Sunday, April 25, 2010

Kosi Embankments – an elephant in the room

It is impossible to talk about floods in Bihar without talking about the embankments being built around its rivers. The embankments are “an elephant in room” which everybody knows about, understands and can see, but refuses to acknowledge - either its presence or its impact.

When we went to Bihar, and we talked to people about the August 2008 floods, it became more and more clear that this particular floods, which were highlighted so much in the press, is the least of their problems. We found out, by talking to the people, that the Kosi has breached its embankments several times, eight times to be exact, earlier, and the people living along this river have repeatedly been subjected to the impacts of river in spate rushing out. It became clear that life in Bihar could very clearly be demarcated – life before the embankments and life after the embankments.

The rivers in Bihar come rushing down the Himalayas, bringing with them silt laden waters that flood and spread during summer and monsoon. The floods would spread over a large area, leaving behind filled up tanks and ponds and a layer of live-giving silt that rejuvenated the agricultural lands. The people would have to “manage” living during the flood-season which was about 2-3 weeks in a year which they had learnt, understanding the rhythm of the rivers.

However, during the “modern development” and growth period, the government decided to “fix” this problem by building embankments on both sides of the Kosi, thus forcing her to flow inside it. The solution worked – but only for a little while. Before long, the embankments became one of the biggest problems of the people living along the river. The silt brought down by the river, kept filling the channel up and thus raising the height of river. Today we can see the river flowing 8-10 ft above the ground-level – a sure recipe for disaster.

Every engineer, scientist, technologist knows one fact about embankments – that they will breach. It is a given fact, corroborated with experiences from all over the world. The problem then is what happens when the embankments breach? In people’s language “Kosi used to come like a cat before, now she comes like a tigress”. The river’s force has become destructive and damages thousands of houses and structures, fills the lands with sand and silt and costs the government and the people millions of rupees.

The problem does not end there. The biggest problem is that there is nothing that can done now, except live with the embankments. For the 300 and odd villages within the embankments, life is uncertain at the best and death and loss of livelihood certain at the worst. For the other many villages along the embankments, people live in constant threat and fear of an embankment breach.

The embankments have brought with them long-term problems. The whole drainage in the region has been upset and the monsoon waters have nowhere to go. This has meant water-logging of thousands of hectares of land. Where earlier these regions were agricultural lands, they have, over the decades, become “wetlands”. There is a change in the whole eco-system. Habitats have changed.

Reconstruction under such circumstances has become a way of life. Discussions on Habitat planning, development and design rendered useless when faced with the issue of the River embankments.

Scientists have argued that a Technological solution is not the problem. That it is imperative and goes without saying that embankments have to be maintained and a lack of maintenance is bound to create breaches and the resulting impacts.

What line does a discussion on Sustainability have to take, under such circumstances, where a Technological solution has created a perpetual disaster for the people – and especially those who are the most vulnerable, poor and the marginalized. A 'man-made' solution that has been violent, unjust, unsustainable and that has totally eliminated a peoples’ way of life.

All discussions on Disaster Reconstruction, Recovery and Rehabilitation skirt around the issue. The guidelines and the policies do not acknowledge the root cause of an unsolvable problem, but continue to posit further, similar ‘technological’ solutions.

How does one reconcile the contradiction in the situation where a solution by the “government + expert” combine have imposed a perpetual disaster on the people on one hand and on the other, as they now come with ‘support’ and ‘assistance’ and talk about people’s participation, ‘earthquake safety norms’, disaster-proofing and sustainability?