August 30, 2008
Devastating flooding has displaced millions of people on either side of the Indian-Nepal border, leaving perhaps thousands dead, after the Kosi (also known as the Saptakoshi) River broke its banks in Nepal. The figures, like the water, keep rising. In India’s northeastern state of Bihar, a reported 3 million people have been affected, while in Nepal, approximately 100,000 people have been displaced. In some areas, the river has bloated to three-mile-wide stretches.
Even for the Indian state of Bihar, which faces an annual cycle of destruction, displacements and loss of human lives, these floods are truly unprecedented in living memory.
Geographical and Historical Background of the Kosi River
The Kosi is a tributary of the Ganges and travels through the upper mountainous regions in Nepal before meeting the plains of Bihar and merging with the Ganges several hundred km downstream. Given the crystalline nature of the rock and its young morphology, it carries large quantities of silt and other matter, which is ultimately deposited in the plains of Bihar.
The trouble is compounded by the steep gradient from which the river emerges and enters the Bihar plains. Its large deposits of silt and gradient, from which the river emerges, forces the river to meander along unpredictable paths thus earning for itself the name of being the ‘River of Sorrow’.
The first attempt to tame the Kosi began in 1956, after the devastating floods of 1954. In the techno-economic survey prepared at that time clearly the optimum solution was the construction of a 239-metre dam at Barakshetra, about 50 km within Nepal, to be backed by a barrage down stream.
For several reasons including cost, a deflection of focus due to the Bhakra Nangal project, the complexities in the construction of multiple structures resulted in shelving this optimum option. It was considered prudent to settle during the interim with merely a barrage at Hanuman Nagar (Birpur).
Thus the first credible attempt to tame the river began in 1956 with an eastern and western embankment of 105 and 106 km, respectively, of which about 32 km of the eastern embankment is located in Nepal. The embankments were completed in 1959. The barrage itself at Birpur to regulate water flow was completed in 1964.
The Indo-Nepalese agreement signed between the two countries, which facilitated this project brought benefits to both India and Nepal. The Nepalese side however continued to question the adequacy of benefits received from the project. Nepal had all along wanted a barrage system upstream of the present system, which in their perception would have yielded more optimum returns.
In any case, the Birpur “solution” was always known as, at best, an interim stopgap until more permanent arrangements could be made.
But on August 18, a 3km breach in the dam and the torrent of water it unleashed altered the course of the river and sent its floodwaters into areas where such deluges are largely unknown, and where communities are unprepared.
The result was – as Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh described it –“a national calamity".
Indian army deployments rushed to the area are said to have moved more than 250,000 people, while millions more have streamed out of the flood zone to higher ground.
Air drops of food and medical supplies are their only source of help amid fears that malaria and dengue epidemics could sweep the area.
One Western aid official told The Australian yesterday: "There are incredible scenes here. As far as the eye can see, millions of people trudging through water, desperately seeking to make it to higher ground, carrying nothing but a few possessions with them and facing the prospect of having absolutely nothing when they get to the higher ground."
As aid agencies were rushing help to the area last night, however, the argument began over who was to blame.
The Blame Game: India or Nepal?
According to Indian officials, desilting of the Kosi River inside Nepal and upstream from the Kusaha barrage was supposed to be an annual operation carried out by workers from Bihar and Nepal before the monsoon.
But this year, according to Indian reports, "work was delayed because of the politically charged situation there (in Nepal, surrounding the accession to power of the Maoist guerilla movement and the removal of King Gyanendra)".
"When desilting finally got under way in the first week of August, it was already too late," the reports said.
"When the monsoon came, the breach in the dam wall became inevitable.”
But yesterday, Nepal's new Foreign Minister, Upendra Yadav, said no adequate repairs to the dam wall had been carried out in the past seven years. He blamed the Kosi Water Treaty concluded between the two countries.
"According to the Kosi Water Treaty, India has the sole responsibility of repair, maintenance and overall surveillance of the Kusaha embankment though it falls 12km within Nepalese territory," he said.
"The treaty is strange, as even if we see a breach in the embankment, we can do nothing but sit and watch, as we have no power to put a brick or mud to plug it."
Mr Yadav said India had made a last-ditch attempt to plug the breach, but this had been in vain.
"Indian contractors came to Kusaha to repair the embankment but entered into an argument with local Nepalese laborers over money, after which no work was done," he said. "The embankment was breached two days later."
Indian water expert, Dinesh Kumar Mishra, also gave weight to Nepal’s argument by refuting New Delhi’s water resources department claim that this was the first time that the Kosi bund had been breached. He said there had been many breaches earlier. It had breached in Dalwa (Nepal) in 1963, Jamalpur (Darbhanga) in 1968, Bhatania (Supaul) in 1971, Bahuarwa (Saharsa) in 1980, Hempur (Saharsa) in 1984 and Joginia (Nepal) in 1991.
Yet another Indian water activist Bijay Kumar demanded that there should be an arrangement for drainage of the floodwater on priority basis.
Kumar said there should also be a long-term plan for running relief camps, at least for next six months which should also cover flood victims from the Nepal side, as it would create an atmosphere of trust and amity in accordance with Kosi agreement reached between the two countries.
He further demanded largescale vaccination among the people and the bovines in the flood-ravaged areas. Finally, Kumar insisted that the security issue be immediately addressed. Pillaging has been reported to be widespread in the inundated areas.
In the end, the fragile relations between India and Nepal are the most probable root cause of the catastrophe.
South Asia Analyses Group’s Dr S. Chandrashekhar, an expert on the India-Nepal water treaty (and founder of the Sankurathri Foundation), said while the Bihar government had been neglecting the repair of the Kosi river’s embankments, it was lack of authority in Nepal for a long period that led to “poor diplomatic management’’ of the problem.
After years of Maoist insurgency, Nepal held elections for the Constituent Assembly in April. It was only two weeks ago that the elected members agreed to name Prachanda as prime minister.
Chandrasekhara said under the 1954 Kosi treaty, the Indian government was responsible for the upkeep of the river’s embankments while the Nepal government was in charge of monitoring the flow of water and alerting India to any flood threat. “Generally, Nepal’s authorities had been neglecting this part of their responsibility under the premise that the swollen river does not pose a risk to their country,’’ said Chandrashekhar.
However, this time, nature’s fury did not spare even Nepal, leading to Prime Minister Prachanda announcing that Nepal will seek “revision of the one-sided treaty with India”.
Chandrasekhar even supports the claim of the Bihar government that its engineers could not reach the Kosi barrage in time to conduct annual repairs as Nepal failed to provide them security.
Paul Soren of the Observer Research Foundation said that due to the prolonged political turmoil in Nepal and the growing suspicion against India, the management of rivers became the most neglected area.
“India’s proposals on building dams on the Kosi did not take off as the mindset in Nepal was to find fault with any move that came from India,’’ he said.
However, sources in the government said, “New Delhi is ready to discuss any fresh ideas from Nepal on the water-sharing treaty.’’
One way or another, nature is immune to politics.