The Telegraph
Thursday , September 20 , 2012
Since 1st March, 1999
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Road to flood freedom
- Disaster prevention measures instil confidence in citizens but experts are sceptical about reality

Residents of Aurai village in Muzaffarpur district look anxiously at the embankment washed away by the swelling Bagmati. Telegraph picture.

Monsoon has entered its final phase this year. Lakhs of people across Bihar residing near the banks of the rivers feel they have been “lucky” to have survived yet another onslaught of the rains.

The feeling of being lucky is not entirely unjustified. Barely four years ago nearly 500 people were killed and 3,000 went missing in the Kusaha deluge following the collapse of the western embankment of the Kosi barrage. The densely populated Saharsa, Madhepura and Supaul districts were the worst-hit.

Since the 2008 disaster — the worst floods Bihar experienced in recent memory — the state has taken a slew of measures to combat the rising water level of the many rivers passing through the state during monsoon.

“The reason (why the 2008-like floods did not occur again) is not because of deficient rainfall. Last year, Kosi’s discharge was more than 2.62 lakh cusecs. Gandak had a discharge of over 2 lakh cusecs for more than one and a half months in 2011. On the contrary, in 2008, the breach in Kusaha occurred when the discharge was less than 2 lakh cusecs,” water resources minister Vijay Kumar Choudhary told The Telegraph.

In 2008, 1107mm of rain was recorded, about six per cent more than the normal of 1024mm across the state. There was a lull in monsoon in 2009 and 2010, when the state received only 737mm and 794mm of rain, respectively. However, in 2011, the total rainfall recorded was 1058mm, three per cent above normal. But no major floods were reported in any of these years.

Except for scattered incidents, there have been no major floods this year also. But minister Choudhary is not taking things for granted.

“We are keeping our fingers crossed because floods in Bihar can occur in even as late as September and October,” he said, conceding that he could not give an assurance that another Kusaha-like disaster would not recur.

Choudhary said that after 2008, the state concentrated on Flood Management Information System, which includes satellite pictures to identify the vulnerable nature of meandering rivers in Bihar. “Besides, there has also been a strict monitoring of flood control measures,” he said.

But the rivers of the state can pose a serious challenge any time.

As one of India’s most flood-prone states, Bihar has a number of stiff challenges to overcome. Bihar’s river systems and its 16 river basins are some of the most complex in the world, with a varied set of rivers flowing into the state from the Himalayas.

A phase I survey conducted by UK’s International Growth Centre (IGC) has put a question mark on the water resources department’s ability to meet the crisis of floods . The findings of the survey, submitted in July this year, pointed out that more than half the households surveyed in the flood-prone districts of Bihar did not know that the department is responsible for flood protection. The survey also said the community does not work together during floods and the subsequent reconstruction work.

“The survey points at inadequate number of people engaged in fighting floods. There are only engineers, but no hydrologists of geologists. There is no early warning or evacuation system,” Esha Chabria, the in-country economist of IGC, said.

Ghanshyam Tiwari, the Howard University post-graduate consultant of the project who was associated with the survey, said the problem of floods was “because of changing course of rivers, changing climate and their siltation”.

However, he said there was an “increased alertness” among the water resources department officials in preventing breaches. “But a state like Bihar has to take flood control measures to the next level and develop long term institutions on the same. It has to have a road map. IIT-Patna can be developed into a premier institute of the country for river management and engineering,” he said.

Phase II of the survey, which is about to begin and expected to conclude by December this year, will focus on community involvement and identification of institutions for flood control.

Water resources minister Choudhary, however, had a different take on the report. “We have highly trained people who can cope with floods. Besides, we have developed a methodology of crisis management,” he said, adding that the department was studying the report.

The Kosi deluge brought out the weaknesses of the government in flood control as villages submerged in water and many people hardly had any time to save their lives. For a week, the administration collapsed and thousands did not know where to find shelter. Chief minister Nitish Kumar did step in to undertake one of the best-managed relief and rehabilitation work, but many lives were lost by then.

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