Nepal | May 30, 2020

Flood control: No easy outlet

Hari Bansh Jha
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Illustration: Ratna Sagar Shrestha/THT

The situation could be worse if the issue is not addressed any time soon. We need to develop a certain concrete mechanism whereby the rivers flowing from Nepal to India are tamed and the flood water that is today a liability turns into an asset

During the recent floods in Nepal and northern part of India, hundreds of people have died. More than six million people in the Tarai region of Nepal, apart from 12 million people in Bihar and 1.5 million people in Uttar Pradesh of India, are directly affected by floods.

When there is a flood, people in Nepal hold the dams, embankments and roads across the border in India responsible for the inundation of our land. On the other hand, the people on the other side of the border in India hold the Nepalese responsible for the floods as all the rivers that flood that country have their origin in Nepal. Once the floods subside, it is even forgotten if at all there was any such natural calamity.

It cannot be denied that the Indian people suffer during the floods as there has been massive destruction of forests in Nepal. Encroachment of the Churia or Sivalik region of the Himalayas has led to massive soil erosion and landslides in the hills. Besides the haphazard settlement of population, constructing roads, illegal mining and quarrying in the Tarai have also aggravated the situation. Such activities have caused an unprecedented level of siltation in the rivers and rise in their beds resulting in flash-floods and much destruction in the two countries.

Until a few decades back, floods in the rivers were more an asset than a liability as they used to bring manure from the forest regions, which used to increase production and productivity of agricultural land. But now there is very little thick forests left in the Tarai region. As such, the rivers bring with them mostly the silt which flows downstream spoiling agricultural production and productivity that causes desertification in the region.

Over the years, certain vested interests in Nepal have destroyed most of the Tarai forest, including the Charkoshe Jhari. During the referendum in 1979 in Nepal, most of the forest areas were destroyed for political purposes. Even afterwards the destruction of the forest could not stop. Hence, the forest trees that earlier used to soak flood water and check the flow of the water have largely become non-existent.

is obvious that the floods that cause  much havoc in the Tarai region and across the border in India are mostly man-made, the failure by the government to take proper measures to control floods. But then it cannot be easily overlooked that the dams, embankments and roads that have been constructed across the border in India have also reduced the flow of flood water from Nepal to India. As there is no easy outlet for the flood water, there is much inundation of territory in the Tarai region.

A beginning was made by Nepal and India to control the floods, especially in the Koshi and Gandaki rivers in the 1950s and 1960s respectively by constructing barrages and embankments. It was necessary to do so as the flooded Koshi river used to change its course quite frequently for several miles often causing massive destruction of life and property both in Nepal and India. It was mainly on this account that the Koshi River was called a “sorrow” of Bihar (India) and Tarai region of Nepal.

By taming the Koshi River, it virtually became a “blessing” for the people of Nepal’s Tarai region and India. The river water that earlier used to bring much devastation began to be used for irrigation purposes in the Nepal-India border regions. Like the Koshi project in the east, the Gandak River in the west also started irrigating vast tracts of land in the Tarai region of Nepal and across the border in India.

Additionally, the barrages on the Koshi and Gandak rivers linked one part of the country with that of the other. On top of all this, a number of development projects, including Sunsari-Morang Irrigation Project, Koshi Pump canal, Kathmandu-Dakshinkali road, Devighat Hydropower project and different link roads were constructed in Nepal as extended activities of the Koshi project.

Unfortunately, negative feelings about the Koshi and Gandak deals had so much impact on the Nepalese psyche that there was no significant deal thereafter between Nepal and India. This was one of the reasons why even the 6,000 MW Pancheshwar Project under the Mahakali Treaty that was signed between Nepal and India in 1996 on equal footing and had massive support of people from each segment of Nepalese society could not take off even after 20-long years.

However, the recent floods in Nepal and also in India’s northern states of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh have adequately proved that the present problem is not so much due to the incessant rains, but more than that it is man-made. Incessant rains of still greater magnitude in the past never brought about any such chaos as it has created now.

So it would be wrong to single out India for all the troubles caused by floods in the Tarai. Equally, it would be misleading to accuse Nepal of the devastation caused by the floods in India. It is only through the joint initiatives by the two countries that the flood havoc along with the desertification of land could be resolved on a permanent basis. The situation could be worse if the issue is not addressed any time soon. We need to develop a certain concrete mechanism whereby the rivers flowing from Nepal to India are tamed and the flood water that is today a liability turns into an asset.

A version of this article appears in print on September 04, 2017 of The Himalayan Times.

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