In school geography textbooks, we were taught that rivers are productive only when caged with concrete. Our nation’s leaders and engineers decided to place greater trust in dams and embankments than “unpredictable" rivers. This mimicked colonial engineering which attempted to civilize rivers in a subcontinent where civilizations were birthed by rivers. The language of colonial engineering—training and disciplining rivers—has continued to dominate policy.
But insurgent South Asian rivers like the Brahmaputra, Indus, Kosi and Gandak have breached embankments repeatedly, turning engineered floodplains into hydrological dystopias. Dams kept getting built, and embankments kept getting longer and higher. A veteran scholar of rivers and an engineer by training, D.K. Mishra calculated that, in independent India, approximately 35,199km of embankments have been built around rivers as well as 4,728 large dams. Ironically, the flood-affected area of the country increased from 25 million hectares in 1952 to 49 million hectares in 2011.
The solution had become a problem.
In the masculinist engineering world view, rivers are lifeless entities, composed only of water. They can be plumbed, split, or made to walk in a straight line. Rivers are valued for their water, but not for the vibrant matter and life that they also carry. Himalayan rivers used to bring fine silt to north Bihar from Nepal which would be deposited across the plains, making it one of the most fertile agricultural regions in the subcontinent. Embankments cut off this efficient transport of nutrients, making the land poorer and agribusiness corporations richer. It has been calculated that each year the Kosi carries 19 cubic metres of sediment per hectare, five times higher than any other river in Bihar. Unable to deposit this sediment, the Kosi is forced to retain it. This raises its bed, making floods an inevitability, not an accident.
River engineering solutions are crafted by those who do not live on the floodplains. Floodwaters do not lap at the foot of their beds at midnight. The poor who live by the banks experience the river differently. They know its cycles and rhythms. They know when a river will overflow its banks simply by observing the colour of the water or the behaviour of fish. River engineering plans exclude such granular understanding of rivers acquired through lived experience. The late ecologist and conservationist Dhrubajyoti Ghosh had termed this “cognitive apartheid"—a systematic exclusion of the knowledge of the poor by the educated elite. This is a replication of the colonial system, creating a hierarchy based on privileging the lettered over the unlettered.
Critics of river engineering are accused of romanticizing rivers. They are reminded that the Brahmaputra, Damodar, Kosi, Mahanadi were “rivers of sorrow" till dams, barrages and embankments disciplined them. Yet, as early as 1954, engineers in the Damodar Valley Corporation had accepted that the Damodar embankment had raised the river bed and led to more floods in the region. The late writer and water conservationist Anupam Mishra had noted that in the so-called “flood-prone" region of north Bihar, locals named their rivers with reverence and affection. Khirodi derived its name from milk—testifying to the pristine quality of its waters. Bhutahi referred to its ghostlike quality, appearing and disappearing at will. Legend has it that when the Bhutahi moved away from the village of Phulparas, people prayed for it to return. Without its fertile silt, agriculture was no longer possible. The river responded—next monsoon, she returned to the village. Such stories reveal how rivers used to generate prosperity, not misfortune. “Rivers of sorrow" are not produced by nature, they emerge out of engineering misadventures.
The recurrence of severe flood events has only increased with the increase in the number of dams and embankments. Extensive construction of embankments along the Kosi began in the 1950s. Since then, the Kosi has breached its cage eight times, each time with devastating ferocity. In 1975, the Farakka Barrage was built in West Bengal to divert the flow of the Ganga and save the Kolkata port from silting up. Almost 300 million tons of silt is now deposited annually at the barrage. This has elevated the riverbed by almost 20ft and made even opening the gates a difficult task. Instead of solving the problem of siltation, the Farakka Barrage has amplified it. Choking the Ganga has produced more floods upstream in Bihar. The Bihar chief minister, Nitish Kumar, has repeatedly asked for the decommissioning of the barrage but his pleas have fallen on deaf ears. In Assam, 4,500km of embankments around the Brahmaputra have not prevented the annual occurrence of calamitous floods—even in 2019, a year of deficit rainfall. Yet, the state government seeks to build an additional 5,000km of embankment-cum-road for ₹40,000 crore.
Seventy-two years after independence, the understanding of rivers in India continues to remain trapped in colonial engineering-thinking. If the British enthused us to build embankments, the Soviets and the Americans inspired us to build gargantuan dams. A subcontinent with a civilizational history of 8,000 years (according to the latest archaeological research) has failed to script its own vision for living with rivers. Remarkably, the discourse on dam building has undergone a 180-degree turn in the West. Ninety-nine dams were removed in the US alone in 2018 to restore the free flow of rivers. Meanwhile, in India, we are adding more to a current list of more than 900 dams and barrages on the Ganga and its tributaries in the upper reaches.
Our experience of the last 50 years of river engineering projects should convince policymakers to look for new solutions. Problems produced by embankments and dams cannot be solved by more of the same. However, the political dispensation remains wedded to engineering hubris. It believes in a warped and antiquated view that rivers flowing into the sea is wastage of freshwater and seeks to colonize rivers by impounding and embanking them. Dams are useful spectacles to reinforce the power of the state, but they ultimately become spectres that haunt desolate landscapes.
Unfortunately, right now, there is no space for dialogue between different world views. Decision makers do not speak to social scientists, ecologists and hydrologists but, more importantly, they don’t interact with people who intimately know rivers and depend on them.
In the wake of the uncertainty brought about by climate change, incautious infrastructure development will amplify risks, and as always, the poor will suffer the most. But using uncertainty as a bugbear, policymakers across South Asia are pushing for more river engineering through dredging, interlinking, dams and embankments. If this leads to more floods and ecological catastrophes, the blame will be directed towards climate change.
Instead of disciplining rivers, we need to discipline ourselves and learn how to live with them. Otherwise, we will continue to engineer a season of floods. (This article is based on a talk delivered in October at the IHE Delft Institute for Water Education, Netherlands.)
Amitangshu Acharya is a Leverhulme Trust PhD scholar in human geography at the University of Edinburgh.