This is part of a special series from thethirdpole.net exploring the management of Asia’s transboundary rivers – based on field research by journalists from India, Nepal and Bangladesh, in partnership with the Asia Foundation and Skoll Global Threats Fund.
– Engineering disasters: Reporting from along Asia’s shared rivers
– Photo essay: The nowhere people
– Protests scupper India-Nepal dam
– Farakka barrage leads to water crisis in Bangladesh
As the call to prayer echoed through the desolate, sand-covered landscape in the Muslim neighbourhood of Kusaha village, Sunsari district in the Terai plains of southern Nepal, Sadrul Masuri recalled the day he ran for his life. He wasn’t chased by the wild elephants that are common here, nor was he fleeing any human attacker. He was running from a surging river.
On August 18, 2008, the Koshi abruptly changed its course and breached its embankments at Kusaha, inundating densely populated swathes of land in south-eastern Nepal and north Bihar in India. An estimated 50,000 people were displaced in Nepal and more than three million in India. That afternoon, like the days before, hundreds of people had gathered near the embankments as news and rumours swirled around about the impending breach of the Koshi.
From the chaos of embankment, Masuri, the patriarch of a family of 14, drove almost parallel to the tidal wave that submerged everything including his two-story cement home, leaving behind a trail of devastation. His fears subsided only after he made it to Laukahi in Bihar near the Nepal border, where his family had found shelter a day before.
Tens of thousands of stranded people needed relief, food and medical care. A couple of days later, helicopters buzzed overhead. Masuri says the boatmen did brisk business in the wake of the calamity: they charged up to 5,000 rupees (US$50) to ferry goods from peoples’ homes to safer places.
The waters of the Koshi have long receded, but the memory of the mayhem hasn’t.
Six years later, as he stood amid the ruins of the devastation, Masuri lamented the lack of rehabilitation efforts on the part of the government. “We cannot grow crops here, it’s covered with sands. There are no alternatives, so we are left on our own,” says Masuri, a contractor.
This was the biggest flood in the Koshi in decades. The Nepal government and dozens of international aid agencies rushed to provide relief to the flood victims.
A local social activist, however, claimed a sort of disaster economy evolved after the floods. “Lack of coordination among the donors led to unnecessary expenses. In some cases, more amount of money was spent on transportation and daily allowance for the relief workers than the cost of relief materials,” says Rabindra Ghimire, an environmental activist who is also with the Nepal Red Cross Society, Sunsari.
“This also led to the donor dependency among the survivors,” Ghimire says, adding that most people received compensation for the loss of crops and other hand-outs. He pointed out that survivors still haven’t switched to other forms of farming such as watermelon, which can be grown in flood affected places.
Embankments divide and destroy
About 300 kilometres downstream in the village of Sunder Virajit in Madhubani district, Bihar, Deonath Deo grapples with a different sort of agrarian crisis caused by the embankments on the Koshi River.
After the floods of 1954 which prompted the construction of the Koshi Barrage and embankments, Deo’s father migrated to the village of Sripur in Supaul district beyond the Koshi’s eastern embankments. But since then, the region hasn’t experienced floods.
Each monsoon, the Koshi used to bring one hundred million cubic metres of gravel, sand and mud and deposit it on the alluvial plains. But the embankments have held back the nutritious silt, crucial for arable land, Deo says.
Another embankment on the Kamala River has also blocked the river’s drainage system, he adds. “Since then we have been forced to live in waterlogged areas. This used to be a fertile land, which was nourished by the silt brought by the floods. But the embankments prevented it, making us poor,” Deo says.
Many farmers migrated to big cities because agricultural production, once very high, saw a steady decline, according to Kameshwar Kamati, a local social activist with grassroots NGO Barh Mukti Abhiyan in the district of Madhubani, Bihar.
For centuries, the Koshi River, which flows across about 200 kilometres of the northern Bihar plains, symbolised prosperity. The farmers had not only learnt to live with the floods, they welcomed it with open arms, for it brought nutrients for the soil, contributing to rich harvest.
But ever since the politicians and bureaucrats attempted to control the river by building embankments—raised mud and sand structures that double as roads along the river — it has become a metaphor for Bihar’s backwardness.
“Koshi used to inundate this region before the embankments were built. But farmers coped with it. After the construction of embankments, floods have occurred due to breaches. But the breach of embankment isn’t caused by rain, it occurs due to bad governance,” Kamati says. “Those who benefit from the project, […] they are very powerful both in bureaucracy and in public life. Any dissent was swiftly suppressed. Only a small fraction of people are against embankments. There’s no organised movement [against the embankment],” he says.
The embankments of the Koshi are home to around one million people living in 386 sprawling villages.
While those living outside the embankments suffer from water-logging and poor quality soil, those living inside court danger. There are schools, buildings and temples inside the embankments. The embankments themselves have become sites of commerce and transport, with small, bustling bazaars set up to cash in on the flow of people.
People living inside the embankments have developed several coping mechanisms. “I live inside it because farming is better,” says 50-year-old farmer Kamal Yadav. He fears the flood but says he would rush to higher ground. Fleeing from floods doesn’t mean much in the plains: you either rush to the embankments or to the government-built flood centres, which can protect up to 200 people. Santalal Mandal, a village headman, offers a more straightforward answer: “Those who live outside the embankment fear the most, not us.”
Embankments give a false sense of security, according to the social activist Kamati. “When the Koshi breached its embankments in 2008, it returned to its old channel, which had not experienced flooding for many years. People even didn’t know how to swim. They had no idea about the floodwaters, or its magnitude,” he says.
A version of this article was first published on My Republica.