Sep 19, 2008

India - Embankments - or should we say entombments

For two decades, his has been a prophetic voice on the mismanagement of overflowing rivers in Bihar. Dr. Dinesh Kumar Mishra’s Hindi book ‘Dui Patan ke Beech Mein’ (published in 2006 by People’s Science Institute, Dehradun), had already made an impact. The launch of its English translation — ‘Trapped! Between the Devil and Deep Waters’ — in Delhi recently, ironically coincided with the spectacle of a nation woefully unprepared to succour four million people affected by river Kosi breaching its embankment on August 18.

Dr. Mishra, an IIT civil engineer-turned-chronicler of the cyclical flow of rivers and human lives, stresses that perceiving this tragedy as a natural disaster is to miss the point. The flooding river is not the problem – the solution is. The past 50 years of embanking Kosi and other rivers, instead of decreasing, have actually increased Bihar’s flood-prone area 2.5 times, he says.

Capitulating to political expediency, Indian technocrats, who had supported an 80-year policy of not tampering with a river’s natural drainage, adopted artificial embanking as the solution. So, who are the 3,440 kilometres of Bihar’s embankments protecting? A breach becomes an event, but what of the annual floods which inundate populations living within the embankments?

Dr. Mishra recalls older villagers saying that earlier Kosi floods would last two days, deposit fertile silt. Kosi changed course, flowed through many channels, but with less force. With embankments, floods last for two months, water-log their lands, degrade soil and force migration. In an interview, he exposes the establishment’s doublespeak, stressing the need for experts to dialogue with people’s wisdom to prevent further disasters. Excerpts:

‘Nature’s fury’ is being touted to explain the Kosi embankment breach and resultant floods in Bihar.

Kosi carried a maximum of 9,13,000 cusecs on October 5, 1968 when the western embankment broke at five places in Darbhanga. The embankments were designed to accommodate a flow of 9,50,000 cusecs.

This year Kosi was carrying 1,44,000 cusecs when it breached the embankment. It was silted up. Inadequately maintained, the embankment breached at one-seventh its capacity. Is that nature’s fury?

Blaming Nepal is a face saving device; the responsibility for maintaining embankments rests with Bihar’s Water Resources Department.

Was anyone held responsible for earlier embankment breaches?

Yes. In 1963 and 1968, rats and foxes were accused of making holes in the embankment. In 1971, the river was blamed. The culprits in 1980 and 1984: lack of roads to transport boulders to reinforce embankments. In 1991, the embankment had eroded but the water receded fast. Had Kosi been a foot higher, 2008 would have happened then.

Post-breach the Bihar administration stated that Kosi now wants to go to its old channels to the east…

And you let it go? Why then, did you repair the embankment in time on earlier occasions and not let Kosi be free to go where it pleases?

If indeed the river ‘wants’ to go eastwards, why did Chief Minister Nitish Kumar agree to inaugurate the Kamla siphon on the western Kosi canal on August 26, considering the embankment broke on August 18?

Reports say Kosi has been ‘notorious’ for centuries bringing coarse sand and gravel from upper river systems.

When policymakers started the embankment project without public debate (1955), did they not know Kosi brings unmanageable detritus? That the sediment carried by it would settle in the bed, raising its level yearly.

Post-embankment, in 50 years Kosi has risen five inches annually in the lower reaches, climbing as high as the original embankments (18 feet).

In 1952, Bihar had 160 km of embankments (on the Gandak, vintage 1757) and a flood prone area of 25 lakh hectare.

Today, Bihar has 3,440 km of embankments and a flood prone area of 68.8 lakh hectare (1994 figures) — an increase of more than 2.5 times. It may have increased more. You call that efficient flood control?

Terming sediment treacherous is the establishment’s sinister way of deflecting attention from the flawed embankment strategy.

Before Kosi’s embankment how did villagers perceive floods and sediment?

They have a saying: ‘Ael Balan to bandhalaun dalan, gail Balan ta tutlai dalan’. (The year floods come we have a good crop, add a verandah — dalan — to the house; in a year sans flood, we lose whatever we had.) Floods would deposit fertile silt, rejuvenate water tables, enable bumper crops.

Tradition says women would pray to Kosi to come, requesting it to leave if it overstayed beyond two-three days. Finally, they would sprinkle vermilion into the virgin river as Kosi is known — unbraided one (muktveni) — threatening marriage to end her playful ways!

Our engineers who handle rivers are never taught the river’s place in people’s lives.

So every flood need not be a disaster?

Exactly. An open river encroaching on its banks has less velocity.

Villagers narrate the rain and flood sequence: the first big rain is to settle summer dust; the second for sowing paddy seedlings; the third to fill reservoirs, the fourth for paddy transplantation. A spill after that is noticed. The river doesn’t spill more than five-six times a season.

What do villagers feel about floods now?

Floods evoke fear. One villager said, “We had an equal relationship with the river. You built a wall between my river and me to control floods. Now she rises 15 feet. You have empowered the river to kill me.”

India noticed the 2008 floods because water spilled out in a major surge, affecting areas hitherto protected by embankments and thus unprepared – including urban areas.

But no one notices the floods and disasters embankments create annually.


The embankments, about 15 feet wide at crest, present the highest level to escape water. Many people live between Kosi and its embankments permanently, some whose houses were swept away 14 times in the past 45 years.

Families living between Kosi and its embankments?

Yes — 9.88 lakh people in 380 villages, according to Census 2001. The average distance between embankments is 10 km. Kosi is free to spill 10 km. From these villages the river goes and spills outwards during a breach — eight times thus far. Rest 40-odd post-embankment years, these villages have faced annual deluges, without anyone noticing.

This is the invisible, continuing tragedy of Kosi’s embankment.

Yes. If the embankments stay, a million in India and 1.5 lakh people in Nepal living within them will face floods annually.

Officials say they live in the wrong place forgetting their rehabilitation site houses are water-logged. Cranky collectors sometimes refuse relief saying it is not for people living inside.

How have embankments and the consequent water-logging affected the region?

Coarsened the soil, destroyed production processes. But people have not committed suicide, not until now. They gave life a chance by migrating.

What is the solution?

A proposed dam’s construction in Nepal, says the government. How? Nepal is a sovereign country. The proposal has been hanging fire for 71 years. There are considerations about earthquake hazards and strategic safety.

It’s not a long term solution — Kosi’s sizeable catchment is downstream of the proposed dam.

Where have experts missed out?

Embankment technology is based on water levels; it does not take note of the role of sediment trapped within the walls — whose annual average load is enough for a 1m x 1m cross-section bund to circle the equator thrice.

What is the answer to embankment?

Tradition says a river’s dharma is to spread sediment, water and drain it subsequently. Deltas form that way.

We have built embankments, railway lines and roads in a scenario of over population and urbanisation without ensuring adequate drainage.

Improve drainage; check the silt load by spreading it, without interfering much with Kosi’s natural working. Some support control flooding: keeping embankments low so water and silt spread across land. Society was doing this without external aid before the embankments came. This issue needs an open debate.

Ultimately, there is no alternative to a dialogue between the engineers’ skills and people’s wisdom based on their intimate relationship with the river.

Otherwise, if it’s Kosi today, it’s Bagmati tomorrow and Mahananda the day after. Get ready to fly relief to Sitamarhi and Katihar.

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