No dukes No deluge

Floods are bad. But embarkments only make matters worse

By Rajat Banerji
Published: Tuesday 15 December 1998

Breached defence: when floods< (Credit: Bhagawan Singh)IT'S the same story every year. Monsoons, rivers in spate, floods, loss of lives and property. For the people living in the banks of rivers, floods have become a way of life. The intensity varies, as does the damage.

One such state which hits the headlines during the monsoons is Bihar. It accounts for 16.5 per cent of the flood-prone area and 22.1 per cent of the flood-affected population in the entire country. Several hundreds of small rivers descend onto its plains from the highlands of Nepal, forming larger rivers as they meander across the fertile plains of the state. Every year, the battle against floods reaches a crescendo and takes along with it lives and property of the poor people who inhabit the river banks.

The central and state governments try to tackle the situation by building embankments. But the question is whether river embankments lessen or accentuate the damage caused by floods. If Barh Mukti Abhiyan (BMA, literally meaning "freedom from floods"), a Bihar-based non- governmental organisation (NGO), is to be believed, embankments only add to the problems.

After the 1984 floods, when Kosi breached its eastern embankment in Saharsa, Bihar, flood waters engulfed nearly 70,000 hectares (ha) of land. Nearly half-a-million people were rendered homeless, countless died and livestock perished by the thousands. This disaster impelled the BMA, then an informal group of people, to carry out an in-depth study of the problem of floods in the state. They came to the conclusion that investments in flood control measures in fact increased the extent of the damage. The BMA is now urging people to follow the concept of learning to live with floods.
More interference, more damage Flood management officials could learn a few lessons about living with floods from the ancient Indians. The Naradiya Purana, an ancient Hindu scripture, recommends people to live outside the flood plain, the area a river may occupy when in spate. The Purana holds that the river belt is at a distance of one yojan, around five kilometres, from the river bank. It advises people to live well out of reach of the river. That is an important part of flood management. Sadly, the present flood control policies lack the perspective of such centuries-old wisdom. Villages and towns have come up on riverbanks. And, with development, the damage and loss of property and life has only increased.

The total length of embankments along the Ganga-Brahmaputra rivers in 1987 stood at around 14,511 km. Of this, about 4,448 km are in Assam, 974 km in West Bengal, 2,756 km in Bihar, 1,711 in Uttar Pradesh and 1,007 in Orissa. Flood-prone areas in Bihar stood at 25 lakh ha in 1954,43.2 lakh ha in 1971 and 64.51 lakh ha in 1994 - almost a three-fold increase in four decades. Ironically, the area affected by floods has increased in proportion to the investments in flood control. This leads to the conclusion that greater the interference with rivers, in terms of flood control, the greater the flood-related damage.

Rivers are essentially natural drains or pathways for water to flow out of a region. When silt accumulates in a riverbed, it pushes the river on to a new course. This shift is generally a gradual one. The Kosi, for instance, has shifted its course 130 km westward over the past 200 years. However, such shifting of rivers has often clashed with human activities, and settlements along rivers have attempted to control this alteration. This is usually done by constructing embankments on riverbanks.

Embankments impede drainage, rather than facilitating it. With a continuous deposit of silt on the riverbed, the water level rises. The surging waters often transgress these embankments during monsoons.

In the Kosi basin, there are as many people living between embankments as there are outside it. To save themselves from the floods, these people often breach the embankments. When this happens, those living outside the embankment try to prevent such willful breaching, for fear of the flood waters reaching them as well. This has also created a divide among people living within the embanked area and those outside (see special report: The boat people, Vol 7, No 10).

Moreover, when an embankment is breached, it results in severe water-logging outside the embankments as the water does not have a path to re-enter the river. But breaching embankments are almost routine. Assam has "public cuts" marked in post-flood maps, signaling an acceptance by the administration that the public will breach an embankment during floods.

Besides, construction of embankments is a flourishing business in flood-affected states such as Bihar and Assam. There is a strong nexus between the contractors and the government engineers. And despite strong protests from most of the affected population, construction of dykes continue, not only draining the state coffers but also bringing more misery to the people.

In West Champaran district of Bihar, for instance, people have been struggling against floods for the past 30 years. In 16 blocks of Champaran district, there are about 59 small and big rivers. Gandak originates in the Himalaya and the Burhi Gandak starts further eastwards. The left embankment on the Gandak ruptured in 1993, washing away an entire block. The one at Pipra Piprasi has been breached 53 times in 40 years. Here, none of the embankments have served their purpose.

The Kamala river continues to be a curse for the people of Madhubani district, especially the stretch where the Kosi runs parallel to Kamala. Most villages along the embankment in Kamala suffer from water-logging. At the same time, the area between Pirhi and Jasma Marhar, where there are no embankments, is free from such disasters.

Wanted: a common sense approach
The BMA has been involved in raising public awareness about flood-control measures. "We have evolved a clear understanding that it is neither possible to control floods through technical methods, nor is it desirable to do so. Floods are welcome, though not the type that have been created through the construction of embankments," says D K Mishra, convener of BMA. The BMA says that the state engineers present the problems from floods as a technical one. The reality, they add, is that it is not a technical approach that would sort the issue, but a common sense approach.

Tariq Rahman of Sahyog, a group of 30 NGOs in eastern Uttar Pradesh, agrees. According to Rahman, floods could benefit people. "With the fertility of the land replenished by the annual silt deposits, the region stands to gain by producing bumper crops," he says.

Groups like Sahyog are trying to involve local politicians in the issue, so that the movement gains further momentum. Till such time, however, grassroot movements will have to contend with, what they term, "human-made floods". But theirs' is a difficult task.

At a two-day seminar on "River Crisis in South Asia' in June this year, Ajaya Dixit of the Nepal Water Conservation Foundation outlined the challenges that these NGOs faced. Western solutions do not work in the Asian context, says Dixit. The answer lies in putting together different perceptions and coming up with a solution. If no new embankments are made, it would be difficult to guard against damage caused by routine floods. In all likelihood, the anti-embankment lobby will be held answerable. But a technical approach will not sort out the issue. What is needed is common sense. That will require an overwhelming mandate by the flood-affected people. And it is indeed a Herculean task to bust the myth that floods are prevented by embankments.

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