Course correction

By Arnab Pratim Dutta and Alok Gupta
Published: Wednesday 15 October 2008

-- Can Bihar avert another Kosi disaster?

On September 16, the Special Task Force constituted by the prime minister put a figure on the destruction caused by floods in Bihar Rs 25,000 crore. The Bihar government was seeking Rs 9,000 crore for flood relief; the Centre had released Rs 1,000 crore. Chairperson of the task force S C Jha, member of the prime minister's economic advisory council, advised the premier that rehabilitation and reconstruction work is beyond the capability of either the state or the Union government and suggested seeking assistance from the World Bank or the Asian Development Bank. "Rs 9,000 crore demanded by the state is a hastily prepared figure for rehabilitation and rebuilding. Ground realities are grim and Rs 25,000 crore is the estimated figure for rebuilding the flood-hit zones," said Jha.

The report came as a shocker for the Bihar administration.Chief Minister Nitish Kumar said the state's flood damage estimates were a rough figure. "We only prepared a budget for immediate rehabilitation," Kumar said.

The task force team was shocked to find that the work on the washed away Kosi embankment was yet to begin a month after the breach caused the floods on August 18. "Engineers should have plugged the breach and it's time not for a fight but for action," said Jha. The Centre and the Bihar government cannot agree on who should foot the bill for repairing the breach. They are still fighting over who was responsible for it.

Union Minister of State for Water Resources Jayprakash Yadav accused the Bihar water resources minister Vijender Yadav of neglect. The state minister, in turn, pointed a finger at the Centre for not convening the Indo-Nepal bilateral meeting on the Kosi embankment security. "The Union government did not convene the crucial bilateral meeting on the Kosi in 2004 and 2005. The breach happened due to lackadaisical maintenance of the embankment by the previous government. That is why in the judicial probe we have included a reference point into the role of the previous state government in maintaining the embankments," said Vijender.

The day the special task force submitted its report, the Nepalese water resources minister Bishnu Prasad Poudel and his Indian counterpart Saifuddin Soz were discussing ways to tame the Kosi. The two agreed to expedite the feasibility study on building a high dam on the river that originates in the Himalayas in Nepal. Media reports state that Nepalese Prime Minister Parchanda met the Bihar chief minister at a lunch hosted by Janata Dal (United) leader Sharad Yadav and affirmed his intention of building a high dam on the Kosi.

N K Singh, the deputy chairperson of the planning commission of Bihar, through articles in national newspapers, has been advocating that a dam on the Kosi can have multiple benefits, including flood moderation, irrigation and power generation.

The idea of a big dam has been junked earlier. It reappears every time the Kosi floods.

High dam how feasible
A dam on the Kosi was first proposed in 1937 and in 1951, a committee under S C Majumdar, advisor-engineer to the government of West Bengal, was set up to look into the feasibility of the project. The carrot dangled before the King of Nepal was electricity at Rs 0.02 per unit.

The committee pointed out that in 1952 the demand for power in India was 1,100 mw, whereas 1,750 mw was being produced in the country. It also pointed out that between 1940 and 1950 the demand for power had increased by only 50 mw per year, so "a large capital would be blocked unproductively in the name of power production". It recommended shelving the project.

Down to Earth In 1953, the barrage at Hanuman Nagar and embankments on the Kosi came along as the most viable alternative.

The current plans to build a dam on the Kosi are quite different from the 1937 project. In 1991, India and Nepal agreed to study the possibility of a high dam on the river. This is called the Saptakoshi high dam and Sun Kosi diversion scheme. They set up a Joint Team of Experts to prepare a detailed project report. The report was supposed to have been ready by August 2007 but is not yet finished.

According to C Lal, director, flood control, Central Water Commission, investigation work for the project has been delayed because of issues arising from sharing of water between the two countries.

The Saptakoshi high dam at Barahshetra near Chatra valley in Nepal will have a 269 metre tall concrete or rock-fill structure and will produce 3,000 mw at 50 per cent load factor. Eight km downstream a barrage will re-regulate the water released from the Saptakoshi dam. Two canals, the eastern and western Chatra canals, offtaking from the barrage are planned to provide irrigation to Nepal and India. Another canal to be linked to the eastern Chatra canal will take water to the Kosi barrage at Hanuman Nagar.

Ecologists have serious reservations about the dam. According to Sudhirendar Sharma, water expert and director of the Delhi-based Ecological Foundation, a dam will only aggravate the floods. It will take 20 years to build and will be able to capture only 78 per cent of the flow of the river, for only this much per cent of the Kosi's catchment area is in Nepal, he says, adding that 22 per cent, a "dangerous proportion", will still flow.

One of the strongest criticisms against the Saptakoshi high dam is that it will be located in a high seismic zone. According to Dinesh Kumar Mishra, another water expert and former Bihar engineer who has been studying the Kosi since 1984, the Majumdar committee had recommended against a high dam on the Kosi in Nepal citing high seismicity in the region. In 1934, an earthquake measuring 8.3 on the Richter scale had caused widespread devastation. "A breach in a dam as large as this one could spell disaster of an unprecedented scale for Bihar," Mishra warned. There is growing evidence that huge reservoirs can induce earthquakes, adds Himanshu Thakkar of South Asia Network for Dams, Rivers and People.

Siltation, says Thakkar, is another cause for concern. "The proposed dam will silt up sooner than 40 years, according to the government's own reports. The silt from it cannot be released, as it will end up along the Kosi embankment and in the downstream Farakka barrage. Increased siltation could also force the Ganga to change its course and bypass the Farakka barrage," he adds.

Ajaya Dixit of the Kathmandu-based ngo Nepal Water Conservation Foundation questions the multiple benefits the dam is said to provide. "Power generation and flood control are two contradictory issues in a dam. To control floods, the reservoir needs to be kept empty to accommodate flood waters. On the other hand, for power generation one would need to keep the reservoir full all the time," he says.

The National Flood Commission in 1980 had taken note of these problems. "Floods being acute in the basins of rivers originating in the Himalayas, the reservoirs for flood moderation have to be built in the Himalayan region, where there are complex problems to be dealt with due to geological, seismic and topographical constraints. Because of narrow valleys, capacities of reservoirs are not huge. Also, the rivers carry very large silt charge," it noted. These factors limit the economic life of the reservoirs, which, in turn, "affect the economic feasibility of projects".

Down to Earth The embankment fix
Is embanking the Kosi a better approach to controlling floods? The Bihar experiment, with 3,438 km of embankments, shows maybe not. Flood-prone areas in the state have more than doubled since the embankments came up in the 1950s. Embankments increased the flood-prone areas from 14.3 per cent in 1950 to almost 39 per cent of the state's total area in 1990, writes Mishra in his book Trapped Between Devil and Deep Water . Of this close to 65 per cent or 4.18 million hectares lies in embankment-locked plains of north Bihar.

Mishra says embankments only give a false sense of security to the people. "Earlier, when the banks overflowed, the floodwater stayed for at most a week, but now an embankment breach means water-logging for at least four months." Mishra, who headed an independent fact-finding team on the August 18 breach, says just as the embankments stop water from spilling over, they also stop water from joining the river, leading to water stagnation. The Kosi is embanked for 135 km south of Kusaha, the breach site. The flow having left the breached site could not rejoin the original course and had to braid into three abandoned channels of the Kosi.

Central Water Commission engineers working on the Saptakoshi high dam scheme, themselves argue that embankment and barrages are temporary solutions and ineffective in controlling floods. In 2006, two of them, A K Jha and D P Mathuria, submitted a paper on this at the First India Disaster Management Congress organized by the National Disaster Management Authority (ndma) in Delhi.

"Structures such as Hanuman Nagar Barrage and embankments built a few decades ago on the Kosi on Indo-Nepal border have definitely helped to temporarily check the lateral shifting of the Kosi and in putting the river into a definite channel. But this isolated engineering approach has proved to be too insufficient in (achieving) its objectives as at present the pond of the barrage at Hanuman Nagar is almost full of sediments. Soon the embankments would be ineffective in controlling the Kosi floods. It would thus be nave to embark upon finding a solution of this menace through structural measures alone in the form of a high dam without understanding the characteristics of floods in general and the Kosi river in particular," states the paper, 'Kosi-a review of flood genesis and attempts to solve this problem'.

The Kosi is known to change its course, therefore, a proper study of the factors causing the shift should help in developing ways to cope with its floods.

The government is, however, sticking to its engineering approach. The High Level Expert Team, set up by the Centre after the floods, will formulate guidelines on the long-term upkeep of the Kosi dam, while Bihar's Kosi Breach Closure Advisory Team will look into the cause of the breach.

Interlinking of rivers is another structural measure for moderating floods, though it is still far-fetched. The National Water Development Authority, on the Supreme Court's directions, had identified five river linkages in Bihar, involving the Kosi, Ghaghara, Sone and Ganga rivers. The sixth Gandak-Ganga link canal is indirectly related to Bihar. There has been no geomorphological study on interlinking projects, but two reports of the Bihar government in 2003 and 2004 suggested that interlinking of rivers was not a good idea because the state needed water to irrigate its own land and water transferred would insignificant for flood moderation.

Way forward
A high dam is risky. Embankments are temporary technical fixes. So what should Bihar do? There are no quick-fix solutions to the floods, says Rohan D'souza, assistant professor, Centre for Studies in Science Policy, Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi. "You cannot stop flooding. Instead one needs to know how to live with floods .... Allow natural flooding of the river," he says. The only way to revive natural flooding, that happens gradually, is by ensuring proper drainage of water, which means removing congestions like roads, railway lines and embankments or providing adequate channels for easy drainage of water through the floodplains.

Bihar has a high density of railway route. "Major roads and railway lines (in Bihar) run from east to west, thus cutting across the natural drainage as rivers flow from north to south. Inadequate waterways on bridges build up volume and velocity of flood waters," states the report, Floods, Flood Plains and Environmental Myths, of the Centre for Science and Environment published in 1991.

Mishra and Sharma question why the river should not be allowed to follow the new course. "Given that the breach is unlikely to be plugged before March, by which time a sizeable population would have moved to other locations, should the river not be allowed to follow its new course?" asks Sharma.

As it became clear that the August 18 flood was a result of lack of maintenance of embankments, demand is growing for renegotiating the 1954 Kosi agreement--amended in 1968--that makes India solely responsible for operating, maintaining and repairing the barrage and the embankments. The Kosi High Level Committee (khlc), headed by the chairperson of the Ganga Flood Control Committee (gfcc), is responsible for overseeing the maintenance work.

According to an official of the Bihar Water Resources Department, khlc failed to take adequate steps to avert floods. "The repair and maintenance work on the river was like applying band-aid, whereas it needed a bypass surgery. Most of the recommendations of the state engineers were not taken into account by khlc and gfcc, including anti-siltation work of the channels which lead to the breach," he said.

The country also needs to improve its disaster management. The head of Bihar's disaster management committee, headed by the chief minister, had no clue about the breach till a day after. ndma, headed by the prime minister, came to know about it, a day late, not through any modern surveillance method, but through a news report on the Internet.

"We were taken by surprise. There were a few National Disaster Response Force personnel in Patna, who were dispatched immediately, while another two battalions of the force stationed in Bhubaneswar and Kolkata were airlifted to Patna," says an ndma official. The two battalions could reach the affected areas only by August 21.

Heavy weather
Down to Earth
Down to Earth Enlarge View
Seven states reeled under floods this year. Orissa, Gujarat and Maharashtra experienced heavy rainfall but the other states got normal or even deficit rainfall if we go by the Indian Meteorological Department data. Bihar, the most affected, had normal rains this season and scanty rainfall in September. So did Uttar Pradesh. Met department says Himachal Pradesh had scanty rainfall but state government officials speak of continuous downpour in September. Met department attributes the mismatch to lack of basin-wise data
More ...

Subscribe to Daily Newsletter :

Comments are moderated and will be published only after the site moderator’s approval. Please use a genuine email ID and provide your name. Selected comments may also be used in the ‘Letters’ section of the Down To Earth print edition.