In 2008, the Kosi river in Bihar was in a murderous mood. Raging and frothing, it flooded five districts of the state affecting 15 lakh people and killing 527. And that’s the official figure. The real one could be much higher. Two years on, it is the Gandak that is on a destruction drive. Both rivers originate in Nepal.
Though late last week, the state disaster management control room reported that floodwaters have started receding after the engineers fixed a breached embankment, at least 14 lakh people in three districts may face another Kosi-like situation if there’s any change in Gandak’s mood and the government is unprepared to face such a calamity. Post-Kosi disaster, there was much soul searching over the lack of disaster management skills of the officials and equipment.
It will be a bigger disaster if this time too the government, which is facing a crucial assembly election in the coming months, is again caught unawares. Bihar is the country’s most flood-prone state, with 76 per cent of the population in the northern part of the state living under the recurring threat of flood devastation. According to government data, 16.5 per cent of the total flood- affected area in India is located in Bihar while 22.1 per cent of the flood-affected population in India lives in this state.
Having said that, the government must not try to look away from the obvious links that exist between the destructive power of these floods and its embankment policy. The jacketing of rivers leads to a dangerous build-up of water within the embanked rivers like Kosi and Gandak. There have been many occasions when waters have burst through weak points in the embankments causing destruction of life and property. Yet, there’s no review of this embankment policy while the constant harping has been on building dams in Nepal to tame the rivers. A fact-finding report released after the Kosi floods by a civil society organisation highlighted that although India has built over 3,000 km of embankments in Bihar over the last few decades, flooding has increased by 2.5 times during the same time period, not to mention that embankments failed during each major flooding event.
Many feel that the worse is still to come if we take into account the threat of climate change and irregular rainfall patterns. To counter such threats, governments will have to continuously upgrade its disaster management skills so that minimum people are affected. But first, it has to convince itself to learn from the past (and continuing) mistakes.