planners since the early British period. Their planners burnt their fingers initially in attempts to make money in protecting people from floods and charged taxes. They thought that like drought prone areas, people will demand irrigation once the flood control measures succeed and the fields are deprived of floods and fertilising silt. They failed miserably as the embankments along the rivers which they relied so heavily on to protect people from floods did just the reverse. The British planners shunned the idea of embanking in 1872 and never resorted to it till they left the country in 1947. They however, never prevented anyone from constructing these structures at their own peril and using own resources.

After independence, the policy was reversed and massive embanking of rivers started. At the moment we have 35,199.86 km of embankments along our rivers that are claimed to protect 1.8693 million hectares of flooded land. Besides, the government has so far constructed 4,728 large dams (not all of them have flood cushion), 39,709.52 km of drainage channels, raised 7,713 villages above the highest flood level, protected 2,802 towns against floods and constructed 65 raised platforms.

Having done so much work, the flood affected area of the country has risen from 25 million hectares (mha) in 1952 to 40 mha in 1980 and at 49.815 mha in 2011, according to the Planning Commission. This implies that the investment in the flood control sector is doing more harm than good but the plans are afoot to pursue the same policy that has resulted in this adverse result.

The state is unable to maintain the structures that were built to combat floods. Why is this so?

Lack of accountability, role of vested interests, ignoring the obvious, and lethargy to any change are the basic reasons that discourage the establishment from even reviewing the situation. Sediment load in the river water is equally if not more responsible for floods. It is only talked about and never worked upon. Same is the case with drainage. Most of the development and infrastructure works interfere with the natural drainage of the area but tackling drainage is ignored.

The Kosi breach of 2008 and the Bihar flood that followed was hardly a natural disaster and was the outcome of a flawed embankment strategy, your works say. Please elaborate on this.

The Kosi embankment breach at Kusaha in 2008 had hit five districts, 35 blocks, 231 Panchayats, 1,067 villages, 3.397 million people and 832,000 animals. Floodwater had spread over 415,300 hectares of land of which 176,000 hectare was cropped. It destroyed 244,128 houses, engulfed 736 villages, killed 540 people and 31,995 animals. The total loss was estimated at Rs. 14,880 crore (USD 2.1 billion). Never before in the known history of the Kosi were 540 lives lost in one year. The Kosi Project was supposed to protect 214,000 hectares of land. The submerged area in 2008 due to this breach was almost double the area it was supposed to protect. This breach was the eighth breach in the Kosi embankment. The project was estimated to cost Rs. 37 crore(USD 5.2 million) in 1955 when the work on the project was started. According to an estimate, had the same project been initiated in 2008, its estimated cost would have been Rs. 9,600 crore (USD 1.35 billion). It will be interesting to compare the costs of loss in 2008 and the cost of the project in the same year. We must remember that this was the eighth breach of the embankment.

The project authorities have been saying till August 17, 2008 that the embankment was safe and it breached the next day (August 18). The nose of the spur at 12 km upstream of the Kosi barrage was attacked by the river on August 5, 2008. There was enough time to take preventive measures but nobody bothered. The embankment breached at a river discharge of 166,000 cusecs whereas the designed discharge of the river at this site was 950,000 cusecs. If it had breached at a discharge of more than 950,000 cusecs, one could defend the failure but not at 166,000 cusecs.

What about the people living between Kosi and its embankments?

There are 380 Indian villages within the Kosi embankments apart from 34 Nepali villages. They were offered rehabilitation on the country side of the embankments but no ‘land for land’ principle was adopted for them. They were supposed to live in the rehabilitation sites and cultivate their land located within the embankments. This was an absurd proposition and did not work. The average spacing between the two embankments of the Kosi is about 10 kilometers and that gives some idea of what distance a farmer had to travel everyday during the crop season to reach his fields and come back. Besides, the rehabilitation site got water logged subsequently as the free flowing rainwater that used to join the Kosi got stuck on the side of the embankments and waterlogged most of the rehabilitation sites. The displaced farmers found it convenient to move back to their original villages and that is where most of them are today. Their population may not be less that 1.5 million, in any case. The Kosi entrapped between the two embankments mauls these villages almost every year with no one to look after the inhabitants. Sometimes, relief is given to them and sometimes the government takes a stand that they are living in the wrong place as they were provided rehabilitation.

The embankment has breached many times earlier and that comes to some sort of relief to them as the water level within the embankments comes down but it attacks those living outside who are their friends and relatives which nullifies the comforts. The interests of the people living within and outside the embankments are in conflict with each other. While those within want the embankment to breach, those outside want to protect it at all costs. This leads to fight among them, at times, that turn out to be devastating.

Are there cost effective and environmentally less destructive alternatives to these flood control structures in the first place?

Floodwaters contain sediments and floods spread them over a vast area. This is how the rivers perform their duty of land building. Any change in this behavior leads to problems that are not easy to handle. Spreading of floodwater ensures fertility of the soil because of the nutrient silt and also maintains the level of groundwater. It also lowers the flood levels, spreading it thin over vast areas. Preventing floodwaters from spreading results in anomalies. Arrangements should be made to ensure that floodwaters spread. As a corollary to this, the drainage should be improved so that floodwater does not stay for long at any place. Unfortunately, the engineering that is taught in colleges is confined within a framework and prevents engineers from thinking beyond or to even extend the frame. They also have a contempt for traditional wisdom and very conveniently forget that people have been living in flood prone areas for centuries without any help from the outside. It is impossible to think that the people have not developed the means to face the situation that they live in. The people, in turn, ignore engineers as people with ulterior motives. This stalemate must be resolved; sooner the better.

In light of the above, shouldn’t the government rethink its gargantuan interlinking of rivers project? What could be the implications of a project like this on the flood prone areas of the country?

Governments depend on their engineers and go by their advice and are averse to any suggestions from outside, even from their retired engineers. Engineers don’t talk to people as such. The dialogue, if any, exists between the politicians and the public. It becomes very easy for the politicians to say that they have taken the advice of the best available technical brains and the engineers often suggest that they have to work under politicians and are not the final authority. The public never gets an opportunity to talk to both of them together. The works proceed without any dialogue with the public. Then it can endlessly wait for the proposed dams in Nepal or interlinking of rivers or any such proposal. The debate whether these works will be worth the cost of investment is relegated to the background.

Bihar is supposed to have surplus water along with Assam and is expected to feed the nation by its waters. But drought relief has become a regular feature in the state. Will someone take cognizance of the situation? The states where Bihar’s water was planned to be sent are facing floods now, whereas Bihar reels under drought. What will the interlinking of rivers project result in such a case is the question that will have to be answered someday. Climate change will come to the rescue as can be foreseen even now. Think of the newly developed flood prone areas before asking for water from states like Bihar or Assam.

This interview was first published on India Water Portal