A snake in knots

Print edition : September 26, 2008

An aerial view of Kumarkhad village, 320 km from Patna, on September 2. Several parts of Bihar and Nepal, across the border, were devastated when the Kosi river burst its embankment and changed course eastwards.-DIPTENDU DUTTA/AFP

The Kosi, bursting through its embankment at Kusaha in Nepal, has swung 120 km eastwards, changing the lives of thousands of people.

IT must have been at least a fortnight since the Kosi breached its embankment in Nepal, changed its course and shifted over 120 kilometres eastwards, rediscovering channels it had abandoned over 250 years ago, that news reports about the human suffering it wrought across a swathe of 16 north Bihar districts began to trickle down to most parts of India.

Surely, it is an annual affair the floods in Bihar and the thousands of desperately poor people who endure it without respite. Every other school book has it: the Kosi, one of the largest tributaries of the Ganga and a mighty river in its own right, is known for its calamitous swings from east to west. This year, alarmingly, it has moved east, living up the epithet that describes it the sorrow of Bihar.

Outsiders can barely fathom the misery of the people who have been living with the river. A few years ago, I went on an unlikely journey across the Kosi. Really, nothing could have prepared me for that river, its spectacular posture during a flood season, the miles and miles of flat terrain through which it flowed, the sheer amount of mud, sand and gravel that its fierce waters bore and the incongruity of the human interventions that sought to contain such a swift and massive silt train within walls. The Kosi is one of the most turbulent rivers in the world and, like many others draining the plains of Bihar, has its catchments in the steep and geologically nascent Himalayas. For centuries, torrential rains and melting ice in the Nepal Himalayas have made these rivers carry a heavy load of sediment down to the Bay of Bengal an astonishing process that has over the centuries created much of the land mass along the way, including Bihar and Bangladesh.

The river carries about 19 cubic metres of sediment a hectare every year, five times the load of any other river in Bihar, and its tributaries originate in the highest peaks of the world, the Everest and the Kanchenjunga among them. As the Kosi finally gushes out of the mountains onto the plains through a gorge at Chatara in Nepal, it begins to dump its massive load along the way, gradually raising its bed and eventually forcing itself to change course.

From satellite images of the past half a century, it appears that the Kosi in Bihar had always been a C-shaped thick western ledge of what looks like a massive inland delta extending from Supaul in the west to Katihar in the east. The delta looks like an enormous cone (about 180 km long and 150 km wide) of networking channels with their tips in Chatara a feature that geologists call the Kosi alluvial mega fan.

Children rescued by an Army boat in Purnia district, Bihar, on September 3. Over 35 lakh people in 16 districts faced the fury of the floods, and many are still awaiting rescue.-PRASHANTH VISHWANATHAN/BLOOMBERG NEWS

The river, which had once flowed east of Purnia moved through more than 12 distinct channels to one on the west of Saharsha, where it stayed for 50 years until August 18 this year. It was harnessed mainly by a barrage at Hanuman Nagar in Nepal and jacketed by two embankments huge, man-made mounds of earth on each side, well over 12 ft (3.6 metres) high and five km to 12 km in between and which ran the length of the river for over a 100 km in north Bihar.

On August 18, inevitably, the Kosi burst through its eastern embankment at Kusaha in Nepal, about 12 km from the Hanuman Nagar barrage, and violently swung 120 km towards its original course at the eastern end of the inland delta, causing a deluge in villages, towns and cities over 16 districts of north Bihar, which were so far considered relatively safe from its turbulent waters. Satellite images of the Kosis flow, well within its embankments on August 18 and the torrent that it became on August 24 once it had unshackled itself, says a lot about the catastrophe that has engulfed north Bihar.

No doubt, the river took my breath away when I first saw it from the village of Baluaha in Bihar in the east. It was a beautiful morning in August 1999, a rare year when the floods were said to be normal. There was no rain initially, and the river was surprisingly calm yet so huge, an expanse of incredible beauty, with long green beads of island villages in the middle. Somewhere in the misty horizon was our destination, Ghonghepur, a village in Bihar on the edge of the Kosis western embankment, which went under the river for most part of the year.

We were a group of journalists from Nepal, Bangladesh and India, and the tour on the Kosi and its plains in Bihar had been organised by the international media support organisation Panos South Asia. I realised only too late that I was on a floods trip to nowhere, on a river whose size I had not gauged at all. I thought we would reach our destination in an hour, at the most.

It was a rickety, wooden boat with an apology for a shelter on its belly and standing room for about 25 people. The lead boatman was the only one who had a perch, the wooden ridge up front on the vessel. From that vantage point he predicted landfall at Ghonghepur in two hours on several occasions during the journey.

But at every turn, the boat would get stuck in mud and silt. It was not hard to see why the Kosi changed its course so often. The minute the boatmen found a clear path for the vessel, the river would cover it with a load of mud and silt. Leading a boat down the river that revealed ever-changing braids of muddy water and silt was therefore a necessary discovery on foot for the boatmen.

PHOTOS: NASA

For most part of the journey, they took turns to pull the boat with bright nylon ropes, their feet making music out of slush and silt, through tall grass and shrubs, along the ever-melting edges of island villages. At times, the river had a mesmerising stillness to it, punctured only by leaping river dolphins or the piercing hoots of villagers passing by in small canoes. Small trees, paddy fields, cattle, lots of them spotlessly clean, and makeshift huts lined our path along island villages.

It took us a while to realise that there was a secret world, so full of life and its miseries, between the two embankments of the Kosi. In the 50 years since the embankments were built to confine the river at the western edge of the delta, over which it had swung mindlessly like a pendulum earlier, the embankments had nurtured 386 villages between them. The Kosis jacketed flood path had become home to nearly one million people.

The islands that we saw on our five-hour journey, as it turned out, to Ghonghepur were only a few of them. When the embankments were being built in the late 1950s, villagers who lived in the areas within were promised land for land, house for house, employment for one and permanent salvation from floods all outside the embankments. For most people, the promises did not materialise.

A majority of them have, therefore, learnt to live with the river, within the embankments. Today, the Kosis bosom, like many other parts of north Bihar, is among the poorest and most backward regions of India. When the Kosi swells, the people flee to the embankments with their cattle, abandoning their crops and land. Many villages lie submerged for months. When they re-emerge, the Kosi would have erased boundaries, eroded some areas, and created land elsewhere. Island villages keep disintegrating at the edges, and the Kosi brings in new land from the mountains.

Most families, therefore, have makeshift homes on the embankments, huts of bamboo, rags and hay in between rows of temporary shops. The only sources of fresh water at many places are the submerged tubewells on the edge of villages and the embankments. Schools and hospitals have ceased to exist. Government health centres are almost always far away and accessible only by boat. Teachers and doctors have stopped visiting during the floods. In many places, villagers masquerade as doctors, and shops lining the embankments store tonics, tablets and emergency medicines along with other goods.

The silt that the Kosi brings has made the villages within the embankments among the most fertile regions in the country. But there is no land worth working on during the floods. Farming and other enduring investments are almost always a risky business. There is a permanent exodus of young men to other States in search of employment, as labourers.

Women, children and the aged are left behind to fend for themselves on the edge of poverty, at the mercy of moneylenders and hoodlums, or to wait endlessly for the money orders to find their way across the Kosi.

Flood victims move to safer places in Saharsa in Bihar on August 31. The authorities had to take control of all private boats as desperate villagers hijacked rescue vehicles and other essentials.-AFTAN ALAM SIDDIQUI/AP

Those who chose to live outside the embankments, in relative safety, too, suffer. The land is permanently under stagnant water that has no way of draining into the river because of the embankments. Rainwater stagnates on land that was once used for cultivation. The embankments also prevent the entry of tributaries into the river.

Sluice gates were constructed, no doubt, but they have to be kept closed during the floods, for otherwise floodwaters from the main river would force its way into the tributaries and inundate the protected areas. But, then, water from the tributaries would any way flood the protected areas. Therefore, the great embankment industry set to work, building similar jackets for the tributaries as well, and water stagnates permanently all over north Bihar, between these embankment networks.

Since the massive mud walls were built, they forced the river to deposit its huge sediment load within itself, raising the river bed and consequently the floodwater level. The embankments too were raised progressively until it was no longer possible to do so.

Therefore, the river has flowed within the embankments at a certain height, about four metres above the surrounding areas. I remember our guide Dinesh Kumar Mishra, an engineer-turned-activist at the forefront of north Bihars campaign against man-made flood disasters, telling me during our journey across the Kosi: Building embankments is like tying a snake into knots to keep it in good humour. The people in the surrounding areas are now at the mercy of an unstable river with a dangerous floodwater level that could any day spill over or make a disastrous breach.

It is this bleak, embankment-dominated, recent geography of the region that the Kosi has altered dramatically by its sudden flood-driven shift to the east through the widening breach at Kusaha. Earlier, during some high flood seasons, the meandering Kosi is said to have attained a width of more than 30 km on the plains of Bihar.

Food packets dropped from an Indian Air Force aircraft to flood-affected villagers near Chattapur in north Bihar on September 5.-PTI

The barrage at Hanuman Nagar (a temporary measure with a lifespan of only a few decades) and the two embankments were only part of the engineering solutions considered by India and Nepal for taming the river after the devastating floods of 1954. The controversial real solution, as many in India had described it, was a 239-metre dam at Barakshetra about 50 km from the India-Nepal border, with the barrage and the embankments as supporting structures.

But the dam was never built, the barrage has passed its 25-year projected lifespan and, since the early 1960s, the length of the embankments has increased all over Bihar.

Surely, it has profited the politician-bureaucrat-contractor nexus to extend the embankments every time the Kosi or its sisters changed their moods. The walls had, until August 18, succeeded in confining the Kosi to the west but failed to control the severity or duration of its floods.

The embankments also caused much social tension, for example, between those within and outside the embankments and between Indian villagers and those in Nepal, all of them Kosi sufferers, a popular phrase.

The Kosi has breached its embankments earlier on several occasions as its silt load put unbearable pressure on its artificial banks. But the earlier breaches had all occurred downstream of the barrage at Hanuman Nagar, and the barrage itself was then put to good use for controlling the floods. But this years mother of all floods is the result of a breach upstream of the barrage, and the river in its entirety is flowing wide off the barrage, submerging districts that were considered safe and well protected from the Kosis whims.

This years floods are unprecedented even by Bihars standards, and even though estimates vary, over 35 lakh people in 16 districts are supposed to have faced its fury, with Araria, Katihar, Khagaria, Madhepura, Purnia, Saharsha and Supaul districts bearing the brunt. Though official figures put the number of dead at less than 100, it is likely to be much higher.

Submerged railway tracks near Madhepura, 250 km from Patna.-

Details of the devastation in Nepal are yet to emerge. Life has changed permanently for thousands of people, and the gravity of the biggest flood disaster ever is yet to sink in fully. Surely, a blame game is on about who neglected the repairs on the embankment with Nepal, the Central and State governments of India and rival politicians accusing one another but when that too settles down, only the questions left behind by a truant Kosi will have any relevance for the unfortunate people of north Bihar and parts of Nepal.

Will it be possible to repair the breached embankment at all? Will the mighty river let itself be embanked once again?

Or will it only settle for total freedom from shackles? Where will the new Kosi be on a flood plain that continues to be extremely volatile, where many other rivers too have changed course in the past and are likely to break their walls? Will those who bore the brunt of a resurgent Kosi in August 2008 want to be in its path ever again? How will the wayward Kosi affect settlement patterns in north Bihar from now on?

Flood victims outside a relief camp in Saharsa. Doctors and medical equipment have been rushed to relief camps, crowded with lakhs of victims, to ward off diseases.-MANISH SWARUP/AP

The Kosi is still a life-giving mother to many, full of pleasant surprises when it is calm; but, it seems, the people living within its terrain should also be ever ready to face its calamitous quirks. No wonder, its sufferers as well as its tormentors are still clueless about the Kosi.

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