Houses submerged at Sirsa village in East Champaran district on Sunday. Picture by Ajit Kumar Verma
Patna, Aug. 20: The floods that have heaped death and destruction on 20 of Bihar's 38 districts so far this year have caught everyone by surprise - from the chief minister to the professional force fighting the calamity to the common man facing the water's wrath.
Chief minister Nitish Kumar has already said that the trail of destruction has been akin to "flash floods". Personnel of the national disaster response force (NDRF) also said the floods in Bihar this time have been different.
"We have a fair idea and experience of rescue operations - such as from which area the floodwater will be flowing in. But this time, in the Seemanchal region, water was coming from all sides. It was unexpected," a senior NDRF official told The Telegraph today.
Another new feature, the official said, has been very strong currents that make rescue operations difficutlt.
The NDRF teams carry charts, maps and information showing the topography and the path floodwaters usually take in an area, but these have failed this time.
Commandant of the NDRF's Bihar-based 9th battalion Vijay Sinha said so many north Bihar districts were never affected at the same time in previous years.
"Last year, we deployed 22 teams for rescue operations. This time 28 teams have been working continuously. Despite this, there was a time when we felt we would need more teams. Our teams in Gujarat and Maharashtra were ready to be airlifted, though somehow the worst phase passed," Vijay said.
The Ganga had spilled across vast stretches of land in Bihar last year but there was negligible current in the floodwater, he pointed out. "But this time we had to face very strong current everywhere. It hampered rescue efforts and also destroyed public facilities," he added.
Flood victims have also been saying they have never seen such high water levels or such ferocity of current.
Other unusual traits the NDRF personnel noticed was that the level of floodwater rose continuously from August 11 to 16 in all the affected areas, there was no inkling about the floods till they actually hit, and the water engulfed the districts of Katihar, Kishanganj, Purnea and Araria at the same time.
An NDRF team that was supposed to reach Bagaha in West Champaran district could not to go there directly because of the unusual water level and force. It finally arrived taking a detour via Uttar Pradesh to Nepal and then taking a U-turn.
River and flood experts, however, disagreed with Nitish's contention that Bihar is facing flash floods this time.
"August is the most flood-prone month in Bihar and all the affected districts this year are flood-prone districts. So, we cannot call the floods unexpected," said hydrologist T. Prasad, who holds a PhD in water resources from the University of Illinois in the US and has also undertaken research in related issues at Harvard and Moscow State University.
"Besides, good rainfall had been forecast. There was also lack of preparations to some extent," added Prasad, who was the founder-director of the Centre for Water Resources Studies at Patna University,
It is high time, he said, that Bihar paid attention to flood management to control and channel its river waters for agriculture throughout the year across the state.
Prasad said that the Kosi-Kusaha disaster of 2008, which was caused by a breach and had an element of suddenness, was indeed a "flash flood". Similarly, he said, floods this year in districts like Katihar, Gopalganj and Muzaffarpur - that have been inundated because of breach in the embankments of the Mahananda and Gandak - could come under the category of flash flood but the term cannot be used to categorise the devastation everywhere.