“Bihar’s flood control methods short-sighted”
Times of India, New Delhi – Aug 17, 1999
SAHARSA: Bihar has been facing floods since time immemorial, but the situation seems to be getting worse with each passing year as the state tries to tame the deluge with misplaced engineering responses, neglecting conventional wisdom.
Though the state defends its flood control policies, it abdicates responsibility when nature takes revenge. It wants to obstruct and exercise control over the river regime but not use floods to its advantage through better land use and planning, experts say. The thrust is to construct and not conserve, with disastrous results.
At the beginning of the plan period in 1952 the flood-prone area in the state was pegged at 2.5 million hectares, which had grown to 6.89 million hectares by 1994. Seventeen per cent (nine million hectares) of Bihar's land area is now permanently waterlogged.
Since 1955, the year the Bihar government initiated flood-control works, about Rs 375 crore has been spent on constructing embankments, the only intervention in the name of flood control in the state and more than Rs 700 crore on its maintenance. Yet every year floods in Bihar, especially in north, claim many lives and inflict huge losses to crops and property and crores of rupees are spent on flood control measures and relief and rehabilitation operations.
When time comes to fix responsibility for the disaster, the state government terms it as act of god and/or blames Nepal of playing foul by releasing a very heavy discharge, of floodwater. This is probably done to divert attention from its own water resources department's failures, says Barh Mukti Abhiyan (BMA) convenor D K Mishra.
Even as the problem lies somewhere else, the state government merrily states that deforestation in Nepal (Himalayas) is the root cause of the flood problem in Bihar (plains), he says.
Broadly, however, flood-control measures, that is the construction of embankments, initiated after the country's independence by the state government merely substituted the problem of flooding with one of water logging. To add to it is the ever present threat of flooding caused by a breach in the embankment or the river overflowing it. Very frequently these two mix to produce a deadly cocktail, Mishra says.
In either situation, water logging or flood, the problem is acutely compounded by drainage congestion. While water logging makes the land unfit for agriculture, flood water not being able to recede for a ong time also destroys crops.
“Focus needs to be shifted from controlling floods to draining floods," says Ajay Dixit of the Nepal Water Conservation Foundation. In pre-embankment times, floodwater occupied land for about a week, now it stands for months. Earlier, flood constituted a thin film of about six inches now it could be as high as six feet.
Then floods were used to irrigate and fertilise fields in a perfectly sustainable manner. Cultivators welcomed the waters as it left behind a rich deposit of silt, invaluable for crops. Now floods are a curse.