'In Bihar, floods are a man-made menace'

Solutions to tackle the recurring "man-made" floods lie in a dialogue between the residents of flood-prone plains, the technical fraternity and the government, says Dinesh Kumar Mishra.

"They have turned two and a half days of floods into a two and a half months' floods so that the politics over relief continues. Flood is a man-made menace," Mishra, who was in the city to address a seminar "Dying Rivers, Living Rivers" at the India International Centre, told IANS.

A structural engineer from the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT)-Kharagpur, Mishra has written volumes probing the origin of the Kosi, Bagmati, Mahananda and Bodhi Balan rivers and man-made floods in them caused by breaches in embankments.

Currently writing a book about the origin and flow of the Gandak, Mishra's work on the Kosi, "Trapped! Between the Devil & Deep Waters: The Story on Bihar's Kosi River", remains his seminal investigation.

Citing examples from Bihar, which has eight major Himalayan rivers and is ravaged by floods every year, Mishra said that studies reveal that people living in the lowlands of Bihar, on an average, suffer for 20 days in a year.

"For the rest of the year, they have a nice, flood-free life. Women do not have to walk for miles with pitchers on their heads for drinking water. There is enough ground water in their courtyard. But no one takes note of that."

"If water or floods were the problem, then people could not have lived for centuries in harmony with rivers. But, instead of living with rivers on equal terms, people are now empowering the rivers (in the name of taming it) with the more destructive embankments and big dams," Mishra said.

Any dam or embankments on the rivers should be designed to meet indigenous needs, he said.

"In Bihar, residents classify floods into five categories. 'Barh' - in which water spills on the embankment, 'Boah', - when the rivers swamps large areas, 'Humma' - when water half submerges the cattle, 'saah'- when the flood water churns in ripples; and 'pralay' - destruction.

"People of the state are used to 'barh' and 'boah'; while the other three are rare," he said.

Probing the dynamics of flood relief politics, he said that earlier, the king used to disburse relief during inundation to "save his own skin".

"Later, the bureaucrats swindled money for relief. Aid has now been a tool to win elections," he said.

Tracing Bihar's historical relationship with the Kosi, he said those living in the lowlands deify the river by calling it "maiya (mother)".

In 2008, it however became a terror. A breach in the Kosi embankment in Nepal in 2009 inundated large tracts in adjoining Bihar, affecting more than three million  people in 16 districts.

"For centuries, the residents have worshipped the rivers. But the outsiders who came there (especially the British) could not adjust to the nature of the Kosi and the Damodar. Hence they became rivers of sorrow because the colonisers and the subsequent government could not collect revenue from it," Mishra said.

"Till 1952, the British rulers and their successors had been creating embankments for commercial purposes so that the river did not come to the villages. That created a need for irrigation and opportunity for revenue. They collected revenue for flood protection too," he said.

An estimate by the Bihar government says the eight rivers of the state have breached their embankments 371 times since 1987.

The benefits of embankment are very limited, Mishra argued.

"The mud (and later concrete) embankments put the rivers between two walls, prevented them from spilling sediments on its banks and disturbed the water balance with confinement. Tributaries could not join the main rivers. They either flowed parallel to the main river and flowed back to the countryside dissipating into a network of channels demanding construction of sluice gates to control the backflow," he said.

The premise is that the sluice gates will remain open during rainy season, but then they don't function and this traps the tributaries.

Offering solutions, Mishra said the natural drainage of the river should not be disturbed as far as possible. "Rivers are known to flow for benefits; they should not be allowed to stagnate," he said.

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