Nature less to blame for Bihar flood: Water expert Ranjeev

Ranjeev is a researcher on rivers in Bihar and has co-authored a book ‘JAB NADI BANDHI’. The book is supposedly the first to expose anomalies in water management of Bihar.

Ranjeev, the water expert who wrote "JAB NADI BANDHI" speaks with Shams Khan of The Morning Chronicle on causes and measures of devastating floods in Bihar every year

In yet another year, another new devastating flood story of Bihar is underway. Most of the northern part of the state is reeling under the deluge. More than 250 have died until now, lakhs of people are displaced, and over 1.25 crore are affected. River system and its functioning is a complex topic which is generally compared with the human nerve system. The flood in Bihar is further a more complex issue. To put blame on a single factor or two could be done for the convenience but to know it fairly well, multiple aspects and details of river ecosystem and environment must be taken care of. To this purpose Shams Khan of The Morning Chronicle spoke with Ranjeev. Ranjeev is a researcher on rivers in Bihar and has co-authored a book JAB NADI BANDHI’. The book is supposedly the first to expose anomalies in water management of Bihar.

Please, provide a background to these recurring floods?

6000 rivers and rivulets of various sizes used to originate from the foothills of Himalaya and flow down to the plains of Bihar. But now only 1000 of them exist, rest have either been encroached or simply disappeared due to silting and other factors. More than half dozens of them are major rivers such as Gandak, Boorhi Gandak, Baghmati, Kosi and Mahananda. These rivers are generally embanked. However, small rivers and rivulets, in the most part of the year run dry, get overloaded with water due to heavy rain in Nepal and northern Bihar. This year, these small rivers have played a major role in floods.

What triggered this year flood?

During first week of August above Barhamputra basin a major patch of cloud had started to accumulate. Even NASA had noticed it and had warned of rain and storm. As a precautionary measure Bihar Government announced closure in school on 11 August. Yet, contrary to the forecast nothing of that sort happened. That patch of cloud later burst in Bangladesh and then it moved in the west causing three days of incessant raining in Nepal and Northern Bihar. Then on, due to intermittent rain in Nepal water has been gushing into Bihar. Unlike in the past, smaller rivers which are incidentally not embanked wreaked more havoc in the initial days. Later, embankments on big rivers also breached. The water of small rivers overflew and put pressure on the embankment of big river running almost parallel causing breaches.

What is the reality of widespread perception that releasing water by Nepal causes flood in Bihar?

This is completely false notion and amounts to create division between Madhesis (people of Indian Origin) and citizens of Bihar. Such misplaced perception has also a potential to spoil the relationship between India and Nepal. In fact there are two barrages, one is near Balmiki Nagar on Gandak and other near Birpur on Koshi which are situated at Nepal side but operated by irrigation Department of Bihar government. There is natural slope from Himalaya to the plain of Bihar, therefore, when heavy rain takes place in the mountain region it is obvious that water will flow down through all the rivers, rivulets including Gandak and Kosi. At a point when the pressure grows it becomes inevitable and engineers posted there open the gates of barrages. Nepal has no say in this. Unfortunately, bureaucrats, politicians and journalists casually do indulge in such rhetoric of Nepal releasing water.

“In northern Bihar flood was never a disaster but it was a life style”, Sachin Tiwale quoted Dr. Dinesh Mishra, from his Book, ‘Baghmati ki Sadgati’, then what led it to turn into such a catastrophe?

Previously, in Bihar as elsewhere rain happened to follow a set pattern distributed in longer period of time. People used to predict the amount of rain knowing the Hindi Months Sawan, Bhado, etc. The nature of rainfall was also well known to them. Everything was set accordingly: lifestyle, agriculture/harvest etc.

Pollution has led to change in cloud and rain pattern. Now rain happens unpredictably and indiscriminately. While building roads, the drainage system over small rivers was almost ignored. Embankment on big rivers, in many places blocked the drainage of small rivers flowing back into them. Deforestation and changes in land use have compounded the risks. River is for the earth what the nerve is for the body. It is part of a complex ecosystem and any provocation sparks a devastating response.

Was the traditional flood management more efficient? Are those wisdoms lost its sheen under the current setting or are these still viable options?

Traditional wisdom was based on the adhering nature of flood and largely to make use of the flood for increasing the agricultural productivity and channeling it to store the water in ponds and canal for future use. The series of ponds found in Darbhanga is the best example, where it is found that pond was developed through dying rivers and used as a flood cushion. The basic wisdom was that instead of interfering with nature; acclimatize their life style according to it. It is due to the efficiency of old wisdom that the Gangetic plain was the seat of the power in the major part of Indian history.

As now the talk of dismantling the Farakka barrage has caught popular imagination as a solution of these flood, irrespective of its feasibility, the importance of traditional wisdom is once again proved. Besides, the problems of siltation and hindrance in the flow of small rivers because of embankment put grave question marks on the modern measures. As the nature of Himalayan Rivers causes erosion on one bank and accumulation on other, the construction of the embankment has confined the rivers within the wall hampering its natural flow. Thus, over the years embankment started proving counterproductive. So, yes old wisdom still is a viable option.

Bihar flood policy did increase the embankment to more than 3000 km, however, in the intervening period the propensity of the flood increased two and half times. Does it show that the decision of building embankment was a futile measure?

Actually, embankments are solutions in haste; a measure that just considers the immediate settlement. As, I mentioned above that embankment started to prove counterproductive. It causes the river bed to rise with the silt carried by river seated in the bottom. The small rivers now find many blockades in their normal course like road, embankment and other structures. The flood is caused due to hindrance in the normal course of rivers and rivulets which most part of the year stay dry. More the rivers are blocked more devastating they become.

With recurring floods, the government seems to be lenient in its approach and just to limit itself in rescue and relief. How differently, in more efficient way, it can tackle the flood to minimize the damage. What proactive risk mitigation measure it can adopt?

Definitely, despite claim of preparation for days after flood in Seemanchal region, the state machinery was clueless about the situation. With their approach it was visible that they are caught off guard. The solution lies in the unfettered smooth drainage of the rivers. In the civil and construction engineering, study of implication of the project on rivers through surveys must be done, beforehand. River treatment and debris removal should be done on annual basis. Deliberation must be done to find the ways for keeping rivers unblocked as far as possible. And most importantly, traditional measures must be studied and incorporated along with proven modern methods to tackle the problem.

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