New Delhi: Dinesh Kumar Mishra, an expert on the Kosi river, is the convenor of Barh Mukti Abhiyan (freedom from flood mission), an organization that works with people living in flood-prone areas. The author of the recently published book, Trapped! Between the Devil and Deep Waters: The Story of Bihar’s Kosi River, spoke to Mint about government inaction when the Kosi began to breach its embankments in early August, resulting in massive floods that left scores of people dead and thousands marooned in Bihar. He also argued that an embankment breach is not an indicator that the river is changing its course. Edited excerpts:
You have said that the government didn’t act in 15 days between 3 August (when the river started eroding the embankment) and 18 August, when it could have prevented the floods.
Against the tide: Mishra says people living in the flood plains have, over the centuries, learnt to convert a liability into an asset. Sunil Saxena / HT
There was total inaction. The executive engineer there said everything was fine until the last moment.
You have said that there was a debate for some 100 years whether or not to “embank” the Kosi. What was this debate about?
This debate was based on the lessons learnt from trying to embank China’s Huang Ho in 700 BC and the Mississippi river in southern US in the 18th century. They were not positive lessons. Between 1047 and 1945, the Huang Ho breached its embankment 1,500 times. On nine occasions, the river couldn’t be brought back within the embankment. In 1939, to check the advancement of Japanese troops, Chinese leader Chiang Kai Shek bombed the embankment which swept away the Japanese army—along with 890,000 Chinese soldiers. So you can imagine the success!
The Missisippi flooded in 1882, 1903 and 1927, leaving a large population of the US at the mercy of the International Red Cross. Despite this, our experts and those abroad, too, suggested that there was no problem in having embankments. We are now suffering from this expert opinion.
While the government claims that the river has changed course, you have maintained that it has not.
The river has been changing course, no doubt, in the past 200 years. In 1955, the work on embankments started with the sole view of keeping the river within the two boundaries of the embankment. It was then decided that the river will not shift course any more. If the river has shifted course then why were the embankments built for? Were they not built with the sole aim of not allowing the river to shift its course? The river has now come out because of their shoddy maintenance of the embankments.
This is the eighth breach of these embankments. It happened with the eastern embankment thrice and five times with the western embankment. When there’s a breach on the western embankment, engineers and politicians shout at the top of their voices that the river is shifting course to the west. If it happens on the eastern embankment, they shout again that the river is shifting course to the east. If it was indeed shifting (despite the embankments) it should have had a pattern.
When the river shifted its course naturally (before the embankments were built) in which direction was it shifting?
It was moving towards the west for the past 200 years. There is this place called Tamuria in Bihar. The engineers of the 1950s said that the land at Tamuria was high enough and the river would not shift further west from Tamuria. Even the riverbed was sloping towards the west. But silting patterns were erratic and nothing could be predicted.
What is the solution to this then?
I will not propose any solution. Let them (engineers) decide what to do. They will propose building a dam in Nepal which is not possible or likely.
The basic technology (of embankments and dams) itself is wrong. To embank a silt-laden river is wrong. People who had built the embankments are no more and it is convenient to criticize those who are no more. The present generation of engineers also don’t want to learn from the past mistakes and want to commit the same mistakes and leave it for the next generation. These are the natural consequences of building embankments.
Is a dam in Nepal technically feasible or sustainable as a solution?
Anything is technically feasible. I could build a flyover from Delhi to Chennai. Only, there should be enough finance. It is not about something being technically feasible but sensible.
It is not sensible (as a solution) because a sizeable catchment area of the river is located below (downstream) the proposed dam.
If there are rains then there will be no relief from waterlogging. The water can also not be stored permanently and has to be released at some time. When it is released it will put millions who live between the embankments on their toes. Nepal should also agree to the dam (proposal), which is unlikely.
How have people approached this problem traditionally? How did they deal with floods before the embankments were built?
People living in the flood plains have been living there for centuries. Their approach converts a liability into an asset. Every farmer wants floods, if the river spills naturally. If it is natural, flooding will only deposit the top scum (top soil) and not the coarse silt that degrades the land.
If the river spills naturally it continues with delta formation and does not destroy the land. When an embankment is breached the entire thing spills out, including the coarse silt.
We should learn from them (farmers) and engineers should use their computing skills. We should explore alternative cropping and housing patterns. That is what we call living with the floods. But it does not mean surrendering to nature.
What can be done now?
The best thing is to leave the river to its own devices.
There should be only minimum interference to “train” its waters. Training involves improving drainage by building drainage canals and culverts so that flood waters get drained quickly.