Bihar's scary new flood
The state's annual tragedy is striking new areas and growing more intense
By Aman Sethi
Data and graphics by Harry Stevens
September 18, 2017
Jogbani: The water came at night. It cascaded down the foothills of the Himalayas in Nepal, crashed through the old sugar mill at Biratnagar, and swept through Rajendra Yadav’s earthen hut, the northernmost home of this border settlement in north Bihar.
By the early morning, on August 12, Jogbani was under eight feet of water. Yet Yadav was calm.
“I’m an old man. I’ve seen a flood before,” he told Deepak, his middle-aged son. “The water will recede.” And when it did, Yadav left the high ground where his family had taken sanctuary to lay down on the damp charpai in his home.
“A few hours later, another wave of water suddenly came down from Nepal,” Deepak recalled two weeks later. “I looked back: my father and my house were gone.”
The flood killed at least 16 people in Jogbani. When the waters finally receded two days later, residents came upon corpses caught in fences, shrubs and canals. Memonisha Khatoon and her teenaged daughters, Fareeda and Gulzari, were found still holding each other in one final, fatal embrace.
Over that fortnight, 514 people in Bihar died. The water spread across an area of 21 districts with over 17 million residents. It was the state’s most deadly flood since 2008.
Araria, the district of Jogbani, received the brunt of the damage. Until last year, Araria was not considered flood-prone. From 2000 to 2015, floods in the district killed an average of four people a year. Since 2016, they have killed 156.
Bihar’s annual floods have long been torrential and deadly, but they’ve also been restricted to settlements along the state’s great rivers — the Ganga, the Gandak, and the Kosi. The recent destruction in Araria represents the possibility that Bihar will be even more vulnerable to flooding in years to come.
New areas are being threatened by inundation. Climate change has made the monsoon harder to predict and more intense, including in areas where it was once relatively mild. Newly built infrastructure, meanwhile, has not been designed to cope with floodwaters. And the state’s strategies to mitigate the effects of flooding have not been updated for centuries.
A trip to Araria — a remote, rural district tucked between Nepal in the north and Bengal in the east — showed that residents fear for the future.
“Even our grandparents haven’t seen floods like this,” said Amar Kumar, a resident of Araria. “We don’t understand the water anymore.”
Bihar’s floods have claimed 9,500 lives since the government started publishing figures in 1979. People in the state are reliably killed by flooding every year. Sometimes, as in 1992, the deaths are as low as four. In bad years, such as 2007, the casualties rise as high as 1,287.
In many ways, the floods still follow a reliable pattern: rainfall across north India and southern Nepal increases the volume of water in the Ganga, its tributaries, and the hundreds of smaller rivers that crisscross the state.
“Bihar is like a shallow bowl which fills up with water in the rainy season,” said Dinesh Kumar Mishra, a civil engineer who has written several books on Bihar’s annual floods. “In the rainy season, the bowl spills, the rivers flood their banks and replenish and rejuvenate the plains.”
Data from the Bihar government reveals that a cluster of five northern districts bounded by the Ganga and its three major tributaries account for half the deaths since 2000. Araria, tucked away at the northeast corner of the state, was marginal. From 2000 until 2015, the district accounted for only 1% of deaths related to flooding. In 2016, however, Araria accounted for 14% of deaths. It was 20% this year.
In the cluster of historically dangerous districts, building earthen embankments to hem in the river is the only solution to flooding that’s been seriously tried. This tactic has been dogged by controversy ever since construction began in the 19th century.
Today, Bihar has over 3,000 km of embankment. Proponents say it has largely contained the fury of the floods and opened up vast tracts of land to agriculture and commerce.
Critics, including Mishra, contend that the embankments treat the natural phenomenon of the tides ebbing and flowing as a ‘problem’ that can somehow be ‘solved’. This supposed cure, said Mishra, is worsening the disease. Bihar’s rivers carry sediment that should spread over the surrounding countryside when the river floods. But if the sediment is contained between embankments, it is deposited along river beds.
“This raises the level of the river, so you make taller embankments, which are less stable,” said Mishra. In 2008, for instance, the Kosi river breached its embankment, triggering a flood that killed 489 people in two adjoining districts, Supaul and Madhepura, and 626 people across the state.
“It’s like you have a cat, which you turn it into a tiger,” said Mishra. “You don’t know how to fight the tiger.”
This year the Gandak breached its embankments in eight places while the Kosi’s defences held firm, offering ammunition for both sides in the embankment debate.
Meanwhile, the most fatalities were in Araria, which wasn’t even on the radar of the Bihar government at the beginning of the monsoon season.
On July 18 this year, when the chief minister of Bihar, Nitish Kumar, held a video conference with district collectors to discuss the onset of the monsoon, his bureaucrats were concerned about the possibility of a drought, according to an official who was present. Araria, in particular, was facing a rainfall deficit of 39%.
Three weeks later, the Indian Meteorological Department (IMD) issued a heavy rainfall alert for eastern India and parts of Bihar on August 10, 11, and 12. Nasa satellite imagery from the time showed a giant purple patch, denoting rainfall in excess of 175 mm over 24 hours, stretched out across eastern India.
“We saw the warning, we knew something was going to happen,” said Pratyaya Amrit, a principal secretary in the IAS who oversees several portfolios in Bihar, including flood mitigation and relief efforts. “We had an emergency meeting with IMD, but the alert was for all of Bihar. They could not pinpoint specific places.”
So the government used its resources in known trouble spots, such as the districts of Muzaffarpur, Samastipur, and Madhepura.
On August 11, Amrit spoke individually with the district collectors of several flood-prone regions. He spoke with the collector at Araria as well, but admitted they didn’t think the district was a priority.
“On the 11th night, Araria was facing a drought,” said Amrit. “The next morning, it was hit by the worst flood in a decade.” Over three days, Araria received about 3,000mm of rain, 40% of all the rainfall it has received this year, resulting in what experts are now calling a flash flood.
This is one of the projected symptoms of climate change. “Climate change has changed rainfall patterns,” said Prof Ramakar Jha, a flood expert at the National Institute of Technology in Patna. According to Jha, Bihar’s annual rainfall is now occurring in a smaller and smaller number of days. Intense bursts of rain in short intervals, in turn, lead to sudden floods.
But the district, Amrit said, did not have contingency plans for a flash flood. The consequences of this unpreparedness were devastating.
Clouds burst over Araria on the night of August 11. The following morning, the offices and residences of the District Collector and local Superintendent of Police were submerged. Araria’s electricity and cellphone networks had collapsed. Roads had been washed out and culverts broken, snapping all links with the rest of the state.
State emergency officials in Patna said they “lost Araria for 16 hours”, making it impossible to coordinate relief efforts.
In other parts of the state, where the flood was anticipated, the administration had posted battalions of the state and national disaster relief forces. It had also checked for the availability of boats to ferry the stranded as well as sandbags to plug breaches in embankments.
Relief agencies finally made it to Araria on the evening of August 13 by cutting through Nepal.
“Had the flood hit more flood-prone districts, casualties would have been less, as people would have been ready,” said Amrit. “People in Araria were not expecting water of this magnitude.”
In Araria town, it was impossible to determine where exactly the water was coming from. A local river called the Parman was overflowing its banks; long-dead streams were suddenly revived. In the village of Halhalliya, a dry riverbed that been farmed for at least two generations suddenly became a fast-flowing torrent.
In the absence of any information or cellphone connectivity, panicked residents left their homes to check on relatives and loved ones. Some did not return. Devraj Yadav, a young taxi driver, drove out from Araria town to check on his wife’s parents, who live in a village along National Highway 57. His in-laws were safe, but Yadav would never find out.
“His Tata Indica was simply washed off the road,” said one of his neighbors, Shiv Narain. “Some kids found the wreckage days later and started screaming when they realised there was a body trapped inside the car.”
Over the next month, Amrit said, the government fought back. According to their daily flood reports, the Bihar state disaster management agency set up 1,358 relief camps that sheltered 422,106 people; staffed 1,646 community kitchens that fed 557,719; and deployed nearly 2,500 boats that evacuated 854,936.
But many residents in Araria said the government did not do a good job dealing with the effects of flooding. Some said that many residents evacuated themselves, and that the relief camps were actually clusters of tents that people had put up themselves along the state highways. In other cases, the government tried to relieve their suffering, but too late.
“The water had left by time the NDRF came to Jogbani,” said one resident, Bikram Singh. “A trooper asked if the flood had hit us at all. We showed him the corpses we had fished out of the water, and said, ‘Here’s your flood.’”
The unexpected damage in Araria, experts say, points to the need for improved forecasting and mitigation systems.
“We need to study the meteorological conditions that lead to floods like these,” said Himanshu Thakkar, an engineer and coordinator of the South Asia Network of Dams, Rivers and People. “We must improve forecasting to minimise damage.”
Amrit said Bihar was working hard to augment its flood relief capabilities. A new state-of-the-art emergency operation centre, expected to be ready early next year, would integrate climate and weather information from a plethora of sources.
“We learn from every disaster,” he said. “2008 was about how to deal with a breached embankment. After Araria, we are putting in place protocols for flash floods.”
The state is also planning to build flood-proof community centres in each village panchayat. These should be able to serve as safe havens during a flood. Each centre, Amrit said, will be on stilts with ramps leading up to the roof, where villagers can shelter their animals.
Mishra, the water expert, said constructing new buildings on stilts was a good idea. Villagers had historically embraced the inevitability of floods in other ways too, he said. “They planted local flood-resistant varieties of rice, and welcomed the annual flooding as it replenished the soil.”
Floods cannot be eradicated, he said, only managed.
“All new buildings in floodplains — schools, hospitals, even homes — should be on stilts,” he said. “During the rainy season people can move around on boats.”
The government should try out the idea in some of Bihar’s worst hit districts, he said. “Let’s at least try something new.”
Editing by Alex Traub. Web production by Gurman Bhatia.
Flood icon by Iconathon via the Noun Project.