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The Bihar conundrum with taming rivers to control floods: What has been done so far and what could be done in future

Bihar is one such state in India which has been the most flood affected and falls under the flood zone of the Ganga-Brahmaputra basin.

The year 2020 has been a year of mourning due to the spread of COVID-19 while also being subjected to the vagaries of human interference with nature causing severe floods as one can witness in Bihar and Odisha.

Floods have been a part and parcel of great civilisations across time and space. According to the UN, 3062 flood disasters affected 2.3 billion people across the globe in a span of 20 years from 1995-2015 and killed 157,000.


The Indian civilzation has been witnessing floods due to the presence of the rivers of the Himalayas which are highly flood-prone by nature. The report suggests that out of the five nations most affected by hydro-climato-meteorological disasters, India had around 288 such cases in the 20 years until 2015.


In 2019 alone, there have been around 13 flood disasters across the world and in the same year India witnessed floods affecting over 13 states due to incessant rains where around a million people faced displacement. This was the same year when Nepal and Bangladesh also suffered due to floods.

While Kerala floods of 2019 made national and international headlines, Bihar being the most flood affected state in India continued to suffer heavily in terms of life and property affecting over 8 million people spread across 13 disctricts.  Similarly, in 2017, Bihar over 15 million people were affected due to floods and over. And over 8 million people have already been affected by the floods this year adding to the misery and pain that COVID-19 has unleashed along with its imposed lockdown measures ruining sources of livelihood.


Why Bihar?

Bihar is one such state in India which has been the most flood affected and falls under the flood zone of the Ganga-Brahmaputra basin. About 73% of the state area falls under flood zone which is about 17.2% of the total flood prone area of India. 65% of the catchment area of Bihar’s rivers fall in Nepal and Tibet and 35% fall in Bihar.

The flat topography of Bihar, with an annual average rainfall of about 1200 mm, high sedimentation make Bihar even more vulnerable to floods.

Source: NIDM, 2007

The rivers of Bihar are Ghaghra, Gandak, Budhi Gandak, Bagmati, Kamala, Bhutani Balan, Kosi and Mahananda, of which Kosi is considered to be the ‘Sorrow of Bihar’ as it causes havoc during monsoons. A sneak peak into the data of the impact of floods can be found in the tables below.

Source: Sinha, 2012

The 1990s era and 2000s caused significant loss in Bihar due to floods.

Source: ibid

The 2007 Bihar floods were one of the worst that Bihar had ever seen with a loss of property worth over six thousand million affecting around 10 million people.

The latest Bihar floodsof 2019 affected around 13 districts affecting over 8 million people and causing severe loss of property.

Financial Allocation and Spending for Bihar floods

In February, 2020 the Finance Minister, Sushil Modi presented the Budget for Bihar for 2020-21 where there was a 6% increase in allocation over previous year for irrigation and flood control. INR 400 crore has been allocated towards flood control programs. In 2019, Bihar had cited the paucity of funds in the State Disaster Response Fund and had sought release of advanced additional financial assistance under National Disaster Response Fund, and even advance release of 2nd installment of Centre’s share of SDRF in that year. Accordingly, Bihar was granted INR 400 crore under NDRF and INR 213.75 crore to SDRF.

The Capital Expenditures on Major and Medium Irrigation and Flood Control was reduced from 28,935.7 INR million to 26, 103.2 INR million. The lowest record was in 1998 which amounted to only around 1,022.8 INR million. This was the time when Bihar was ruled by Rashtriya Janata Dal supremo Lalu Yadav.

What has the government been doing?

Bihar has been undertaking primarily structral measures to deal with floods such as building of embankments, channel improvement and embankment protection works. Around 5287 kms of embankments have been constructed until 2017. A total cost of around INR 12.5 billion was spent in flood protection in2018.

However, according to the report of 2008 on Kosi floods, embankments have been straigthjacketing rivers forcing rivers to change its natural course and enhancing the flood-prone land from 2.5 million hectares to 6.89 million hectares by 2004.


The Politics of Embankment

The British had embanked the Damodar Valley in Bengal in 1855 on an experimental basis for flood control, which failed miserably. Hence, they gave up the idea. Moreover, the British engineer, Bradshaw Smith informed in Patna Conference of 1937 that embankments invited disaster but he was ignored. The folly of Damodar did not deter the new poltical leaders of independent India and Bhar to propose to embank Kosi which was initially rejected by the Centre which mooted for the construction of a dam instead. The Government however lacked the resources to spend for a dam and with the floods of 1953, the issue was resolved by the sanctioning of the embankment construction. However, to give this idea a technical legitimacy, CWPC engineers were sent to China to study the impact of embankments in Hwang Ho. They cleverly ignored the thousands of instances of breach and inundation of Hwang Ho and its change of course and suggested to embank Kosi.

What must be noted is that engineers from USA, China were brought to vouch for taming Kosi while the renowned hydrological expert, Sir Claude Inglis of UK refused to certify. Interestingly, the then President of India, Dr. Rajendra Prasad, also from Bihar had changed his anti-embankment views to appeal to Biharis to help embank Kosi. Hence began the taming of the Sorrow of Bihar which has brought in greater sorrows over the years.

This play of politics has played with innumerable lives and caused great loss of property ever since. This has also been another reason for distress outmigration from Bihar. The construction of embankments also led to the rise of criminal-politician nexus to feed on the money allocated for flood protection in Bihar and use the bricks of the Kosi project to contruct their own houses.


The Frankestein of corruption has hit Bihar very hard ever since the faulty project of embanking Kosi had been sanctioned in 1950s. Political corruption and poor flood management have been in Bihar ever since. Neither the Nitish led government nor the Laloo led one could extricate Bihar from the clutches of poor disaster management.

What can Bihar actually learn from international best practices?

The Kerala CM had recently visited the Netherlands post 2019 Kerala floods to understand what Netherlands, the world leader in flood management today has been upto. The ‘Room for the River project’ of the Dutch created more space for the river so that it can manage very high water levels during floods.


The Dutch government had appealed to Nitish Kumar to spare Patna Collectorate from demolition, which is one of the last remnants of dutch history in Patna, a strong collaboration can be forged between the two for flood management especially for Kosi and Gandak which were compelled to change their course over years.

Besides, the strenghtening of the Community based Information System using PPP model as in Bangladesh and seeking the expertise of the UK Environment Agency in flood managament using the latest technology measures are other examples of successful flood management initiatives which can be adopted by Bihar. In fact, the UK Agency has created a very user friendly flood mapping system which the commoners can access and use in case of any floods.

Hence, the way ahead for Bihar will be to learn from these international experiences and allow greater space for its rivers through an integrated flood management system and not meddle with their course on the advise of the skewed knowledge of the engineers or the politicians who never go to the field except during scrunity or before elections and lack the connect with the communities suffering the most from their decisions.

However, before looking abroad for lessons, Bihar government must pay heed to the recommendations of the Kosi High Level Committee and the report titled ‘Kosi Deluge: The Worst is Still to Come’ of the Fact finding mssion headed by civil society experts and change its flood policy from trying to arrest rivers to creating more space for them. For instance, the Government should check if bamboo plantation or mangrove can be encouraged in place of the banana plantation that has taken pace since 100 years in the river bank between Bhagalpur and Patna, which has also been identified as a cause of floods in the report.

Author: Akshay Barik is a labour researcher, political strategist, social media and public policy analyst by profession.

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