Sep 13, 2008

India - Water down the greed

We were so greedy for land, we killed the very channels that prevented rivers from flooding.

This year, for once, the devastating floods of Bihar, where Kosi has swollen to expand across the state seem to have touched us. I say this because, last year, when the same region was under reeling under what was said to be the worst floods in living history, we simply did not know. Media had flashed a few images but it was just more of the same: rivers flood this region every year. So what’s new?
This year there are some differences. One, the breach in the Kosi’s protection system of embankments and barrages took place in Nepal, not in India. As the protection paraphernalia was our responsibility, this meant that this year, for once, we could not blame Nepal for the floods. We had to look within.
Two, the area drowned under the flood was massive and millions were marooned in remote villages. This was partly because the river breached up-stream of the Kosi barrage and spilled over the land, forgetting that it even had a course to run. Remember this is a river that has changed its course by 210 km in the past 250 years — satellite images show 12 distinct channels of how the river has moved.
Thirdly, and most importantly, the flood captured our attention because of the scale of human tragedy. It was made clear that in spite of all our big talk and even bigger institutions for disaster management, we remain unprepared, under-staffed and unequipped for the crisis when it hits.
Now that the waters are finally receding and before our attention also moves on, let us learn for once the hard message of the Kosi floods of 2008. Let us learn because this disaster may not be the first or the last, but it is definitely the worst. It tells us that we have done so much wrong in the way we have managed our environment. It tells us that we know so little about how climate change and its manifestation of changing intensities of rainfall will exacerbate the future. It also tells that we cannot ‘adapt’ to these changes unless we do things differently.
Let’s unpack this lesson. For long we have believed that we can ‘conquer’ nature, control the flood, emasculate our rivers. It was as far back as 1991 that environmentalist Anil Agarwal published this finding in the book, Floods, Flood Plains and Environmental Myths. He explained how the engineering solution was in fact increasing both the incidence and intensity of floods. The reason was simple. The rivers brought down huge quantities of silt each year. Where the embankments were built, silt got deposited in the river, increasing flood incidence. The embankments also increased the duration of floods, as there was no drainage in the surrounding areas. Worse, the engineering walls led people to believe that they were protected from floods. As a result, low-lying areas got populated. Then when the wall broke, the flood hit hard.
In all this, Anil Agarwal explained, we messed up the drainage system of the region. We merrily filled up the water bodies, which were the sponges for its floodwater, and forgot the ‘dead’ channels of the river, which took away the water as fast as possible. We forgot because we were hungry for land. Then, we were greedy for the money we would make from these engineering marvels, which were repaired on paper and half-built for full money. Corruption became the way of life. In all this, we finally and crucially forgot that we had once learnt to ‘live’ with floods.
When Anil Agarwal wrote this in 1991, he was mocked and pilloried. The environmental lobby accused him of playing into the timber contractor’s hand. Because he said that we should stop blaming the mountains for the floods in the plains. He said that it was time we understood that the forests of the Himalayas were needed for the people who lived there. But the forests in this fragile and extremely-young and erosion-prone region would not stop the floods in the plains. The water engineers rubbished this view saying that they knew better. They had the answers.
But what we have to understand is that now we are faced with a double whammy: floods will also increase because the pattern of rainfall is in a twist because of climate change — we are beginning to see more unseasonal, erratic and intense rainfall in many parts of the country. All this will only make ‘coping’ with floods even more difficult and adapting to the future impossible.
In all this, what we can do without is the deadly combination of arrogance and ignorance. Instead we can do with some learning and a lot of doing.

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