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The Hindu on : 'Harnessing' rivers - II

Online edition of India's National Newspaper on
Wednesday, April 28, 1999

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'Harnessing' rivers - II

By Kalpana Sharma

THE DEBATE over how best to use the hydro resources of India, Bangladesh and Nepal for their common benefit throws up important issues that have to be resolved internally by each nation. However, the fascination with large multi-purpose projects to deal with the needs of power, irrigation and flood control continues to dominate the discourse - both official and unofficial - within these countries and among them.

Take the issue of floods and the role storage dams can play in controlling them. There are 6,000 big and small rivers in Nepal which then feed into the major river systems and finally merge with the Ganga. These are snow-fed rivers which also bring with them a heavy load of silt. Sometimes, a cloudburst can result in an enormous quantity of silt in just one day as a mountainside collapses into the river. Thus, it is difficult to plan engineering interventions without accommodating these imponderables.

During monsoon, these rivers affect the low-level areas in Nepal and north Bihar. The increase in the water level in the Ganga ultimately takes its toll on Bangladesh. The two worst floods were witnessed in 1988 and last year when 60 per cent of the country was submerged.

The engineering approach is to create reservoirs that can store monsoon water and control the rate at which it is released. A second approach is to build embankments to prevent the river spilling over its banks. A third is to create channels to improve the flow of the river and the fourth is to improve the drainage. All these are solutions based on the belief that the river can and should be controlled. The problem with the first option, as even engineers acknowledge, is that it is difficult to justify a high dam just for flood control. If its purpose is to serve the needs of irrigation and power, these two requirements are likely to be placed on a higher priority than flood control. A majority of the multi-purpose dam projects in India are outside the Himalayan Ganga system.

The belief that embankments ``protect'' vulnerable areas from floods has repeatedly been proved wrong. Bangladesh has 8,300 km of embankments which are breached at several points every year. According to a joint paper prepared by the Centre for Policy Research (CPR), the Bangladesh Unnayan Parishad (BUP) and the Institute for Integrated Development Studies (IIDS), embankments in India and Bangladesh have ``inadvertently added severe problems like drainage congestion'' because they cut off the natural drainage. The drainage sluices which are provided cannot function when the water levels are high.

According to the paper, ``Some persons in the `protected areas' claim that while nature's floods last only for a few days, `man- made' floods last for months, if at all they drain out.'' The paper concludes that embankments will be satisfactory ``only in suitable locations if properly designed, well-executed and adequately maintained.'' This conclusion, however, hides the reality that there are few ``suitable locations'' for embankments and that the design, execution and maintenance do not detract from the fact that they cause more damage than good.

In the Eastern Kosi Embankment area of north Bihar, for instance, an estimated 1,82,000 hectares is permanently waterlogged. On the western side, an estimated 94,000 hectares is under water throughout the year and of this 34,000 hectares cannot be saved. All the drainage schemes so far have failed. Thus, concludes Mr. Dinesh Kumar Mishra of the Barh Mukti Andolan in north Bihar (in an article in the South Asian monthly Himal January 1999), ``the only solution is to do away with the embankments and allow the river to go ahead with its natural land-building process.''

An unlikely, though strong, supporter of Mr. Mishra's position is Bihar's Inspector-General of Police, Mr. Ramachandra Khan, whose family was uprooted after the 1986 floods in the Kosi. In an interview to Himal, he terms the Kosi flood-control project not just a failure but ``devastation, disaster, catastrophe.'' The plan, he says, has failed and only resulted in greater corruption. Indeed, the irony in Bihar is that while the embankments lengthened from 160 km in 1954 to 3,454 km in 1988, the flood-prone area did not decrease. Instead, it increased from 2.5 million hectares in 1954 to 6.46 million hectares in 1988.

Mr. Mishra has long argued that even the British did not embark on a policy of building embankments because they thought that it was unwise. But the independent Indian Government decided to undertake an engineering solution, thereby increasing the sufferings of people in north Bihar many times over. People were deluded into believing that the embankments would become more effective once a high dam was built on the Kosi. The negotiations between India and Nepal on the 290-metre Kosi High Dam remain inconclusive although in the meantime a barrage has been constructed on the border. It is not clear whether the dam, if built, will actually reduce the damage from floods in north Bihar.

The high dam solution also does not accommodate the real costs of displacement and the dangers of building such structures in a geologically unstable region. The tendency of those recommending a one-time solution for all ills is to gloss over these problems while emphasising the benefits of the economies of scale. But the costs of not realising that certain things do not have a simple technological fix have to be borne by ordinary people, such as poor farmers living in north Bihar, and not by the technocrats pushing these ``solutions''.

Given the dismal record of embankments as an effective tool for flood control in both India and Bangladesh, it remains a mystery why independent research organisations in both countries still consider these a solution. In fact, much more practical and feasible is the ``non-structural'' approach suggested in one of the papers prepared jointly by three institutes.

At the moment, despite apparent improvements in the technology, the apparatus for giving Bangladesh adequate advance flood warning is not in place. Bangladesh's river authorities point out that a flood-warning system could help reduce some of the problems as even a few hours of advance warning enabled people to be prepared.Indeed, the agreed position as articulated in the joint paper includes, apart from flood forecasting and warning services, flood plain management measures, disaster relief, flood fighting including public health measures and flood insurance.

These are areas in which, without too much controversy, India and Bangladesh can share data and experience and develop joint strategies. This will not cost too much, will not take too much time, and it could make a real difference in terms of the annual devastation caused by floods, particularly in Bangladesh.

The effort by the institutes to arrive at a ``consensus'' on ``harnessing'' water resources has tended to hide the value of alternatives. Thus, the easily agreed upon strategies of building large projects are projected as solutions while hidden in the text are viable alternatives that are not given equal weightage.

This is a pity. For although there is a great deal that can be gained by all the countries in the region through cooperation and dialogue, approaches to the use of resources have to be developed internally based on an honest assessment of the lessons of the past - including the cost of pursuing capital-intensive strategies instead of low-cost alternatives - and a realistic assessment of the needs of the future.


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