A Bend in The River

Monday, September 1, 2008

The floods in north Bihar are back. Each year, Bihar faces a cycle of destruction, involuntary displacement, migration and large-scale loss of human life, cattle, crops and infrastructure. Even within this recurrent theme of annual misery, the Kosi river breaching its embankment has been catastrophic — a disaster unprecedented in living memory. The Kosi, emanating in the Himalayas, is a part of the Ganges, Brahmaputra, Meghna riverine system, which carries within its fold a population of 1.3 billion people spread across five countries, including China, and is home to some of the world’s poorest. The Kosi is one of the tributaries of the Ganges and travels through the upper mountainous regions in Nepal before entering the plains of Bihar and merging with the Ganges several hundred kilometres downstream. Given the crystalline nature of the rock and its young morphology, it carries in its path large quantities of silt and other matter which are not alluvial and of infertile nature. This silt is deposited in the plains of Bihar. The trouble is further compounded by the steep gradient from which the river emerges and enters the Bihar plains. Its large deposits of silt and gradient force the river to meander along unpredictable paths thus earning for itself the name of ‘river of sorrow’. The first credible attempt to tame the river began in 1956 after the devastating floods of 1954. Jawaharlal Nehru directed the Central Water Commission to prepare a feasibility project to suggest a long-term solution. The mandarins of the Central Water Commission did a hydrological survey and prepared a report of that region. The commission suggested the construction of a high dam (239 metre) at Barakshetra about 50 km within Nepal to be backed by a barrage downstream. For several reasons, including cost, a focus on to the Bhakra Nangal project and the complexities in the construction of multiple structures, this option was shelved. As an interim arrangement, the government settled on a barrage at Hanuman Nagar, Birpur. Thus, the first credible attempt to tame the river began in 1956 with an eastern and a western embankment of 105 and 106 km respectively of which about 32 km of the eastern embankment is in Nepal. These embankments were completed in 1959. The barrage at Birpur to regulate water flow was finished in 1964. The Indo-Nepalese agreement between the two countries, which facilitated this project, brought benefits to both India and Nepal. The Nepalese side, however, continued to question the benefits from the project. Nepal had all along wanted a barrage system further upstream which they believed would have yielded more optimum returns.


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