"Disaster is the third crop": Breaching of river embankments has worsened the floods in Bihar
Once again the Bihar floods are in news. River embankments have breached. Media is playing visuals of swollen rivers and submerged thatched-roof huts. The state chief minister has done an aerial survey of the affected districts. Bureaucracy has geared into 'action'. Flood relief is being organised. In a week or two, these floods would be forgotten from the national memory, while the poorest of the poor in Bihar will continue to lose their lives bit by bit to the recurring floods.
In the mid-night of July 13 and July 14, at around 12.30 am, residents of Naruar village in Jhanjharpur block of Madhubani district came face to face with pralay (catastrophe). The western embankment of Kamla Balan breached under pressure from the rising flood waters and inundated the village, washing away everything that came in its way, including the cement and brick structures.
This was followed by two more breaches the same night in Kamla Balan's embankments — one in the eastern embankment near Rakhwari village and another in the western embankment near Ramkhetari village of Jhanjharpur block.
"In the dead of the night, large volume of water trapped between Kamala Balan's western and the eastern embankments was unleashed on the hapless villagers. This breaching of embankments has caused massive floods and destruction in the district," Ramesh Kumar Singh of Madhubani-based Ghoghardiha Prakhand Swarajya Vikas Sangh told Gaon Connection. Singh's non-profit works on flood management and has set up a 'trans-boundary citizens' forum' in 10 villages, which works with villages across the border in Nepal for dissemination of flood-related information.
According to Singh, in spite of a clear indication of floods approaching Bihar (as it had rained heavily for days together in Nepal, whose water eventually flows downstream to North Bihar through an intricate web of rivers), the government failed to warn or evacuate the people. "Marooned villagers of Naruar kept phoning up various authorities, but no one came for their immediate rescue, which angered the people," said Singh.
No wonder, two days later when R P Mandal, the member of parliament from Jhanjharpur constituency, visited Naruar to take stock of the flood situation, he was welcomed by angry villagers holding sticks.
Madhubani isn't the only district facing fury of floods in Bihar. Over 2.5 million people in 12 districts of North Bihar are ravaged by the rising waters.
"Madhubani district on the India-Nepal border is the worst affected. Other inundated districts include Sitamarhi, Sheohar, East Champaran, Araria, Muzaffarpur, etc," informed Pradeep Poddar, programme officer with Megh Pyne Abhiyan, a non-profit working on water and sanitation issues in the North Bihar region. "Apart from Kamala Balan breaching its embankments, the Bagmati river, too, has breached its embankments causing massive floods in a large number of villages in Sitamarhi and Sheohar," added Poddar.
Bhutahi Balan, a tributary of Kosi river, has also inundated several villages in Madhubani. Kosi itself is showing a rising trend at various locations. Over 26 companies of the National Disaster Response Force, State Disaster Response Force, and Seema Sashatra Bal are deployed for flood relief operations.
Meanwhile, some districts administrations, such as Purvi Champaran, Sitamarhi, have imposted Section 144 of the Code of Criminal Procedure that prohibits assembly of five or more people. Educational institutes have been shut down, too. Incidentally, just one month back, Section 144 was imposed in some districts of Bihar during a heat wave, which killed at least 184 people.
Now, 28 people have already lost their lives in the floods. "But, these are conservative figures. Several areas are still cut-off and people missing. In the coming few days, death toll will rise," said Singh. "We normally have floods in Bihar in mid-August. This year, floods have come a month early. And, this is just the beginning. The worst is yet to come," he warned.
Bihar synonymous with floods
Bihar is no stranger to floods. It is India's most flood-prone state — more than 17 per cent of the country's total flood-prone area is in Bihar. Of its total 38 districts, 28 are categorised as flood-prone by the water resources department of the Bihar government.
Simply put, 73 per cent of the total geographical area of the state is prone to floods.
And, the reason for this is the plains of Bihar, adjoining Nepal, are drained by a number of rivers that have their catchments in the Himalayas of Nepal (see map: River basins map of North Bihar). These rivers and their tributaries carry high levels of discharge and sediment load, which are deposited on the plains of Bihar.
Map: River basins map of North Bihar
And, this is not all. Another 10 per cent of Bihar's total area remains water-logged. This water-logging is due to various reasons that include "spilling of silted small rivers, encroachment of drainage channels, embankment induced water-logging and presence of saucer type depression".
In spite of Bihar being geographically and historically prone to floods, the state government is almost always caught unaware when the disaster strikes, said Eklavya Prasad, managing trustee of Megh Pyne Abhiyan.
SOP, and more SOP
On paper, the Bihar government seems to have a fool-proof system to manage the floods. It has prepared a 'Roadmap for disaster risk reduction 2015-2030'. The Bihar State Water Policy, 2014 has a section dedicated to 'management of flood and drought'.
The state disaster management department has a detailed standard operating procedure (SOP) for floods, including a check-list of pre, during, and post flood actions. In addition, the water resources department also has a standard operating procedure manual for flood management published in July 2013.
"In the first week of May every year, the district magistrates of flood-prone districts have to assess flood control measures in their respective districts, including strengthening of embankments, availability of boats and rescue teams, etc. Why can't then the losses due to floods be controlled or reduced?" asked Prasad.
The SOP says in case of breaching of an embankment "executive engineer, under the supervision of superintending engineer and chief engineer will start acting immediately to hold both the cut ends at breach point and to close the breach".
The SOP and early warning system is only on paper with poor implementation, alleged Mahendra Yadav, a resident of Supaul and a member of National Alliance of People's Movements (NAPM) Bihar. "A breach in the embankment cannot be plugged during the monsoon season of heavy rainfall. And, plugging is just like a band-aid solution, as embankments keep breaching every other year," he said.
"Aapda ek teesri fasal hai," claimed Yadav, meaning disaster (flood) is like a third crop [after kharif and rabi crops], which the authorities like, as it fetches money [corruption and kick-backs]. "The state wants to keep people in relief-mode than seriously adopt and implement disaster preparedness and disaster risk reduction," he added.
According to Prasad, unless the nature of North Bihar's river systems is understand, managing floods in Bihar will remain a distant dream.
Are embankments accentuating Bihar floods?
The year 1954 brought a massive flood in Bihar affecting an area of 2.46 million hectares (mha) and a population of 7.61 million in the North Bihar. That was the year when the first flood policy of India came into being, and the proposal to dam Kosi river at Barahkshetra in Nepal was dropped in favour of constructing embankments along the river. Since then, all the major rivers in Bihar have been embanked and the process continues till date.
"The idea behind embanking rivers by constructing tall earthen dams all along their path was to control the floods by creating 'safe' and 'unsafe' zones. Former are the lands outside of the embankments, whereas latter lands, including the river, are trapped between the western and the eastern embankments," said D K Mishra of Barh Mukti Abhiyan, who has closely studied Bihar floods for the last many decades.
But, rather than controlling floods, embankments have increased the flood-prone area in the state, Mishra told Gaon Connection.
In 1954, Bihar's flood prone area was 2.5 mha and the state had only 160 kms of embankments. During the 1974 floods, Bihar had 2,192 kms of embankments and its flood prone area had increased to 4.26 mha. Thirteen years later, in 1987 floods, the state prided itself in 3,321 kms of embankments, but the flood prone area had shot up to 6.461 mha. The year 2004 brought one of the worst floods, killing 885 people. By then, Bihar had 3,465 kms long embankments and a flood prone area of 6.88 mha, he explained.
Embankments have created at least two serious problems in the state. "Firstly, it has provided a false sense of safety to the local people because every other year, embankments breach and cause flash floods in the 'safe' zones," said Singh.
"Also, there are millions of people still living inside the embankments of rivers in North Bihar, as they have not been relocated by the government. These people, who are poorest of the poor, remain trapped inside the embankments and suffer the most," said Yadav.
Second big problem associated with the embankments is the huge quantities of sediment that has accumulated on the riverbeds. "Earlier, in an absence of embankments, both flood water and sediment used to spread far and wide and make the soil fertile. People used to welcome such floods," said Mishra.
But now, sediment deposition has raised the riverbed, in some areas far higher than the villages outside the embankments. Thus, when an embankments breaches, nothing can stand in the way of the river, which has to find its way.
And, this is what happened in the midnight of July 13 and July 14 when Kamla Balan breached its embankment at Naruar village in Jhanjharpur block of Madhubani. According to Singh, at that location, Kamla Balan's riverbed is 30-feet higher than the level of Naruar village.
"To address the problem of sediment deposition, the government keeps raising the height of embankments. How sustainable is that a measure for flood control? It only keeps contractors and politicians happy," alleged Yadav.
Floods and droughts cycle
While several districts of Bihar are at present facing floods, many of them were struggling with an acute drought till early this month. On July 2, the state chief minister Nitish Kumar said in the assembly that the state "may be heading for a bhayankar sookha [terrible drought]". But right now several of its districts are inundated with flood waters.
"For outsiders, Bihar only has floods, but many areas simultaneously have an agricultural drought. While media picks up flood stories, drought remains unreported," said Mishra.
According to him, in 1954 Bihar faced one of the worst floods. But, that year ended as a drought year in the state, as rainfall did not happen when it was needed the most during paddy flowering and paddy transplantation period," narrated Mishra. And, this pattern continues till date. Climate change has added more risk to the vicious circle of floods and drought in the state.
"Bihar's geography is such that it faces floods every two to three years. People in North Bihar have been living with the river and floods for centuries. But, various government interventions and engineering solutions, such as the embankments, have trapped the people and left them to drown," said Yadav.
Mishra strongly suggested the government agencies to work with the local people, who have knowledge of surviving in one of the most flood-prone areas of the country. The government must have an honest evaluation of its flood control schemes, and focus on drainage.
According to Prasad, there is an urgent need to work on flood-resilient infrastructure in the state. "There are schools, dispensaries, hutments, villages built inside the embankments, but none of these are flood-resilient. Hence, in every flood, poor people lose all their belongings and are pushed back by five to ten years," he said.
His organisation, Megh Pyne Abhiyan, is working with communities living inside the embankments of rivers in North Bihar to build flood-resilient ecosan toilets known as Phaydemand Shauchalaya.
But, unless the government shifts gear from flood relief to flood resilience and disaster risk reduction, the floods will continue to displace millions of people annually in the state.