The Kosi Disaster: Millions Flooded Out

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Photo: Chandan, greenpowerindia.orgJust as Hurricane Katrina caused levees in the Mississippi Delta to breach in August 2005, flooding large parts of New Orleans, this year's monsoon has breached embankments on the powerful Kosi River, flooding out three million people and killing at least 2,000 in Bihar, India and in eastern Nepal. After breaching its embankments on August 18, the Kosi took a path it had abandoned 200 years ago, 100 km from its channeled course, drowning hundreds of villages and fields in its way.

Experts note that this year's monsoon was not especially powerful, and that the embankment system failed in part because of heavy siltation building up within the embanked river channel. Compounding the problem was poor maintenance of the system.

Photo: Chandan, greenpowerindia.orgThe ongoing Kosi disaster bears another sad similarity to New Orleans in 2005: relief efforts in Bihar, one of the poorest regions in India, have been painfully slow, and aid workers are unable to provide safe drinking water, food, bedding or medicine to the thousands who have made it to the relief camps. In the crowded camps, officials fear outbreaks of epidemics as hundreds of people are already suffering from pneumonia and high fever. Making things worse, women at the relief camps are facing sexual harassment. The authorities are admitting that they are struggling to cope with the situation.

Santosh Jha of Bihar says: “I have never seen so many dead bodies the way I have witnessed in past seven days. Would you believe if I say that till now I must have come across 250 bodies of all ages?”

The breaches of the Kosi embankment are the latest signs that conventional flood-control measures too often do not control floods, but worsen them. The floods from the Kosi embankment failures were more powerful than floods caused by unconstrained rivers, because the embankments have increased the speed and power of the river's flow.

The Kosi River disaster is unfortunately not an isolated incident. Says Himanshu Thakkar of South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers & People: "Over the years, India has seen its flood damages increase, at the same time that the total area supposedly protected by flood-control engineering projects has grown. It is noteworthy that most these high flood events occurred after the flood control projects were in place."

Better ways to deal with floods

The breaching of embankments and dams cause extremely destructive floods because they usually happen without warning and create fast-moving flood waves. In contrast, "soft-path" flood risk management emphasizes preparedness over "flood protection" engineering of rivers, and seeks to reduce damage from any size of flood. Flood risk management assumes that floods will happen and that we need to learn to live with them as best we can, reducing their speed, size and duration where possible and doing our best to protect our most valuable assets. Flood management assumes that all flood protection infrastructure can fail and that this failure must be planned for. It is also based on an understanding that floods are not inherently bad – and indeed that floods are essential for the health of riverine ecosystems.

Says Thakkar, "Some key areas that must be addressed in India include sustaining and improving natural systems’ ability to absorb floodwaters; improving dam management, and instituting clearly defined and transparent operating rules that are stringently enforced; improving the maintenance of existing flood infrastructure rather than spending money on new dams and embankments; undertaking a credible and participatory performance appraisal of existing infrastructure, and removing embankments that are found to be ineffective; and producing transparent disaster management plans intended to be implemented in a participatory way. Perhaps most importantly, India needs to assess the potential impacts of climate change on rainfall and on the performance of flood-related infrastructure, and begin planning for the necessary adaptation to the changing climate."