2 sides of an unnatural coin

By Sunita Narain
Published: Tuesday 31 August 2004

Last fortnight, I wrote of an impending drought. 15 days on, I stand corrected. Now devastating floods are drowning parts of the recently parched country. So much so that Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi, who last fortnight sought Rs 2,500 crore as drought relief, has now asked the Centre for flood relief, saying his state should be treated at par with flood-devastated Bihar.

But is this cycle of floods and droughts as natural as it looks? In 1986, the then Prime Minister, Rajiv Gandhi had asked my colleague Anil Agarwal the same question. He had scribbled a note to Anil asking him to explain how, "with environmental degradation, even low rainfall becomes a flash flood and the water rushes into the sea and then is not available as groundwater". He had wanted Anil to explain this vicious circle, as he had called it, to his parliamentary colleagues.

The question sounded simple enough. But the answers were tough. As we explored it became clear to us that the practice of "living with floods" was as challenging and urgent as that of "living with droughts".

Let me explain. By the mid-1980s it was clear that the annual flood-prone area - defined as the area affected by overflowing rivers (not areas submerged because of heavy rains) -- had increased from 25 million hectares (mha) in 1960 to 40 mha in 1978 and an estimated 58 mha by the mid-1980s. It was also clear that in these years, there was no evidence that the rainfall had increased. To understand why floods are increasing, it is important to go back in time.

The initial years of independent India were a time full of a machismo called 'the new nation'. Planners had agreed "floods in the country can be contained and managed". The first five-year plan emphasised building dams to control floods. The devastating floods of 1954 lead to a China-like snydrome, where government wanted people to take on the task of building huge embankments to tame mighty rivers.

By the late 1950s, enthusiasm for this strategy faded. But a monster had been set loose: a huge, powerful and entrenched industry hell-bent on making embankments. Embankments became the contractor-officials' dream project; even today, they make or break the fortunes of many a state politician. In Bihar, for instance, by mid-1980s, some 3,400 km of embankments were supposedly constructed. But during this same period, the flood-prone area in the state shot up from 2.5 mha to 6.4 mha. As floods continued, so did flood control. This, when it was well understood that embankments had exacerbated the flood intensity of the region. These structures, which bind the river, also do not allow the valuable and fertile silt to disperse when a river naturally tends to go into spate. The silt accumulates in the riverbed, raising the bed, leading to floods. The water has nowhere to go for all the natural drainage has been destroyed and this, in turn, intensifies the flood. But the vested interests that construct these structures have made sure this strategy for flood control remains intact.

The strategy of the past was the exact reverse: to disperse the flood by channelising excess water across the land -- to regenerate soil and groundwater reserves. This system is best described by William Willcocks, a British irrigation expert, sent in the 1920s by the Raj to find solutions to the famine and malaria of Bengal. As he travelled and reconstructed ingenious engineering, Willcocks found that floods were managed through an intricate system of inundation canals, where overflow from swollen rivers would be channelised. These channels would be used to harvest fish, which in turn kept malaria at bay, and irrigated the land as people cut the banks of the artificial streams. In Bengal, these canals were known as "kani nadi" or dead or blind rivers. But just imagine his wonder, as Willcocks explains that these canals were the only 'seeing and living' irrigation works in all of Bengal. Willcocks wrote to his colonial masters that his advice would be to rebuild the system of water management of the region that had been wilfully destroyed by them.

But unfortunately, neither the British, nor the whitewashed irrigation bureaucracy of India, ever heeded this advice. Instead, all the streams and wetlands, all flood cushions have been distributed in the name of land reform. Or simply destroyed. Think what this has done to the region. The flood devastates life. And it does not even recharge the groundwater reserves. As farming becomes ever-more dependent on these reserves, they deplete further.

And when you think about it, this cycle is no different from the regions where people had learnt to live, not with the excesses of water, but with its scarcity. Think of the principle of rainwater harvesting in a country, which gets rain for only 100 hours of the 8760 hours in a year. All the rain of the year could come in just one cloudburst. The solution was to capture that rain and to use it to recharge groundwater reserves for the remaining year. The answer ultimately was to use the land for storing and channelising the rain -- over the ground, or under. Catching water where it falls and when it falls.

Now let's return to Modi's flood- devastated Gujarat. Why has it happened? Is it a natural disaster or a humanmade one, because the rain had nowhere to go? Without tanks or ponds or structures to impede its flow, catch it, or channelise it, rainwater can also destroy.

But this is a chronically water scarce area. Modi's claim his state is no different from Bihar has to be condemned, for this region has forgotten to cherish each drop of water that turns into a flood. It is for this reason that I would argue that chief ministers like Narendra Modi should not be given flood relief, but instead be penalised for the drought the floods will cause.

-- Sunita Narain

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