Sink Like A Stone
The Kusaha embankment’s capacity is 9.5 lakh cusecs. But it was breached with just 1.44 lakh cusecs. Reason: silt deposits which raised the Kosi river bed.
T he Kosi is often called Bihar’s “river of sorrow” as it has a propensity to create displacement and despair for millions regularly. But what if the misery and devastation was more a result of human folly rather than the river’s fury? The floods this year have inundated 16 districts in the state and displaced 29 lakh people. As details emerge, it is becoming increasingly clear that gross indifference and mismanagement of the Kosi and its known dangers, both by the state government in Patna as well as the Centre, is what led to the calamity. Factor into this India’s poor diplomatic handling of river management issues with Nepal and the recipe for disaster was complete.
So where did the Kosi script go wrong? Annually, before the onset of the monsoon, maintenance work is undertaken at the Kusaha barrage and embankment on the Kosi, which falls on the Nepal side. This year, field officers of the Bihar government pointed out that additional checks along the embankment needed to be constructed. But this demand was rejected. Outlook has learnt that the Kosi High-Level Committee (KHLC) refused to allow the construction of three studs, a crucial additional check against overflows. They were to be built between the 12.8 km and 12.9 km section of the embankment where the actual breach occurred.
The KHLC is a multilateral entity with members from the Bihar and Nepal governments, the Central Water Commission, Delhi, and the Central Water and Power Research Station, Pune. But it’s headed by the chairman of the Ganga Flood Control Commission (GFCC), a body under the Union water resources ministry.
. It is entrusted with the task of inspecting the damage caused to embankments by the preceding season of floods and recommending repair works. While field officers had asked for repair works requiring a financial input of Rs 35 lakh for the breached section, what was sanctioned by the KHLC was a paltry Rs 4 lakh.
As if playing tit for tat, the state government too was equally indifferent to the GFCC. Between April 1 and June 12 this year, three letters were written by H.S. Choudhary, director (coordination) with the GFCC, to the engineer-in-chief (north) of the Bihar government asking for a progress report on the protective measures against a possible flood. All three letters, copies of which are with Outlook, went unanswered.
The distribution of responsibilities is a messy one—which is why both sides are able to blame the other. The state is the implementing agency in charge of everyday operational detail. But it’s the Centre, specifically the ministry of water resources, that is ultimately responsible for ensuring action is taken. The responsibility is clearly detailed under Article 246, entry 56 of the 7th schedule of the Constitution.
One would have expected some sense of urgency when it became clear in the first week of August that a flood was imminent. But the Bihar government continued to issue daily flood bulletins till August 17 stating that all was well with the embankments even as engineers struggled upstream to prevent an overflow.
. The alert was finally revised on August 18, the date of the breach. Even the three early warning faxes—the first on August 9—sent to the Bihar liaison office in Kathmandu were in vain: the fax machine was not working because of non-payment of bills! But it is not just these recent warnings that were ignored. Signs of an impending deluge came as early as 2004 with satellite images showing the Kosi’s flow had begun moving to the left bank, exerting more pressure on the embankment. But, as usual, authorities at the Centre and state didn’t react. When the government machinery finally acted, it was too late. “We began damage control on August 5. The flow was too strong…whatever we dumped in was swept away,” says Harikeshwar Ram, superintendent engineer, flood control, Bihar water resources department. Labour problems in Nepal impeded work further..
The 2008 floods also serve as an indictment of embankments as a flood control measure.
Dinesh Kumar Mishra, an expert on Bihar’s rivers, points out that this year’s calamity is the eighth instance where the Kosi has breached its embankments since the 1960s
. “Each time, it is the same story of neglect,” he says. Even a dam upstream would only be a temporary way out. When a dam—often cited as the best solution to Kosi’s floods by some—was first proposed in 1937, engineers hastened to specify that it would silt up in just 37 years given the large sediment deposit Kosi brings along with it as it flows downhill. Moreover, the dam would have to be built in a zone prone to earthquakes and would involve, like any other dam, immense environmental and social costs.
Instead, the way out, suggests SANDRP’s Thakkar, would be to rely on a more diverse catchment-based approach that depends on an extensive network of water-retaining bodies. “That would mean wetlands, much of which is being presently destroyed, lakes, ponds and groundwater recharge to help reduce the water inflow into the Kosi,” he says. “
We would also have to give up the idea that a flood necessarily implies a disaster. It’s only human mismanagement that makes it one,” he adds. His message: Don’t blame it on the Kosi.
By Debarshi Dasgupta And Saikat Datta
For detail Visit: http://www.outlookindia.com/full.asp?fodname=20080915&fname=Bihar+%28F%29&sid=1