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Are Bihar floods a man-made disaster?

By Satyavrat Mishra
September 07, 2016 10:53 IST
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Year after year, floods cause mayhem in Bihar but the government is not paying adequate attention to water management, reports Satyavrat Mishra.

IMAGE: A village inundated by flood water near Kunauli panchayat in Bihar's Supaul district. Photograph: PTI

Ganga Sav is sitting outside his house, or what is left of it.

The roof is completely damaged and there is silt everywhere. It has come from the river with which he shares his name. The septuagenarian says his mother named him after Ganga to express her gratitude for being blessed with a boy.

"Back then the river used to bring happiness and joy, not like today, when it brings death and destruction," says Sav, his eyes welling up.

His family is still in the relief camp from where he has just returned. He intends to stay on to guard whatever little is left of his property. "Yahan to bas saap-bichhoo hain abhi. Abhi yahan parivar ke liye theek nahin hai. Hum yahan ghar ko dekhenge (There are only snakes and scorpions here now. It is not safe for my family, but I will stay here to take care of the house)," he says.

Sav lives in the diara area, small islets that have come up in the Ganga. He, like most others, was not expecting the flood.

"The rains were scant this year. So when the officials came and told us to move to safer ground, we took their advice lightly," he says. "Here in the diara, the water rises every monsoon. Sometimes, it reaches up to your knees, but it also recedes in no time."

This time it didn't. "By the dawn of the next day, the water rose to waist level and it kept rising," says Sav, recounting the events of August 17.

The recent flash floods in the Ganga hit Bihar the hardest. At least 65 people died and nearly half a million had to be evacuated.

Despite a rain deficit of 18 per cent, the water reached unprecedented levels in a dozen districts.

The highest was in Patna, where it broke the earlier record of 1994 and breached the 50 metre mark on August 25.

The low-lying areas and the diaras were inundated and thousands of people were moved to relief camps. The National Disaster Relief Force and State Disaster Relief Force combed the waters for survivors.

At the Tilka Manjhi University in Bhagalpur, exams had to be cancelled because the campus was submerged. In Buxar, Bhojpur, Patna, Vaishali, Samastipur, Munger, Bhagalpur and Khagaria, crops on 350,000 hectares of land were completely destroyed.

Hundreds of kilometres of the state's highways and rural roads have also been damaged. The total loss is estimated to be worth Rs 15,000 crore (Rs 150 billion).

The immediate reason for the flood was the large volume of water released into the Ganga from the Bansagar reservoir in Madhya Pradesh.

Data from the Madhya Pradesh water resources department shows that the water was discharged from the dam over a three day period, starting August 18.

Bihar officials say Madhya Pradesh had been hoarding the water for quite some time, despite sufficient rainfall in the catchment areas of the river Son.

The water was released only when the reservoir was 93 per cent full and couldn't hold more. Even so, officials say the destruction was unprecedented given the amount of water released.

Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar holds the Farakka Barrage in neighbouring West Bengal responsible for the tragedy. According to him, the barrage is the reason siltation in the Ganga is increasing.

'The current flood is not a result of the rains. This year monsoon has been deficient in Bihar,' Kumar said some days ago. 'The flood is a result of the heavy siltation of the Ganga as the Farakka Barrage doesn't allow silt to pass. This has made the river shallow, narrowed its stream and severely reduced its water retention capacity. As a result, even if a little water is released into the river, it spills over.'

IMAGE: People use a banana raft in flood-hit Hajipur, Bihar. Photograph: PTI

The chief minister, who holds a degree in engineering, complained that he had been raising this issue for the last 10 years at various fora, but without tangible results.

'At meetings I attended during the UPA (United Progressive Alliance) regime at the Centre, I saw people worrying only about the upstream (areas). I used to tell them to also think about downstream, but nobody listened.'

The Ganga is, indeed, one of the highest sediment load carrying rivers in the world. However, not everyone agrees with Kumar's argument.

Several engineers and hydrologists have criticised the government for not paying adequate attention to water management, which is essential for a flood-prone state like Bihar. "It's true that the Farakka Barrage has caused siltation, but to say that siltation is the only reason behind the flood is not correct," says hydrologist T Prasad, who holds a doctorate degree in water resources from the University of Illinois. He is also the founder director of the Centre for Water Resources Studies at Patna University.

"It (the barrage) acts along with several other factors, such as the velocity of the water and the embankment. To some extent, the Farakka Barrage did create some problem. But faulty planning and lack of a flood management policy complicated it," he says.

Santosh Kumar, consultant hydrologist, World Bank Project and former professor at the National Institute of Technology, Patna, blames it on the derelict condition of the infrastructure that is meant to control floods.

Poor maintenance of embankments and absence of a silt management policy for the Ganga and Kosi, he says, worsened the situation.

"It is totally wrong to solely blame the Farakka Barrage," he says. "The barrage is situated too far downstream to create such serious problems upstream. The backwater effect is limited to only some distance."

Siltation between the embankments, he says, is the prime reason for the rise in riverbeds.

"In Bihar, major rivers are jacketed, which means embankments have been constructed on their sides," he explains. This was done to protect the villages situated on the riverbanks.

However, this causes the riverbeds to rise as the silt cannot spread. That's why, he says, scientists and engineers installed sluice gates at the embankments to prevent flooding.

These not only release the pressure on the embankments, but also allow the sediment to be spread on to the flood plain.

"Unfortunately," he says, "none of the sluice gates at the embankments in Bihar is working."

At several places, the iron wheels of the sluice gates have been stolen. A lack of technical knowledge and bureaucratic indifference further aggravate the problem, he adds.

"In 1952, 25 lakh (2.5 million) hectares of present day Bihar used to be affected by floods," says Dinesh Mishra, one of the country's leading river experts. "Today, 73 lakh (7.3 million) hectares is affected," adds the former convener of Barh Mukti Andolan.

IMAGE: Vehicles on the submerged National Highway 31 near Fatuha in Patna district. Photograph: PTI

Doing away with the Farakka Barrage is not an option.

"It's an international issue. Bangladesh, which is only 15 to 20 km from the barrage, will never allow you to do so," says Mishra. "If the barrage is destroyed, the unchecked Ganga will wreak havoc there. Besides, there is a real possibility that the waters would then flow towards Kolkata and flood the city."

Nitesh Kumar, too, concedes that it might not be possible to dismantle the Farakka Barrage. He has demanded that the Centre should formulate a silt management policy.

The state, says Santosh Kumar, needs a two-pronged strategy. To begin with, it must employ silt excluder devices and dredgers. And it should rejuvenate the dead channels of the river, which can be activated in the time of flood.

The Kosi, adds Prasad, is the second highest silt-carrying river in the world and drains into the Ganga. "Kosi causes floods in Bihar, but the Centre and state governments have never shown any interest in solving this problem by constructing a multi-purpose high dam in Nepal," he rues.

And so, year after year, the river causes mayhem.

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