A 100 years later...same story!
Floods are not new to India. People living in flood-prone areas knew how to turn this menace into a blessing. But then, the saga of decay of this valuable tradition began...
DECEMBER 21, 1907, INDIAN MIRROR
“The East Indian Railway was constructed in 1853- 54 and opened in 1855. To protect the East Indian railroad from Burdwan onwards, a high embankment was constructed on the east bank of Damodar to stop the floods. Wherever embankments were thrown up, tanks and artificial lakes were choked with weeds and the crops suffered from want of fertilising silt. Scarcity and famines have become more frequent and severe, and cases of fever increased.… The villages were full of healthy inhabitants and people prospered… All this was changed when the Damodar was embanked to stop the inundation.… there was no malaria in the villages from Calcutta to Chagda. At the end of the rains there would be a few cases of fever but no malaria, as seen in the last 30 years and more… Malaria broke out one year after the construction of the railway, obstructing the natural drainage of the country eastward on account of inadequate and insufficient waterways in the railway embankment…”
SEPTEMBER 22, 2008, BUSINESS STANDARD
“The jacketing or embanking of the river systems in north Bihar must go down as among the most ill-thought out schemes in Independent India… The plan was to introduce about 150 kilometres of embankment on the Kosi to protect a declared ‘flood prone’ area in the state of some 25 lakh hectares. Today, some 50 years later, north Bihar is a warren of over 3,500 kilometres of embankments, with the declared ‘flood prone’ area having crossed a staggering 75 lakh hectares. … most expert opinion warns against pursuing the embankment route to tackle perennial overflowing or swing in a river’s temperament, as it would impede natural drainage… The initial embankments, eight feet high, converted the Kosi bed into a catchment area for silt. Today, Kosi flows a good 25 to 30 feet above ground level… The river basin is way above ground level and water cannot flow upwards. The inundated villages between as well as outside the embankments stay water-logged for months on end, leading to rise in soil salinity, water-borne diseases and producing hordes of migrant labour.
Despite massive amounts of money spent on dams, embankments and canals, the floods in India just keep on increasing in frequency and destrucive capacity? Why?
Hundred years have passed since ‘Article 1’ was published in the December 21, 1907 issue of the India Mirror. Still, ‘Article 2’ from one of today’s leading newspapers Business Standard (published on September 5, 2008) expresses the same helplessness. And the same concerns. The only thing that has changed is the frequency and magnitude of floods in India. Obviously, we have not learnt a lesson from the mistakes in the past. What went wrong? To answer this, let us go back to Article 1.
India was visited by floods every year. Still, the people who lived here used ingenious, home-spun techniques to manage the floodwaters. Like in Bengal.
Bengal once had an extraordinary system of inundation canals. Floodwater entered the fields through these canals, and irrigated the fields. The water carried rich silt, which fertilised the fields, and fish, which swam through these canals into the lakes and tanks to feed on the larva of mosquitoes. This helped to check malaria in this region. Clever, isn’t it? But, unlike Bengal, there are some regions that do not have a tradition to battle floods. Like North Bihar. Wondering why? The reason is not that it was not capable of controlling floods; it did not want to. The local cultivators welcomed the floods.
Floods in the North Bihar plains date back to antiquity. However, they were never considered as a bad phenomenon, rather they were deemed as nature’s bounty. Farmers extensively used floodwaters for irrigation. The waters refilled the tanks and wells, and the silt deposits of inundating rivers replenished the natural fertility of the soil and ensured a good winter harvest.
Eklavya Prasad of Megh Pyne Abhiyan explains, “The floodwater used to spread across a large area. Thus, its height was low. It would also recede quickly, as there were no obstructions. And there was no need for flood control because floods were never as devastating as today.”
India is the second-most flood-prone country in the world, after Bangladesh. Nearly 40 million hectares of its land is flood-prone, of which about eight million hectares are flooded annually. The average annual total damage to crops, houses, and public utilities during 1953-1995 was about Rs. 9,720 million. The price of human death is incalculable.
Source : Central Water Commission (FMP Directorate)
However, with growing population the British rulers began to pressurise the locals to move into the fertile areas around the rivers – the floodplains – to occupy and cultivate these rich tracts. As they settled closer and closer to the rivers, the floodwaters that could earlier spread across a larger area, now exploded on human habitat, causing havoc. This changed the entire perception about floods. Floods now became a destructive force for the people living in the floodplains. Post-independence, the government decided to control this menace by constructing dams and embankments. Did that help? Let’s delve into the history of embankments and dams and find out.
Hey! But aren’t we talking about floods in this issue? Yes we are. So, we must begin here…
History: Prophet of the future
During the British raj, the colonial rulers did not pay enough attention to flood control measures besides constructing embankments. When they left, there were some 5,280 km of embankments along different rivers, of which 3,500 km were in the Sundarbans in West Bengal and 1,209 km along the Mahanadi in Orissa. In independent India, the First Five Year Plan, which began in 1951, decided to shift from embankments and focus on building dams. Dams were deemed as the ‘most effective way of preventing flood damage’ (the Plan document). Because embankments contain or restrict floodwater within rivers, but dams hold floodwater in the rivers’ upstream and later release it slowly to prevent any flooding downstream.
But before the country could begin any of these plans, there came a spate of severe floods in 1954. All northern rivers flooded simultaneously and caused enormous devastation across Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, West Bengal and Assam. The floods attracted public attention to the inadequacy of control measures. To counter this, the government immediately claimed that it was possible to get rid of this menace. How? It started a massive upsurge to construct structural measures like embankments and dams. So, embankments changed the character of floods in Bihar for the worse. But how is that possible when embankments are supposed to protect people from floods? Here’s how...
• Build-up of floodwaters
• Drainage congestion
“The idea that nature can be conquered carries within it the seed of human destruction"
Embankments often dig up their own graves. The silt that gets deposited in the embanked area puts pressure on the embankments and erodes them
• Water logging
• Sediment load
• Reduced natural fertility
• River attacks
• Breach blow
DAMS, which are expected to cause flood moderation, are often the cause of massive floods because of badly managed operations
According to Professor Vishwanath of National Institute of Disaster Management, Ministry of Home Affairs, “Too much water often forces rivers to change their course, as in the case of River Kosi.
The water hits the embankments directly. If there is even a slight fault in their engineering, they break.” This is not all. Embankments often dig up their own graves.
The silt that gets deposited in the embanked area puts pressure on the structure and erodes it. The Rashtriya Barh Ayog, Ministry of Water Resources, 1980 report states, “embankments are not a feasible measure of flood protection in cases where the country runoff draining into the river is so large as to inundate appreciatively the area protected by the embankments from river spills...” The Report of the Government of India’s National Commission on Floods (NCF) mentions that “…construction of embankments in certain areas can lead to increase in flood levels upstream and downstream.”
Even dams, which are expected to provide flood moderation, are often the cause of massive floods. Before monsoon, huge quantities of water are stored in them. When they are nearly full, a lot of water is suddenly released into the river to lower the water levels. If the water is more than the river can take, it overflows in the downstream.
“Dams are actually the cause of many of the floods that visited India in July-August 2006, particularly those in Mahi, Sabarmati, Narmada Tapi, Chambal, Krishna and Godavari basins”, writes Himanshu Thakkar of South Asian Network of Dams, Rivers and People (SANDRP) in ‘A Dammade Disaster’. Many of these disasters could have been avoided if the dams had been operated properly. For instance, the 2006 Gujarat floods.
The catastrophe, which killed more than 120 people and rendered 25,000 people homeless, occurred because of the mismanagement of the Ukai Dam on Tapi River. First, the “dam managers” allowed the reservoir to fill past the allotted ‘flood storage’ point, and then they delayed the release of water.
Not only was Tapi River’s carrying capacity not taken into account, it’s reduced storage capacity due to siltation was also overlooked. All these factors led to the destructive floods in the cities located downstream. This was not a unique case. Dams, including the Bhakhra, Hirakud, Tawa-Bargi, and Damodar, have led to major flood disasters.
Apart from embankments and dams, snowmelt, tropical storms, hurricanes, tsunamis, and undersea earthquakes are the other common causes of floods in India. But the main culprit is, of course, the monsoons.
India gets an annual rainfall of 400 million hectare metres. Seventy-five per cent of this is received during the four monsoon months of June to September. As a result, almost all the rivers swell up with water and flood due to:
• Inadequate capacity within the banks of the rivers to contain high flows.
In Pain, Floodplains
Floodplains are an integral part of the flood regime and natural drainage. They give the floodwaters the room to spread across a large area, which diminishes their damage. But, people are encroaching these lands and building upon them. Constructing houses, roads, railways, canals, urban and industrial centres on these lands block the natural drainage system.
No wonder, therefore, the force of floods has not diminished. It has only increased. Add to this the dangerous mix of climate change, which experts say, is likely to cause heavier monsoons and more devastating storms. So, floodwaters rampage these lands and the lives and livelihoods of the people living on them.
Relief measures in flood-struck regions come too late and are too little
The crisis has deepened also because the natural flood managers, forests and wetlands, are being destroyed systematically. Massive deforestation has aggravated the flashiness of the rivers and their silt load due to higher erosion.
Destruction of wetlands, which act as water sponges and are natural flood moderators, is another spin-off of overexploitation of land. For example, more than a third of the area comprising of lakes, ponds, marshes and watercourses between the Ghaghra and Ganga, which form the wetlands of eastern UP, have already been lost.
The story is the same in the wetlands of Bihar, Bengal and Assam. “Degradation of catchment areas and loss of flood plains to urban development and agriculture have accentuated the intensity of floods”, states India’s Planning Commission’s Eleventh Five Year Plan document.
Kosi River is an epitome of how mismanagement causes devastation. The river is one of the largest tributaries of Ganga. It has a steep gradient in its upper Himalayan reaches, but after Chatra, it faces abrupt flattening in the plains. This makes the river shift its course quite regularly. Another key characteristic is its high sediment load. The silt yield of the river is one of the highest in the world.
Excessive soil erosion in its upper region caused by both natural and human factors has increased the silt load of the river. It floods in the monsoon due to extreme rainfall, deposits coarse silt on agricultural lands, and shifts its course causing more damage. The high density of population on the river’s floodplains makes each of its move even more deadly.
Human interventions have only worsened the situation for the people of North Bihar. The measures to control the inundating river have, instead, spelt doom for them. The recent floods are a stark example of this.
Kosi’s curse finds expression in all the rivers of India, and North Bihar’s saga is true of every flood-prone region in the country – from Assam, Bengal, Orissa to UP and Rajasthan. At present, there are 4525 large and small dams in the country, and more than 15,675km of embankments. As per the Eleventh Five Year Plan, the total area ‘reasonably protected against flood’ by end of the Tenth Plan is about 18.22 million hectares. And we are spending stupendous amounts of money on constructing these structures. During the beginning of the Tenth Plan, the Planning Commission outlaid Rs.4619 crores for State sector to protect 1.93 MH of land against flood. What difference has it made? None. The flooding rivers still claim lakhs of human lives, damage crores of property and infrastructure, destroy agricultural lands and kill livestock… This will continue. Because people will continue to live on the “disaster-prone” floodplains. Because there is no space left in the hinterlands to allow them to move back. So if we cannot move away from floods, what can we do?
One solution is, of course, alerting and warning people before the catastrophe actually hit them. This means, developing efficient and accurate flood forecasting and early warning systems in the country. Many people consider these services as one of the most cost-effective measures available today. They help alert people in the flood risk area, give time to the disaster management agencies to move in and prepare for the impending disaster and thus, reduce the damages. In India, Central Water Commission of Government of India is responsible for issuing flood forecasts at 172 stations – 145 for water level forecast and 27 for inflow forecast. These stations are located in 14 flood prone states, in a Union Territory and in Delhi.
The effectiveness of forecasts depends on two aspects – accuracy and timeliness. These make sure that there is enough time to disseminate the forecast, and warn people. But in practice, the time lag between flood warning and actual steps taken is huge. In some cases, the warnings are not even considered seriously. Take the case of the recent Bihar flood disaster.
According to E Satyanarayan, the chief state engineer stationed at Birpur near the Nepalese border where the Kosi River breached its embankments, flood management officials had sent four desperate warnings between August 9 and 16. But, the messages went unanswered because the relevant officer was on leave and there was no one else to substitute for him. Eventually on August 16, warning telegrams were sent to 11 senior officials associated with flood water management in Patna, Bihar.
But these, too, were ignored. Two days later the inevitable disaster occurred in Bihar. So, what is the future? “Flood forecasting methods are being improved in the country”, said Professor Vishwanath of NIDM. “The government is working with bodies like United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and United States Agency for International Development (USAID) to make flood forecast more reliable and timely”, he added.
This includes installing automatic data collection system by sensors, transmission of data by latest techniques of communication, and formulation of forecasts using computer-based comprehensive models. Flood preparedness and awareness among the people have a key role to play.
The Real Solution
All these developments will take time, and will still depend on how smoothly the system functions. As for the structural measures, the government still plans to increase the embankments and the number of dams in the country. It plans to effectively monitor the functioning of these structures, and carry out pre- and post-monsoon checks and special repairs. But, there is just one real solution to the problem of floods – people must re-learn to live with floods. We had this wisdom, and we lost it somewhere along the way. But now, we must revive our past lessons.
Real action needs to be taken in the floodplains. Managing these fragile lands adeptly and cleverly is the key to salvation. Disciplined land-use and settlement policies can emerge only if a determined government can undertake land reforms and involve the poor who live in these areas in the management of their natural resources. The most crucial step would be to ‘flood zone’ the various states of the country. It includes demarcation of flood-prone areas and prescribing strict guidelines and landuse policies.
However, this is not going to be an easy task. The plains are densely populated and there is extreme shortage of land. So each step will be fiercely opposed. Meanwhile, we can only pray for a calmer Kosi in the coming years. “The vast plains can still have the capacity to support millions of people and there are few signs of irreparable damage… but only if they (people) are disciplined, only if they learn to live in harmony with the natural surroundings they have inherited, and only if their management systems are equitable and sustainable. We know very little about how to do this but a beginning has to be made…” (the 3rd Report on State of India’s Environment, CSE).
Kosi River's breached embankment. The river changed its course and flooded the surrounding areas, causing total devastation