Embankments in Bihar: The inapt and futile defence against floods

An embankment in Madhubani after a week of repairing (Source: Santosh Yadav via IWP Flickr albums)
An embankment in Madhubani after a week of repairing (Source: Santosh Yadav via IWP Flickr albums)

What is the history of floods in Bihar and why is it prone to floods?

Floods in Bihar is an annual phenomenon and in the past few decades, there isn’t a single year when the state did not experience floods. It witnessed some of the major floods in the last six decades that caused unprecedented damage and loss of lives. In 1954, a major flood struck north Bihar affecting an area of 2.46 million hectares and a population of 7.61 million. 

Map showing flood zones in Bihar (Source: NIDM, 2007)

Yet again, in 1974 another major flood hit the state, which was not restricted to just the northern part of the state but was also felt in the southern districts, affecting 16.39 million people. In 1987, the worst recorded flood of the twentieth century battered the state; it came in five spells and killed 1373 people. 

The year 2004 and 2007 also witnessed major floods and in August 2008, the massive Kosi river flood hit the state. The flood that engulfed half the state and is considered to have caused the highest damage in five decades of flood history in Bihar, was the result of an embankment breach in Nepal. 

Post bifurcation, Bihar has become the most flood-prone area in the country in terms of percentage of land susceptible to flooding. Total flood-prone area of the state is 68.80 lakh hectares which accounts for 73.06 percent of its total geographical area and 17.2 percent of the total flood-prone area in the country. Bihar falls under the flood zone of the Ganga-Brahmaputra basin and its location coupled with hydrometeorology, hydrology, geomorphology and topography makes it one of the worst flood-affected regions in the world.

Ganga river enters the state from the west and flows towards the east. A large number of rivers-- Ghagra, Gandak, Burhi Gandak, Bagmati, Adhwara group of rivers, Kamla, Kosi (also known as ‘the sorrow of Bihar’) and Mahananda joins the Ganga. These rivers are notorious for changing their course, forming a delta and affecting the deposition of sediment. Most of these rivers enter northern plains of Bihar from Nepal where their bed slopes are very sharp. Because of a sudden drop in bed slope, silt brought by the flow of these rivers get deposited at their base and become the major cause of recurring floods in the Bihar plains. Moreover, floods in North Bihar are not an independent physical event. Instead, these are a cycle of interdependent natural events and processes such as year-round rain wash of mountains resulting into the spread of sediments in the lower reaches by river spills, groundwater situation, storages in water bodies, surface detentions, waterlogging, drainage, deforestation, concentrated rainfall etc. 

 The flat topography of Bihar, water and sediments brought by rivers originating from Nepal and the average rainfall of 1200 mm, which ranges from 1000 to 2000 mm makes Bihar vulnerable to floods. 

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What are river embankments? Why were they built?

An embankment (levee) is an artificial bank built along banks of a river to protect adjacent land from inundation by a flood. It is usually earthen and parallel to the course of a river. The embankments or ‘bunds’ vary in nature and function under a variety of situations. Some embankments are made from compacted soil, but many are made from readily available sand and stones dug from riverbeds. Large embankments are often buttressed with spurs (projections that slow the flow of water), gabion boxes filled with boulders and sandbags.

It was in the 1850s that the British undertook the ambitious project – the embankment of a section of the Damodar river, west of the colonial capital Calcutta (now Kolkata) to protect a new railway line. However, due to the inability of embankments to prevent floods, they were demolished within a decade of their construction. Following this, the idea of embanking the rivers received official opposition, which did not last long. In 1953, the embankments gained favour once again after a devastating flood hit the Kosi. This led to public pressure for the government to act. The government initially decided to build a dam but the idea was rejected due to financial infeasibility and the proposal to construct embankments was given a go-ahead.

The decision ignored the serious problems the embankments cause which was very well pointed out when engineers from India visited the Yellow River in China and the Mississippi in the United States to assess the feasibility of embanking large rivers and in 1955 the embankment construction along Kosi river commenced.  

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Are the river embankments helpful in tackling floods in the state?

At present, the country has 35,199.86 kilometres of embankments along the rivers that are claimed to protect 1.8693 million hectares of flooded land. Apart from this, there are dams, drainage channels raised villages and platforms for flood protection, but despite so much of work, the flood-affected area of the country has risen from 25 million hectares (mha) in 1952 to 40 mha in 1980 and at 49.815 mha by 2010, as estimated by the Working Group on Flood Management set up by the Planning Commission for the Twelfth Five-Year Plan.

This shows that the efforts being made against flood protection are causing more harm than good and there is a need for a policy change. 

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Why do embankments fail to provide flood protection?

Life submerged within the embankment area (Source: India Water Portal Hindi)Rivers flowing from the higher reaches carry a high amount of sediments, such as the Kosi river which drains from the Eastern Himalayas. When these rivers enter the plains from the hills, the sediments get settled in the river beds causing the river water level to rise and in case the river is free-flowing it meanders to lower ground and the river water laden with sediments spreads far and wide thus making the soil fertile. 

But if the river is embanked, its water level gets elevated and many times it spills the embankments unless they are outfitted with ever-higher embankments or are continually dredged, both of which are expensive to implement. Moreover, the pressure created by the elevating river also causes the embankments to breach leading to flash floods in areas outside the embankments. The floods occurring due to embankment breach tend to be more destructive than floods on un-embanked rivers. 

Also, the embankments obstruct the water from retreating into an embanked river resulting in prolonging of floods and waterlogging. Although some embankments are outfitted with drainage pipes to address this problem, the pipes usually fail to function properly. In Bihar, for example, the Kosi project was originally designed to protect over 2000 square kilometres. By the 1990s, over 3000 square kilometres had become waterlogged.

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What are the implications of embankments other than causing floods and devastation?

People who sacrificed their lands for the building of the embankments are facing the problem of lands becoming unproductive. Much of their land has become prone to waterlogging after the construction of the embankments rendering them useless. Along with this, the river water from the higher reaches bring nutrients with it which gets deposited in the floodplains and hence enhances the fertility of the land but due to the presence of embankments now, the nutrient deposition does not take place affecting the fertility of the land. The presence of embankments also prohibits the formation of new habitats as the lateral movement of the river gets reduced.

The building of embankments has also resulted in insider versus outsider problem, where outsiders get more privileges during flood relief and rescue efforts. As the river could not be embanked too closely, nearly 304 villages were left within the embankment, at the mercy of floods, during the construction of Kosi embankment in 1955. However, following several protests, the villagers were provided rehabilitation outside embankments, but their farmlands continued to be inside the embankment. The impractical solution made the people stay within the embankments only and now the insiders who thrived formerly due to their fertile land are left poor, unemployed and helpless.   

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What government initiatives have been taken to tackle embankment breach?

The Government of Bihar devised the Irrigation, Flood Management and Drainage Rules in 2003, which has been amended in 2015, 2016 and 2017. The rules outline the action plan for pre, during and post floods for the state. Along with this, the state disaster management department has a detailed standard operating procedure (SOPs) for floods. Besides, the state has also prepared a roadmap for disaster risk reduction 2015-2030 and the Bihar State Water Policy, 2014 has a section dedicated to 'management of flood and drought'.

Repair work being carried out (Source: WRD Bihar Twitter))As per the Flood Management Rules, the officials must carry out flood protection works before the next flood season based on the river behaviour in the antecedent flood period. Regular, round the year inspection of embankments, need to be carried out and identification of vulnerable sites having cracks, erosion or holes should be identified. Based on this, expeditious action is to be taken on a war footing. During the flood season, the officials shall undertake intensive patrolling, especially of the vulnerable sites for the protection of embankments. 

Along with this, the officials should ensure:

  • Quick dissemination of flood communication, 
  • Round the clock functioning of Central Flood Control Cell, 
  • Availability of flood-fighting materials and 
  • Dissemination of weekly reports on rainfall trend, gauge readings and area flooded.  

In the case of embankment breach, the engineers responsible are supposed to start acting immediately to hold both the cut ends at breach point and to close the breach. However, according to Mahendra Yadav, a resident of Supaul and a member of National Alliance of People's Movements (NAPM) Bihar, “A breach in the embankment cannot be plugged during the monsoon season of heavy rainfall. And, plugging is just like a band-aid solution, as embankments keep breaching every other year”.

Despite the above-mentioned rules and SOPs, the state is affected by floods every year implying that the rules are on papers only and to mitigate flood disaster there is need for proper implementation of the SOPs or devising of another strategy. 

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Regardless of the failure of embankment strategy to control floods, governments have continued to build them. Why?

According to Dinesh Kumar Mishra of Barh Mukhti Abhiyan (BMA), an organisation fighting for flood victims in Bihar, construction and maintenance of embankments was and is being used as an excuse to divert funds into the pockets of the corrupt. Moreover, the fact that embankments exacerbate the intensity of floods and the multiplying costs of construction and repair have built up a politician-engineer-contractor nexus. These people share a strong vested interest in "development" projects, particularly since embankments can get washed away in the floods.

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Are there practical alternatives to embankments to tackle floods?

Embankments are a part of the flood defence strategy that calls for reducing the probability of floods through infrastructure works. There are alternative materials like geotube embankments and structural options such as boulder spurs which are firmer than embankments but costly. To prevent floods, several nature-based bioengineering measures are also being implemented which use living plant materials to create fencing structures at the river bank. 

However, floods in Bihar are a natural phenomenon that cannot be prevented but at the same time, they need not turn into a disaster. For this, the state needs to have a flood risk protection and mitigation strategy to reduce the consequences of floods by lowering the exposure of people to floods and enhancing flood-resilience of the vulnerable areas.

Along with this, the state needs to improve its flood preparedness -

  • By upgrading its flood forecasting, which should be location-specific, sufficiently in advance, in simple language and should reach the vulnerable people; 
  • Providing accurate rainfall information specific to sub-basins; 
  • Prepare a functional disaster management plan with the involvement of vulnerable people;
  • Assessing the flood-carrying capacity of rivers at various locations;
  • Preparing inundation maps of various flow regimes and devising emergency action plans based on such flow regimes;
  • Improved evacuation plan;
  • Flood-proof housing;
  • More relief camps so that people are not left homeless and they do not resort to highways or embankments for safety; and
  • Post-floods, devising a flood analysis report of the disaster that struck and how it was tackled.

Also, there is a need for a better post-flood recovery strategy in terms of speedy reconstruction, compensation and insurance. 

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People’s voices

Breach of embankments causes floods, waterlogging and disrupts the life of the people living in flood-prone regions. The implications of embankment-induced floods are quite known but it is imperative to understand the plight of the people and what kind of support they receive from the government during the flood season. 

*This section based on interaction with people from flood-prone areas of Bihar informs us of how much needs to be done to deal with the annual apathy. 

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During which time of the year, do you experience floods and how does it affect you?

We receive floods between July and September with the advent of the monsoon season. Floods cause heavy damage to crops. Moreover, when the floodwater inundates our houses, it spoils the grains and causes a shortage of food and water, so we have to take refuge either in relief camps or on embankments for several days. We can return to our derelict houses only after the floodwater recedes and to make the houses liveable, we need to spend money which adds to our financial woes.

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In the last few years, do you see any government initiatives being taken to tackle the floods in the region?

No major initiative has been taken to prevent floods lately. Every year the government takes up work to strengthen the embankments before the advent of the monsoon season. Other than this, no major scheme has been launched in the last few years.

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What measures do you take to stay safe during the floods when your houses are submerged underwater?

During floods, we take two precautionary measures. First of all, we keep wooden chowkis as the essential household item and whenever the floodwater enters the house, we put all the necessary items on the chowki and stay on it to keep ourselves safe. If we feel that the floodwaters may rise further in the coming days, we leave the house and settle in the tarpaulins along the banks of the nearby embankment. While leaving the house, we are unable to take all the household items, but we carry food grains, clothes and utensils for cooking.

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Children taking water from a submerged handpump (Image source: Prabhat Khabar)How do you ensure safe water and sanitation at the time of floods?

At the time of floods, we do not even have food, leave alone safe water and sanitation. There are hardly any toilets available on the embankments, as a result, we defecate in the open. For water, we are dependent on the handpumps on the embankments. In case of lack of a handpump, we bring water from tubewells in the nearby village.

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Do you get any compensation for the losses you suffer during the floods?

We get compensation for two-three kinds of losses--house damage, death of a family member and crop damage. Except for the compensation in case of loss of life during flood disaster, we hardly receive the compensation for the other two and even if we do get it, it is negligible. 

Compensation depends on the assessment report of the visiting officer. Often it happens that house damage is not mentioned in the assessment report, in that case, we do not get any compensation. The assessment of crop loss is even more disappointing. If we lose crops worth rupees one lakh, then we receive compensation of only 20 to 30 thousand rupees. However, this year we received 6000 rupees in our bank account as an immediate benefit.

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Do you feel that river embankments are the cause of floods in your area?

No. It’s not like that. Floods occurred even when there were no embankments. But, after the building of embankments, the floodwater inundation has been prolonged and the damage due to flooding is greater. The embankments have set boundaries for the river, which otherwise was free to flow, and therefore the water gets stored in a limited space. When the discharge of river increases due to heavy rains, many times the embankments break, resulting in floodwater entering the villages at high speed and causing heavy losses.

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How often is maintenance work carried out to ensure no breaching of river embankments during the monsoon season?

Repair of embankments takes place more or less every year, but mostly the repair work is not up to the mark due to which the embankments often break during the monsoon season. When the embankments break, we inform the concerned officer about it, then the repair work is carried out.

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After the floods recede, how many days does it take to reach normalcy?

We can return to our houses only when the floodwaters recede completely. Our mud floors get fully damaged due to floodwater and need repairing. We are peasant-labourers and do not have enough money to get it done immediately.

We take loans to repair the house and for re-sowing our fields, then to pay off the debt, we have to go to other states for wage labour work. So, it takes six months from the repair of houses to repaying the loan.

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How do you deal with post-floods endemic? Do you get any government help, in terms of awareness programmes?

A large-scale awareness program at the government level is not carried out, but small-scale programs do take place in which we are advised on how to maintain hygiene after the floods. We do not get satisfactory help from the government following the floods and it is the loans we take that help us resume our lives.

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Acknowledgement: A special thanks to Umesh K Ray* for his help in carrying out interactions with the local people in Bihar.