In conversation with nature

“There is a special type of black ant that is visible just before (and during) the onset of heavy rains. They start coming out of the ground in large numbers with their eggs in their mouths and only travel in a straight line, like a railway track,” informs Chandrika Mahato, a keen observer of nature, when asked how he predicts rains and floods.

Mahato is like a number of people living in the floodplains of the Gandaki river in West Champaran district of Bihar. The Gandak, a highly flood-prone river, originates in Nepal and flows through the state of Bihar.

This paper, When the river talks to its people: Local knowledge-based flood forecasting in Gandak river basin, India published in the journal Environmental Development informs that people living in floodplains of the river are frequently exposed to the wrath of the river and have a deep knowledge of impending signs of floods and mechanisms to cope with them.

This knowledge, however, continues to be undocumented and ignored at the policy level while the existing centralised/official flood prediction systems are inadequate to understand the true impact of floods on the population.

The paper discusses the findings of a study that documents the methods used by local communities to forecast floods and rainfall from Nautan block of West Champaran district in Bihar and their relevance for flood forecasting at the policy level.

Watching for signs of floods

Local men and women identify and pick up very subtle signals from the behaviour of the river and its surrounding environment through a number of indicators:

Phenomenological: Related to human sensations such as seeing, hearing, feeling

Sounds that feet make in the water, sensations of excess humidity and heat are used to judge the arrival of heavy rains and floods. Halla or noise is used as an important warning indicator of rising waters in the village. When floods start reaching the nearest house, the residents start shouting that gets picked by neighbouring households and then spreads throughout the village. Shouts often mention the names of people whose houses grain storage structures and cattle are affected, giving an idea on the nature and intensity of floods. Noise created from the collapse of mud and bamboo grain storage structures also help locals to judge the intensity of floods and the damage done.

Ecological: Based on the observation of changes in the behaviour of animals and insects

Keen observation of nature helps locals identify subtle changes in the weather such as the sudden emergence of barsaati keeda i.e. certain insects that emerge during the rains, a sudden proliferation in their numbers or some changes in their behaviour. Animal behaviour also provides queues as well. For example, the croaking of a peela mendak (yellow-bellied frog) is considered to be a common indicator of imminent heavy rains and floods. This frog is often referred to as byagarbyang by older women in the village. Appearance of another smaller variety of a frog referred to as bengchi is also an indicator of imminent rains and the frog is believed to make a tremendous amount of noise in case of heavy rains or floods.

Riverine: Based on keen observation of the river

People use different methods to measure the increasing water levels in the Gandak. The most common being the aar/kinara, where the edge of the river bank is used as an indicator. If the river water touches the edge of the riverbank, it is considered safe. A flood is predicted the moment the river water tips over the edge of the bank. Water levels are watched and measured rigorously during the monsoons. For this, a khuta (a long piece of wood) or a laga (long bamboo pole) is planted on the riverbed, near the bank. Persons who have farms near the bank keep an eye on the nishan (mark of the water level) and update it and communicate any rise in level to everyone at the market. This is done daily and is triangulated with information from the radio on water release from the Gandak barrage upstream in Nepal.

Observation of the colour and appearance of the river, such as a refreshed or a healthy appearance, loss in transparency or change in colour to ochre or yellow is used to predict imminent floods. The behaviour of fish such as Baikhi is also observed for signs of floods. When Baikhi gets close to clearer/fresher water, they start to jump to enter the smaller streams, the jump indicative of imminent floods. Women have a better understanding of ecological indicators than men.

Meteorological: Based on the observation of patterns of winds, clouds

Rainfall patterns are also gauged by looking at the colour, shape/form and direction of clouds. Light coloured clouds are thought to bring rain.

Celestial: Observation of rain-related constellations

Constellations are also observed for predicting rains and floods.

Government indicators to predict floods

For the local community, the nature of the floods has changed from being dependent on heavy rainfall to large volumes of water released from the Gandak Barrage upstream at Valmiki Nagar. The dependence on formal sources of information, such as radio and newspapers, which track water releases from the barrage, has increased in the last few decades. Although radio and newspapers track water releases from the barrage, it is unclear how information travels to a radio station, newspapers, and government officials. At the district level, information reaches the district magistrate who passes it on to the block development officer (BDO) and district superintendent of police (DSP).

The BDO shares this information with the village headman and others with cell phones. The person in charge at the block police station receives information from the District Police Headquarters who alerts the village chowkidar on his mobile phone. The Bihar Water Resources Department also provides information to the village, which they get directly from the barrage. The Junior Engineer (JE) informs the local embankment chowkidar to alert people. Announcements are also made from the local police station, and a police constable goes around the villages alerting people. The embankment chowkidar also shouts out an alert, when he receives information of a possible flood situation from the JE.

If the risk is significant, the local police station communicates alerts directly where a police constable moves through the villages using a hired vehicle and alerts people about the arrival of floods using a loudspeaker. Thus three different people in a village—the village chief, police guard and embankment guard—receive official information and are responsible for its circulation.

This information has many limitations in terms of quality, level of detail and specificity of data. Also, most of this information flows through men, excluding women and their experiences from playing a role in generating flood forecasting knowledge and a gendered understanding of its development and circulation.

Way forward

Locals base their knowledge of flood forecasting by triangulating official indicators with their own knowledge on ecological, riverine, and other indicators to increase reliability and make decisions. It is also coupled with knowledge available through television, mobile phones and newspapers. Centralised official systems of flood forecasting, on the contrary, are gender blind, have a number of limitations and often isolate themselves from local knowledge.

The paper ends by arguing that it is time local knowledge is given the credit it deserves and better communication and coordination between flood forecasting scientists and local knowledge holders can go a long way in generating information and designing coping strategies for people living in flood-prone areas.

The paper can be accessed from here