Ignorance and arrogance make for good floods

This year, for once, the devastating floods of Bihar seem to have touched us. Last year, when the same region was reeling under what was said to be the worst floods in living history, we simply did not know. Media had flashed a few images, but it was more of the same: rivers flood this region every year, so what’s new? What’s there to say?

This year there are some differences: first, the breach in the Kosi’s protection system of embankments and barrages took place in Nepal, not in India. As maintenance of the embankments was our responsibility, we could not blame Nepal for the floods. We had to look within.

Second, the area, drowned under the flood, was massive and millions were marooned in remote villages. This was partly because this time the river breached upstream of the Kosi barrage and spilled over the land, forgetting that it even had a course to run before it flowed into the Ganga. Remember, this is a river, which has changed its course by 120 km in the past 250 years—satellite images show 12 distinct channels of how the river has moved.

Third, and most important, the flood captured our attention, because of the scale of the human tragedy. It was made clear that in spite of all our big talk and even bigger institutions for disaster management, we remain unprepared, under-staffed and unequipped for a crisis, when it hits. Even as people waited to be rescued we had few boats to bring them to safe places; we had little food, water and shelter to provide for them in the relief camps; and worse, we had no authority to ensure that empty homes would not be ransacked. As a result, people refused to leave. They preferred the swirling water to relief camps. What an indictment of our efforts.

Now the waters are finally receding and before our attention also moves on, let us learn, for once, the hard message of the Kosi floods of 2008. Let us learn because this disaster may not be the first or the last but it tells us of a situation getting out of control. It tells us that we have done so much wrong in the way we have managed our environment. It tells us that we know so little about how climate change and its manifestation of changing intensities of rainfall will exacerbate floods in the future. It also tells that we cannot ‘adapt’ to these changes, unless we do things differently.

Let’s unpack this lesson. For long, we have believed that we can ‘conquer’ nature, control the flood and emasculate our rivers. In Kosi and its tributaries, we worked this engineering to perfection, by building barrages to hold the river, accompanied with miles of embankments to tie the river down.

It was as far back as 1991, that environmentalist Anil Agarwal published the book, Floods, flood plains and environmental myths. He explained how the engineering solution was in fact increasing both the incidence and intensity of floods. The reason was simple. The rivers brought down huge quantities of silt each year. The Kosi, in particular, was known to bring coarse sediments, which would add to the rate of siltation. Wherever embankments were built, silt got deposited in the river. We forgot that the extraordinary fertility of this region was because of this same alluvial silt, which was spread over the land by the inundating waters. With silt in its bed, the flow was reduced and floods increased. When the embankments broke or breached, flood duration increased because the water could not drain away. Worse, the engineering walls led people to believe that they were protected from floods. As a result, low lying areas got populated. Then when the wall broke, the flood hit hard.

In doing all this, explained Anil Agarwal, we messed up the drainage system of the region. We merrily filled up the water bodies, which were the sponges for its floodwater and forgot the ‘dead’ channels of the river, through which the water gushed away. We believed these were unnecessary. We forgot how the wetlands provided food in the flood season—from fish to plant biodiversity. We forgot because first, we were hungry for land. Then, we were greedy for the money we would make from these engineering marvels, which were repaired on paper and half built, for full money. Corruption became the way of life. In all this, we forgot that we had once learnt to ‘live’ with floods.

But when he wrote this, Anil Agarwal was pilloried and mocked; the environmental lobby even accused him of playing into the timber contractor’s hand. All because he said that we should stop blaming the mountains for the floods in the plains. It was time we understood that the forests of the Himalayas were needed for the people who lived there. But the forests in this fragile and extremely young and erosion-prone region would not stop the floods in the plains. To ‘stop’ the floods, we had to re-learn the science and art of water management. The water engineers rubbished this saying they knew better. They had the answers. All I can say, we wish they were right.

We have to now understand that we are faced with a double whammy—floods will increase also because the pattern of rainfall is going on a twist. Climate change is making rain more unseasonal, erratic and intense in many parts of the country. ‘Coping’ with floods will become even more difficult now.

So what we can do without is the deadly combination of arrogance and ignorance. Instead, we can do with some learning. And a lot of doing.

—Sunita Narain