Floods, often deemed mistakenly as natural disasters, are the result mostly of human misadventure in the river catchments, and the neglect of water systems. The catastrophe caused by the turbulent Kosi river in north Bihar, after breaching its embankment at Kusaha, near the Bhimnagar barrage in Nepal, is a typical example. The breach in its eastern bund has caused the river to change its course and gush eastwards as a torrent to drown unsuspecting towns and villages in a vast stretch, affecting over 2 million people and leading to heavy loss of life and property. The consequent peril, unparalleled in scale and having more ominous portents in store, is the result of heavy silting that has been putting pressure on the river’s spurs and bunds since 1985. Shockingly, instead of taking remedial measures in the catchment area to curb silting, officials have been undertaking bund strengthening work year after year. Now that the inevitable has happened, engineers find it difficult to plug the opening that has already widened to nearly 3 km and is growing by over 200 metres a day. If the widening breach reaches the Bhimnagar barrage, just 12 km away, the huge, thickly inhabited expanse around the districts of Supaul, Saharsa, Araria, Madhepura, Katihar and Purnea will be submerged. What heightens this danger is the frail state of the Bhimnagar barrage itself, which crossed its estimated life span of 30 years some 22 years ago as it was built in Nepalese territory by India in 1956.
It is not just the scale of the Kosi disaster that is exceptional; for the new course that the mighty Kosi is charting is unusual. Unlike the past, when the river invariably shifted its stream westwards, this time it is moving eastwards, inundating otherwise flood-safe areas, and heading with enormous force towards the Ganga, about 100 km away.
It is unfortunate that the fluid geo-political situation in the Nepal-Bihar border belt should come in the way of carrying out repairs to the damaged embankment, which have to be undertaken by India in Nepalese territory. That the Centre should take so long to raise the issue of local resistance to repair work with the Nepalese authorities after the occurrence of the breach on August 18 is all the more regrettable.
The Kosi catastrophe should be taken as a warning to be prepared to face similar situations in other river basins. The unabated deposition of silt is raising the beds of almost all Indian rivers, curtailing their water-holding capacity and enhancing the danger of flooding the adjoining areas even in the event of a marginal increase in the water inflow. Besides, the pressure on land due to a growing population is forcing human habitations to move towards the flood plains of rivers and even on to the riverbeds, heightening the scope for flood damage. Considering the frequent visitations of river disasters in different parts of the country, especially during the monsoon season, a long-term policy for the conservation of vegetative cover and re-greening of denudated catchments is essential. Such a measure alone can slow down the rates of both siltation and water inflows into the rivers. Otherwise, the recurrence of Kosi-like catastrophes will be difficult to avert
6 months ago