Why Bihar Floods Every Year And What The Govt Is Doing Wrong

Bihar accounts for 17.2 percent of the flood-prone area in India. Flood intensity flood-prone areas have increased in the last decade.

Bihar is again facing the wrath of the flood. On 17 June, the state water resource department released the first inundation map which said only parts of East Champaran, West Champaran and Gopalganj were affected by flood. But by 22 July, 11 north Bihar districts including East and West Champaran, Gopalganj, Saran, Sheohar, Muzaffarpur, Sitamarhi, Darbhanga were badly affected by flood. Floodwaters have entered into 388 villages of 11 districts affecting around 16.61 lakhs people, according to a statement by the Disaster Management Department.

Nine teams of state disaster response force (SDRF) and seven teams of national disaster response force (NDRF) have been pressed for rescue work, according to the report.

With the increasing water level in the river Ganges in the last few days, flood is staring at south Bihar as well. Floodwaters have entered into a few villages of Jehanabad, Nalanda, rural Patna and Gaya districts. After conducting an Chief Minister Nitish Kumar conducted an aerial survey of south Bihar on 5 August. He later said, "If water level in Ganges increases then flood situation will deteriorate in these areas." He has asked the officials to be on alert.

According to the Central Water Commission (CWC) statement, the water level of Ganges, Punpun, Gandak, Burhi Gandak, Bagmati, Adhwara, Kamala Balan and Kosi rivers has shown an increasing trend at ten gauge stations which means the flood situation will remain grim for some time and even deteriorate further if Bihar experiences heavy rainfall in monsoon which generally withdraws at the end of September.

What has made Bihar floods so devastating?

Data shows that Bihar alone accounts for 17.2 percent of the flood-prone area in India. In recent decades, the flood intensity has increased and so has the extent of flood-prone areas.

Interestingly, embankments were considered the only solution to floods and the National Flood Control Policy was prepared way back in 1954. Under this, the embankment started to be built on the Kosi river and later embankments were built alongside other rivers. Till 2017, 3759.94 km long embankments have been built, according to the water resources department, Bihar. But, ironically, with the construction of the embankments, flood-prone areas also increased.

Till 1954, only 25 lakh hectare area of ​​Bihar was flood-prone, which increased to 68 lakh hectares in 1994.

Anil Prakash, a social activist who has taken part in several movements against the embankment construction, says, "Due to the construction of the embankments, the course of the rivers got shrunk, which accelerated the speed of the river water." He pointed out that as most of the rivers originate from the Himalayas, it brings huge amounts of sediments. "Earlier when there was no embankment the sediments would deposit in huge areas and river bed remained ineffective. But, due to the embankments, sediments could not spread and got deposited on the bed of rivers and the rivers became shallow and more wild during heavy rain," Prakash said.

All these rivers join the Ganges; the rivers' combined suspended sediment load of about 1.84 billion tons per year is the world's highest. "The Farakka barrage has caused huge silt deposits and that is why these rivers' water many a time does not enter into the Ganges and start spreading in the villages, agricultural fields breaching embankments," he added.

In the last decade, floods have led to the death of 2,300 people, crops of Rs 2,02,517.64 lakh have been damaged.

Construction of the embankments has increased floodwater stagnation as well. Earlier, floodwater would recede in 3-4 days now it remains stuck for more than a month causing more damage.

Prabhu Yadav, 51, a resident of Nemuian panchayat of Majha block in Gopalganj district, said that since June, he had to stay on an embankment with the family including children and women for two times because flood water stayed for more than 10 days. "There will be more rain during August and September. I don't know how many more times I will have to leave the house in these two months," said Yadav.

"Earlier there used to be floods, but the water would recede in two-three days. We didn't have any problems. Now the water remains in the house for 15-20 days and sometimes for a month," he said.

Why does it flood in Bihar every year?

Flood is almost an annual affair in the state, especially for north Bihar which consists of 19 districts and shares borders with neighboring country Nepal. It lies north of the river Ganges which enters Bihar in Buxar and divides the state into two parts - north and south.

There are eight major perennial rivers along with more than 600 seasonal rivers which flow through Bihar and cause floods almost every year. Kamala, Bagmati originate from Nepal, Gandak from Tibet whereas Kosi originates from Himalayas and its upper catchment areas are in Nepal and Tibet. Burhi Gandak originates from West Champaran. The total catchment area of ​​these rivers in Bihar is 36187 square kilometers.

River Ganges originates from the Himalayas in Uttarakhand and enters Bihar flowing throughout Uttar Pradesh.

Since Bihar is located in the lower part, natural river water flows towards Bihar and all rivers join the river Ganges at different locations.

During the monsoon season when there is more rain, these rivers get filled up, causing floods. If there is less rain in Bihar, and heavy rain in Nepal, even then also these rivers bring havoc in Bihar.

The main reason for the floods this year is heavy rains. According to the data collected from the Indian Meteorological Department, from June 1 to August 5, Bihar has received 664.2 mm rain, which is 18 percent more than normal. Bihar should receive 562 mm of rain during this period. The state receives 85 percent of the total rainfall during the monsoon season.

If we look at the district-wise data, 20 districts of the state including East Champaran, West Champaran, Darbhanga, Samastipur have received above-normal rainfall during this period. West Champaran should have normally received 729.4 mm of rain, but the total rainfall during this period is 1427.6 mm, which is 96 percent more than the normal. Similarly, Darbhanga has recorded 61 percent more rainfall than normal and Samastipur has recorded 46 percent more rainfall than normal.

Apart from this, Nepal too has recorded above normal rainfall this year. According to the Department of Meteorology and Hydrology, the normal rainfall in the month of June in Nepal should be 295.1 mm, but this time 35.2 percent more (total 399 mm) rainfall was recorded.

All these reasons coupled together brought the flood situation in Bihar this time.

What needs to be done?

In response to a question in the Lok Sabha on 5 August, the Ministry of Jal Shakti said that the main reason for flood in north Bihar was increased discharge of north Bihar rivers like Gandak, Burhi Gandak, Bagmati, Kamala, Kosi and Mahananda due to heavy rainfall in upper catchment areas which mainly lie in Nepal.

"Management of floods due to these rivers has been a concern," the ministry said.

The ministry also said that the governments of India and Nepal are holding dialogue for the construction of dams on border rivers for the mutual benefit of the two countries which includes flood control.

However, experts feel these remedies won't manage the flood situation. Anil Prakash said that dams will be more "disastrous" than embankments.

"First you will have to displace lakhs of people for the dams. Secondly, it causes huge silt deposits which will be another problem. Thirdly, you have to discharge water at any cost if the water reserves increase from a certain level as huge water reserves may cause earthquakes. Apart from that, there is the risk of mischief," he explained.

Last year, a damn in China on the Chuhe river had to be destroyed after a massive flood has caused many deaths and property losses.

Prof. Sunil Chaudhary, a retired professor at Tilka Manjhi University, who has worked extensively on river Ganges said, "Embankment is not at all a solution to floods. Earlier people were accustomed to floods; they would live happily with floods as it caused minimal losses. But after the embankments, flood impact has increased manifold."

"We can't stop the flood. It will come. It is natural. But we can minimise the damage," he said. Earlier, he said, during a flood, river water would accumulate in water bodies, ponds, canals which were in flood plain areas impacting minimum to the habitats. "All these water bodies have been encroached. The government needs to make flood plain areas encroachment-free. There should also be national policy on sediment management," he said.

River expert Dinesh Mishra said, "If the government wants it can dismantle embankments to allow rivers flow freely. But, if not, then the government must develop a strong drainage system to drain the floodwaters." Mishra said that that the flood water which used to drain out in 3-4 days, is now stagnating for one to two months. This, he said, indicated that the water is not getting a way to return.

"If rivers are breaking embankments, roads, bridges, it simply means that rivers have not been given a free-flowing space. That's why they are making their way by breaking embankments, bridges and roads. If the impact of floods is to be mitigated, the government has to ensure that the rivers flow freely," Mishra said.

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