12:00 AM, October 11, 2008 / LAST MODIFIED: 12:00 AM, October 11, 2008

Solution to floods: New paradigm needed

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Md Khalequzzaman

Following the recent devastating floods in North Bihar, the Deputy Chairman of the Indian Planning Commission Montek Singh Ahluwali said in an interview, “the flood caused by the Kosi in Bihar underlies the need for storing water by building dams or barrages. Since the issue involves Nepal, vigorous diplomatic efforts are needed.” He also said that he did not see any other visible solution. It is a sorry state of affairs that the Planning Commission of India is still trapped within a failed paradigm of engineering and structural solution to a natural process, namely flooding. How long will it take for our policy makers to realize that flooding is a natural process, and it can't be "managed”?
We cannot defy the nature, we need to live in harmony with it. A recent fact finding report for the Kosi floods of 2008, prepared by a civil society organization under the leadership of Dr. Sudhir Sharma, Dr. Dinesh Mishra, and Gopal Krishna of India, highlighted that although India has built over 3000 km of embankments in Bihar over the last few decades, the flooding propensity has increased by 2.5 times during the same time period, not to mention that embankments failed during each major flooding event. Embankments provide a false sense of security to people living behind them. It has been proved time and again that no matter how strong the embankments are, and no matter who builds them (US, India, the Netherlands, China, Bangladesh, you just name it) they are destined to fail.
Every time there is a flood in Bihar or Assam, the people living downstream in Bangladesh get worried, since it take only a few days for flood waters in upstream regions to roll downstream in Bangladesh. However, the Kosi flood of 2008 revealed an interesting fact. Although parts of Bangladesh are located directly downstream of the Kosi confluence with the Ganges (called Padma in Bangladesh), no major floods occurred in those downstream areas following the deluge in North Bihar in mid August. Analyses of the data for river monitoring stations in the Padma at Pankha, which is located downstream of Farakka, showed that the stage of the river did not rise significantly following the floods in Bihar. The question that begs answer is why the flood in Bihar did not contribute to increased flow in the Padma in Bangladesh?
The answer lies in the underlying causes of flooding in Bihar. The breaching of embankment on the Kosi river allowed the flood waters to spread over the floodplains in North Bihar, resulting in reduced velocity and volume of flood waters that enter the Padma in Bangladesh. In addition, at the time of breaching, the flow of Kosi was only 1.4 lakh cusec, which is not an unusual flow during the monsoon period. The flood in Bihar was an unexpected phenomenon for the people living behind the embankments since they had a false sense of security. If the embankments were absent on either sides of the Kosi, the flow that caused a deluge in northern districts of Bihar probably would be an ordinary “two-day- flood” that would spread over wider floodplain areas in Nepal and Bihar, and would not cause any misery for select group of people who happened to be in the wrong place (downstream of where the embankments broke in Nepal) at the wrong time (August 18 and afterwards).
Despite an increase in investments for construction of embankments and other flood control measures, the intensity and magnitude of flooding have increased substantially in all co-riparian countries (Nepal, India and Bangladesh) within the Ganges-Brahmaputra-Meghna (GBM) basin in recent decades. All countries in the GBM basin are looking for solutions to flood damage to their economy and lives. However, so far there has been a minimum amount of involvement among co-riparian nations to tackle this common problem. All countries are working in isolation or in a bilateral manner to solve a problem that requires participation by all stakeholders living in the GBM basin. India, being the largest power and strategically located, needs to provide leadership role among the co-riparian nations (China, Nepal, Bhutan, India, and Bangladesh) and devise an integrated water resources management (IWRM) plan for the GBM basin.
The IWRM plan will require adaptation of a new paradigm that embraces an ecological approach to reducing flood damage through implementation of best management practices in land-uses in the entire basin (from the source to mouth of these mighty rivers). All people living in the floodplain of the GBM basin need to find a way to reduce land erosion and deforestation. Should they build on the floodplains, they need to adapt new construction standards that facilitate floodwaters flow under their houses, or be prepared to evacuate to higher grounds during high flow events. Drainage congestion due to urbanization and other land-use changes that increase surface run-off and reduce infiltration is another reason for increased flooding in the region. Widening of natural drainage network through dredging in proportion to the amount of urbanization, and increasing efficiency of storm sewage system in urban centers will be essential to avoid water-logging and flooding.
All stakeholders living in a watershed area, regardless of their political boundaries -- need to work together, there are no other alternatives. The planner and decision makers in the basin countries can hide their face in the sand hoping that flooding will not occur again, but such wishful thinking will not stop floods or reduce damage to economy and the environment. Humans will have to make room for rivers to spread during flooding, because floodplains have been an integral part of any natural rivers for millions of years; whereas human invasion to floodplains and interference with the natural flow have been a relatively new phenomenon. Every time humans decide to change natural forces to meet their needs, it becomes a duty for them to study the laws of nature and abide by them. Sooner we realize that humans cannot defy the nature, we can only live in harmony with it, better it will be for the humanity, because natural forces will always outweigh any human endeavour. Rivers flowing over to floodplains is one of such natural laws.

Md Khalequzzaman is a member of the Bangla-desh Environment Network (BEN)

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