The mighty Mississippi river, flowing at nearly 2 million cu. ft per second, is wreaking havoc in Illinois, Missouri, Kentucky, Tennessee, Arkansas and Louisiana in the US. A complex web of dams, levees and floodways manages this river system, one of the largest in the world. The US Army Corps of Engineers, which manages this system, opened the Morganza spillway last week for only the second time in its history to save Baton Rouge and New Orleans in Louisiana, and re-route a part of flow to the Atchafalaya basin. If the move fails, and the basin floods uncontrollably, the damage could inundate millions of acres, permanently submerge hundreds of communities, and destroy refineries and farms. It is man against nature, And a few short weeks will reveal the winner.
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Levees and embankments have been used for centuries to hold, cajole, shape and sometimes control river systems. Man’s dependence on fresh water has meant a love-hate relationship with rivers since time immemorial. The Indus Valley civilization, located in present-day Pakistan, and civilizations around the Yellow River in China had elaborate systems for water management, including the use of embankments for flood control. Victorian England tamed the Thames in London using embankments, and the history of renaissance Holland might have been different, but for the famous dikes that held back the sea from filling in the Rhine basin.
An alternative method of flood control, practised in Europe today, is to cede larger areas of the flood plain to the river. There is less management and control of the river—it is allowed to flood natural low-lying areas, basins and swamps, and it is given room to move when in spate. This method is friendlier to the environment.
In India, we follow a grab bag of strategies that integrate some ancient methods with some more modern ones. The famous ghats of Haridwar are examples of stepped embankment. Northern Bihar is particularly susceptible to flooding by a large system of rivers that originates in the Himalayas. Melting glaciers and torrential rain in the Shivaliks run down through Nepal in an intricate and often changing web of tributaries that eventually find their way into the Ganges on the northern plains of India. This river system is made up of rivers such as the Ghaghra, Gandak, Burhi Gandak, Bagmati, Kamla Balan, Mahananda and Kosi. The last, dubbed the river of sorrow, is the most infamous. In 2008, it breached its eastern embankment at Kusha in Nepal, and inundated a vast area in central Bihar, leaving misery in its wake and affecting nearly three million people. Three years later, the area is still struggling to recover lost property and livelihoods.
What should India do—attempt to “control” our rivers with an elaborate man-made system, or use a softer approach with less management and control? This is a challenging question in the densely populated Mithali region of Bihar (the flood plain of the Kosi). The American approach is seductive, since impoverished farmers do not have the resources to “cede” areas to the river. Earlier this year, the World Bank signed an agreement to support Bihar’s initiative to rebuild flood-affected areas with a grant of $220 million and technical assistance. The project will focus on owner-driven housing reconstruction, rebuilding of roads and bridges, enhancement of Bihar’s capacity for flood management, livelihood restoration and improvements in its emergency response systems.
As Bihar rebuilds from the Kosi’s massive flood damage, India has an opportunity to re-examine its approach to floods. While the topic returns to the public eye each monsoon, discussion of flood prevention is relegated to arcane conferences. The ministry of water resources counts kilometres of embankments and channels as its sole criterion for “achievements in flood management”. India can and should become a pioneer in adopting ecologically sensitive, low-interference methods to manage rivers in spate. In the jargon of water management, these methods are called non-structural measures. While transition costs to this may be high, the long-term costs, including that to the environment, are likely to be much lower. The focus should shift from the hardware of flood control, embankments, levees and dams, to the software of flood management-greater awareness, better land-use planning, early warning and evacuation, more portable livelihoods in flood-prone areas, and systems to cope with displacement. Some percentage of the flood plain should be converted into protected wetlands to conserve soil and groundwater. Rich alluvial lands can return to cultivation while depleted lands are “returned” to the river.
P.S: “I do not know much about gods; but I think that the river is a strong brown god—sullen, untamed and intractable”: T.S. Eliot in ‘The Dry Salvages’, Four Quartets.
Narayan Ramachandran is an investor and entrepreneur based in Bangalore. He writes on the interaction between society, government and markets.
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