The tragedy of floods in Bihar is an annual saga. This year, according to the eastern Indian state’s disaster management department, 1,333 villages in 16 districts were flooded, affecting a population of 8.4 million. There have been 27 casualties and extensive damage to paddy and sugarcane crops. The Bihar government is currently assessing the damage.

Last year 1,724 villages in 26 districts were affected by floods, and at least 30 people were killed.

Flooded Budhi Gandak river. Photo credit: Manoj Singh

This year the rivers Gandak, Budhi Gandak, Bagmati, Lakhandei and Avadhara flooded much of north Bihar. Embankments (walls of earth or stone that prevent rivers from flooding the surrounding land) were broken at half a dozen places on the Gandak and Budhi Gandak rivers. The Gandak breached an embankment and flooded about 50 square kilometres in Sangrampur block of East Champaran district. In Gopalganj district, 66 villages were flooded due to another breach in the embankment.

Due to heavy rains in Nepal in the last week of July, the flow in all these tributaries of the Ganga flowing down from Nepal increased considerably. The discharge into the Gandak exceeded 4,00,000 cusecs and its embankment was breached at many places.

When the Gandak breached its embankment near Bhavanipur village in East Champaran district, residents had to run to save their lives, children in their arms and pulling the cattle by the halters. Hundreds of mud houses collapsed. Foodgrains and essentials kept in them were washed away.

The breach in the Gandak embankment at Bhavanipur. Photo credit: Manoj Singh
Displaced by floods caused by the embankment breach, Bhavanipur residents have only one refuge, atop another part of the embankment. Photo credit: Manoj Singh

More rain than average

According to Bihar’s minister of water resources, the main reason for this year’s flood was heavy rainfall in ​​Nepal and Bihar. As a result, around 4,36,000 cusecs of water was discharged from the Balmikinagar barrage into the Gandak. Downstream areas received 200 mm more rain than the average between July 19 and 21. As a result, another 5,35,000 cusecs were released from the Saran dam.

According to the Disaster Management Department, until August rainfall in Bihar had been 20% above average. But in the flood-hit districts of north Bihar, it was 30-50% above average.

Life on embankments

Millions of flood victims had to camp out on embankments, highways and flood-relief camps when their houses collapsed or were filled with water. By the third week of August, those still in the camps had received nothing but chiwda (a snack made of fried lentils, peanuts, chickpea flour, corn, vegetable oil, chickpeas, flaked rice, fried onion and curry leaves), jaggery and some bottles of water.

Those affected said that the administration was quick to deal with the breaches, but did little for the people. In many places, embankments – or even four-lane highways such as from Darbhanga to Muzaffarpur – had to be closed to traffic because people were camped there.

Raju Sahni, one of those affected, said he had been living on the highway for a month. Some have returned home as the floodwaters receded, while most of the men have gone in search of work. While the government claims the food and plastic sheets for tents it distributes reach hundreds of thousands, many people complained that they had received nothing.

Life atop an embankment. Photo credit: Manoj Singh

Rivers imprisoned in embankments

Since India’s independence in 1947, embankment construction was introduced as a magic solution to prevent floods. Embankments continued to be built for hundreds of kilometres every year. The budget for the construction, repairs, gradation and reinforcement of embankments reached Rs 156 crore ($200 million) per year, according to the Bihar Water Resources Department’s 2018-19 report.

Dinesh Kumar Mishra, the doyen of river experts in Bihar, had written that this policy was accepted as a way to control floods in 1954. At that time, apart from embankments built by large landlords, the length of embankments in Bihar was 160 km, and 2.5 million hectares were considered flood-prone. According to the latest data from the Department of Water Resources, a total of 3,790 km of the embankment have now been built on 13 rivers in Bihar.

Nevertheless, the floods persist, and now the flood-prone area in Bihar is 6.8 million hectares.

‘We have received no benefit’

An embankment has been built on the Bagmati river from Katunjha in Muzaffarpur district to Aurahi and beyond. Construction is still ongoing. The embankment will be extended to Darbhanga district. The embankment saved people from flood in the Bagmati, but the water was diverted to Lakhandei – another tributary of the Ganga – which flooded. Roads are cut off, and people have to use boats to reach their homes.

“We have received no benefit from this scheme,” Harishchandra Sahani of Katunjha said. “Previously, the waters of the Bagmati and Lakhandei used to combine, spread out, and then the floodwaters would recede. Now the waters of the Lakhandei stay stuck around us like a disease for three months. There is a lot of damage to crops.”

Floodwaters submerge a Bihar village for so long that algae formed on the water surface. Photo credit: Manoj Singh

Pointing to the paddy crop submerged in the floodwaters, Sahani said that all the investment was wasted.

In the records of the administration, these villages are now free from floods, but the villagers have not been freed from their problems.

Sugarcane crops ruined by the flood. Photo credit: Manoj Singh

Embankments breached every year

Most embankments on the rivers of north Bihar breach every year. The flood situation becomes more severe when the breach occurs and all the floodwater gushes out to spread over a large area. What is worse, when the waterflow in the river reduces, the floodwaters cannot return to the river. Without the force of the flood, the water cannot cross roads and culverts to get back.

On top of that, since embankments prevent the silt from the river from spreading in the surrounding land, the riverbed is usually higher than the land around, so the water is stuck inside a bowl-like depression for months.

The 2019 report of the Water Resources Department totals embankment breaches in various rivers from 1987 to 2018 at 408.

Who gets the compensation

Apart from plastic sheets and food, this year the state government reported that it deposited Rs 6,000 ($81) in the bank account of each flood victim. According to the report of the Disaster Management Department, this amount had been distributed to 1,00,000 people by August 31.

But residents of the flood-hit village Bhavanipur said they had not received anything. Shivrati Devi said her six goats and a calf were swept away in the flood. Her house collapsed and she had just one sari to wear. The plights of other women from this village were similar, as was that of people in relief camps in other districts.

Ramrati from Naya village in Samastipur district said, “Maybe the government had sent the money, but middlemen and brokers managed to steal it for themselves.”

The cost of this flood relief, whether it reaches the intended beneficiaries or not, is a huge burden on the state exchequer. On August 10, the chief minister of Bihar, Nitish Kumar, raised this issue in a conversation with the prime minister about flooding.

He stated that Rs 2,385 crore (USD 32 million) had been distributed in 2017, and Rs 2,000 crore ($27 million) in 2019.

But when seen from the point of view of a flood victim, the Rs 6,000 amount is very small. Camping on an embankment after being flooded out of his house, Dahaur Singh of Singahi village said, “With this amount, I cannot even repair one corner of my house.”

Jagarnath Prasad Singh, a 74-year-old resident of the same village, said that the village farmed around 600 bighas (a land unit that varies from region to region and ranges from a third to a three-quarters of an acre) of land, but this year the entire crop had been ruined by floods. “It costs Rs 50,000 ($677) to plant a bigha of paddy. What are we to do with the government’s 6,000?”

Displaced forever

When the floodwaters recede, many will return to their villages. This is not possible for those whose land has been lost due to erosion, or when a river changed course.

Since 2014, 41 families of Rampur Mahanwa village in West Champaran district have been living near a roadside drain. These include 27 Dalit families and 14 Muslim families. The Muslims live north of the road and the Dalits south of it.

One of them, Amanullah, recounts how these families were displaced by the erosion of the Gandak and wandered for two decades. When they staged a sit-in, they were settled beside a drain on the roadside. In the last week of July, all their huts were submerged by floodwater. Many collapsed. Now all are living on the road. Apart from plastic sheets, they have not received any assistance. All these families are landless. They used to go to Nepal to work as labourers, but travel restrictions due to the Covid-19 pandemic has deprived them of that opportunity as well.

While these people have been resettled – even if near a drain – the people of Chakdeiya village in Muzaffarpur district are still without a place to call their own after 33 years. The village was completely washed away in 1987 due to erosion by the Gandak. The villagers moved to the northern side of the western Champaran embankment. Since then they have been living near the embankment.

This year their huts were submerged again, due to the breach near Bhavanipur. People on one side of the embankment are hit by floodwaters directly, people on the other side are hit because the water has breached the embankment and spread all over their homes. Residents Narayan Sahni and Bharat Sahni said, “On this side, there is the river, and on the other side there is the river.”

Life under a plastic sheet. Photo credit: Manoj Singh

Money down the drain

There are now very few experts in favour of constructing embankments for flood control. The Bihar government itself believes that “construction of embankments is a short-term plan for flood control.” Yet, it is still pushing this as the only “solution”.

For decades, Dinesh Kumar Mishra has been drawing attention to the negligible benefits of embankments. He has written, “Silt starts to accumulate between the embankments, which causes the river floor to rise gradually and at the same time the flood level between the embankments also rises. Due to this, it becomes a compulsion of engineers to keep the embankments elevated.”

But the higher they are elevated, the more the risk of a disaster from a breach as well as the issue of waterlogging from leakages.

Mishra is no longer alone in his opinions. In 2012 two professors from the Indian Institute of Technology Kanpur, Rajiv Sinha and BC Roy Mahashay, published a well-known work, “Flood Disaster and Management: Indian scenario”. They showed how embankments have severely affected the natural flow system of rivers and have increased the intensity of floods by obstructing the flow of the main river and the links between the river channels.

The embankments create a “false sense of protection from floods”, and despite the massive amounts of money spent, the damage from flooding has increased rather than reduced, the experts point out. The poorest are the worst affected, while a huge amount of public money is spent in their names to repair embankments and build new ones.

Experts say it is time to move from flood control to flood management, which emphasises the understanding of flood processes and favours a non-structural approach to reducing flood risk. But policymakers continue on the old path.

Mishra said, “We spent billions of rupees on flood control or management, and it has left us at a disadvantage rather than benefited us; those who should have been worried about it are sitting with their eyes closed.”

This article first appeared on The Third Pole.