The Making of the 2008 Koshi Disaster


Analytical Monthly Review, published in Kharagpur, West Bengal, India, is a sister edition of Monthly Review.  Its September 2008 issue features the following editorial. — Ed.

We know that the immediate future holds the certainty of severe climate change, and an ever increasing strain on not only the much publicised issue of reserves of fossil fuels but also on the basic vital environmental resource of fresh water.  Nowhere in the world is the margin so slight between the daily life of tens of crores and mass disaster as in the plains and deltas of the Ganges and Brahmaputra.  A storm or a draught, excessive or inadequate rainfall, will have a “natural” cause, but the ensuing disaster — and even more the response — is the product of social practices and historical events.  A clear instance is the flooding of the River Koshi, and the resulting massive disaster over half of Bihar and the Sunsari district of Nepal.  Parts of Assam and Orissa, as well as much of West Bengal and the nation of Bangladesh, also face flooding in almost every monsoon.  Though there may be reasons for events that depend on the unique geography of a sub-region, the common environment and social history entail a shared danger, and require a shared response if ever more terrible disasters are not to overwhelm the region — however remote the prospect of rational social action may appear at the moment.  But first the myth must be demolished that immediately declares the climate event a natural calamity, for which the rulers are not responsible and about which nothing can be done except some temporary relief.

The Koshi River is notorious for its unstable dynamic character, and for its frequent floods.  The river drains the southern face of the Himalaya through the entire eastern third of Nepal, from the Nepal border with Sikkim and the Kanchenjunga massif west to the regions north of the Kathmandu valley.  The Koshi enters Bihar and merges into Ganges.  The steady gradual erosion of the relatively “young” Himal mountain chain occurs throughout the immense fan-shaped drainage basin, and the river Koshi carries a part of this load as sediment.  This sediment is deposited every year in the Nepali Terai and Bihar where the river slows down after racing through the mountain valleys.  As silt accumulates the previous route of the river is blocked, floods result, and the river finds new channels to meet the Ganges.  In historical time the river has moved over great distances; in the last 250 years the Koshi has shifted over a distance of 112 kms from Purnea in the east to Saharsa in the west.  The question of whether or not to try to capture the river within embankments so as to check the shift as well as to control flood became a subject of discussion long before Independence.  It was well understood early in the 20th century that the existence of embankments often increased the adverse effect of floods.  Absent embankments floods were frequent but not severe, the land benefited from the sediment deposited, and housing could be constructed on slightly higher ground (or even on stilts) so as to remain habitable in all but the most severe floods.  The 1937 Bihar Flood Conference centered on the “Embankments versus No embankments” debate.

Two characteristics of the new Indian governing class after Independence set the course that resulted in the Koshi disaster of 2008: the illusory pursuit of development without social revolution by means of gigantic technological projects (such as massive dams), and the imposition of (sub)imperialist control over the Himalayan nations of Nepal, Sikkim, and Bhutan.   In 1950 an ambitious multipurpose project was prepared to moderate floods, generate hydropower, to irrigate land in both India and Nepal, and provide navigation facilities in a reservoir and the river downstream.  The project envisioned that the land to be flooded and the barrages to be built would all be on the Nepal side of the border.  Obtaining agreement from Nepal was obviously a problem, but in 1954 the Nepal government of M.P. Koirala, generally agreed to be the most subservient government to India in the second half of the 20th century, was compelled to sign the Koshi agreement.  The Indians obtained “extraterritorial” rights within Nepal.

The barrage building engineering knowledge was wholly based on rivers of Europe and North America not subject to extensive silting.  And the project was inaugurated in March 1955 by the President of India, who had himself expressed the view in 1937 Bihar Flood Conference that the silt brought down by a river descending from the Himalayan range would be on a scale different from anything experienced elsewhere.  The Koshi was barraged at Bhimnagar on the Nepal-India border, and management entrusted explicitly and exclusively to the Government of Bihar.  Long levees were built on both sides upstream of the barrage to guide the water to the barrage, there to feed two large irrigation canals.  Downstream, another 125 km of embankments were constructed to the south to safeguard eastern Bihar from floods.  For 50 years the Koshi has deposited its silt, which previously had been deposited over a wide region, on its bed between the confining embankments.  As the bed was raised, the embankments were raised as well.  And by a gradual but inexorable process, the Koshi came to flow on what was now a plateau up to five metres higher than the surrounding plains of Terai and Bihar.

As a result of these measures, 386 villages spread across the four districts of Saharsa, Supaul, Madhubani, and Darbhanga, and over eight lakhs of cultivators were trapped within the embankments of the Koshi, whose waters pass over these villages every year at the end of the monsoon.  This is a land of utter misery, lacking electricity, roads, hospitals, cinema house, bank, block, or any other government office.  And outside the embankments the flood control measures have been a total failure.  Eklavya Prasad of Megh Pyne Abhiyan, a recognized expert, has estimated that the flood-prone area of Bihar has tripled since the construction of the Koshi barrage.  The record of the Government of Bihar in maintaining the embankments has been one of scandalous corruption and failure.  Embankments were 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.  For the Bihari politicians the resulting floods were a welcome opportunity for theft and extortion.

On August 18, 2008, and at a time of relatively moderate flow of the Koshi, the embankment was breached in Western Kusaha Panchayat in Nepal.  The Government of Bihar failed to respond, and this time the damage became in all probability irreversible.  The Koshi spilled out of the plateau it had been permitted to build and immediately inundated four Panchayats of Sunsari district in Nepal, with a population of some 35,000.  The river now spread out to the east through Bihar, seeking its old channels on its way to the Ganges.  Blocked on the west from its bed by its towering embankments, and from a direct route to the south by raised roadways, the river created an inland sea.  The Koshi did not break through to the Ganges until well into September.  By this time official sources acknowledged that 35 lakh people have been flooded out, and the true figure is surely far higher.  The response of the Bihar and Union governments has been worse than inadequate, verging on the criminal.  Deaths number in the thousands, and continue in the improvised camps where water and food are scarce, and disease flourishes.  As you can see, neither the flood nor the response were a “natural calamity” but one squarely the result of the acts and omissions of the rulers of India and Bihar over the last fifty years, continuing to this very moment.

In this stench of death and failure of the Indian post-Independence regime, came the first hint of a better future.  Nepal Prime Minister Prachanda said after a visit to Sunsari, one of his first tasks as PM, that the Indo-Nepal Treaty of 1954 was”a historical blunder.”  Indian promises to Nepal in the 1954 Koshi agreement (and its subsequent amendments) of benefits have without exception turned out to be lies.  The irrigated land lies (today submerged) within India, “concessional” electric power is charged for at high rates, payment for Nepali lands submerged or leased has not been made after many decades,  promised roads were not built by India, and maintenance of the embankments — and the embankments themselves — collapsed.  See SB Pun, “Kosi River: From ‘Sorrow of Bihar’ to ‘Sorrow of Nepal?'” Spotlight, Sept 5, 2008.

It is not only the embankments that have been breached, the 1954 Koshi agreement — an unequal treaty if ever there were one — has been breached as well.  Under international law it is now no more than a scrap of paper.  There is no hope for a rational solution to the dramatic challenges of the ecological water crisis from the criminal gang of bourgeois Bihari politicians, from deranged giant dam proponents, from Chidambaram&Co, from the “cross-fire” murdering generals of Bangladesh, or from the gentle hands of the Sangh Parivar.  But Nepal is a necessary participant in any water plan; that is where the rivers commence.  When Prachanda sits down to renegotiate the water treaties he will be representing not only Nepal, but the hopes of all in the region for a better future.  Yet ultimately if we are successfully to manage the looming environmental water disaster it shall require a radical change in the balance of class forces in society in both India and Bangladesh; we can hope that Nepal will light the path.

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