Araria to Kishenganj, Bihar’s decades-old flood tragedy has a worrying new trend
When the flood waters were waist-high, the Ansari family formed a human chain and waded towards higher ground.
“We were just outside our house when we were hit by a huge wave of water,” said Mohammed Wajid, “My mother, Memonisha, and my sisters — Fareeda and Gulzari — slipped. My brother, Afroz, jumped in after them but they were all washed away.”
When the water receded, the four corpses were found caught in a fence less than 100 metres from the home. Memonisha, Fareeda and Gulzari were still holding hands.
In all, 16 people were washed away in six hours on August 12 in this small settlement in Araria district along eastern Bihar’s border with Nepal. Across the state, the raging waters claimed 514 lives in a flood that has revealed both — the decades-old tragedy of Bihar’s yearly inundation, and a worrying new trend in which previously safe districts like Araria and Kishenganj have been particularly hard it. Floods have claimed 215 lives in Araria over 18 years, of which 95 were lost in 2017 and 61 in 2016.
“Had the flood hit more flood-prone districts, casualties would have been less as people would be ready,” said principal secretary Pratyaya Amrit, who oversaw disaster mitigation and relief effort. “Here, maximum casualties were in Araria, which did not have a history of floods.”
The floods of 2016 and 2017, say villagers, experts and government officers, are evidence that the pattern of Bihar’s yearly inundation is rapidly changing — disrupting the plans of disaster management experts. In Jogbani, this meant that the waters rose, claimed lives, and receded before a relief effort could even begin. This year’s flood, the worst in a decade, followed the classic pattern in western Bihar where rain-swollen rivers breached their embankments in at least eight places — resulting in the death of 138 people. But in the east, the inundation was caused by a rain-triggered flash flood, even as the Kosi, a river known as the sorrow of Bihar, stayed on course.
In Araria, the flood began with incessant rain in the early hours of August 12, followed by what residents described as a “wall of water” from the foothills across the Nepal border. As the rain continued to pelt down, survivors said, rivulets and streams, which had been dry for decades, sprang to life. A meandering local river called the Parman became a torrential stream. The water receded from Jagboni by August 13 and inundated downstream towns of Forbesganj and the Araria district headquarters. In Ghatyari, for instance, the water reclaimed land that was last flooded two generations ago.
“Our grandfather told us that this area used to be riverbed,” said Amar Kumar, a resident. “But this is the first time we are seeing water here.”
“Climate change has changed rainfall patterns,” said Prof Ramakar Jha, a flood expert at the National Institute of Technology in Patna, explaining that the intensity of rains has increased even as the total amount of rainfall has not changed. “So a large amount of water falls in a very short time interval, causing flash floods.”
Experts point to the need to align flood-forecasting techniques to this new normal. The storm-front was visible on satellite images posted by NASA on August 11, said Himanshu Thakkar, an engineer and coordinator of the South Asia Network of Dams, Rivers and People, who raised the possibility of floods in a Facebook post that morning.
Thakkar tracked the storm from August 11 onwards as the rain-front, which began along India’s north-east corridors, moved steadily westwards along the Ganga Basin through Bengal, Nepal, and northern Bihar towards eastern Uttar Pradesh — which also experienced floods.
“We must improve forecasting to minimise damage,” Thakkar said.
Amrit said they had received rainfall warnings from the Indian Meteorological Department, but it is hard to pinpoint exactly where the flooding would occur.
“We will incorporate this experience into our standard operating protocols,” Amrit said. “2008 prepared us for embankment breaches, 2017 will prepare us for flash floods.”