Nepali Times
Damning Nepal


Even- monsoon a political ritual takes place in the Mithila and Awadh regions of the Indian states Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. Departmental functionaries visiting the flooded areas in these cow belt states point to the north and say: "All the flooding comes from there, and there is very little that we can do".

Even Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee could not remain immune to the finger-pointing, and during his 1998 tour of the flooded eastern Uttar Pradesh, remarked in Lucknow, \'The flood [in Eastern Uttar Pradesh] comes from Nepal." So it is not at all surprising that the yuppies of the Indian electronic visual media too have picked up the chant. Last week a popular TV channel, covering the Assam floods, did not once mention China, Bhutan, or Arunachal Pradesh upstream of the Brahmaputra Valley for the increased flow in the river, but when reporting on the floods in the northern Ganga plain thought it fit to state: "Nepal released 350.000 cusec water from its dams."

For anyone who does not know better it could easily sound like Nepal had opened the floodgates at the height of the monsoons. But the fact is the spillover from Nepal\'s only reservoir, on the Kulekhani, is miniscule compared to the swollen monsoon flood of the Bagmati River into which it drains. The other two regulating structures are the barrages at the Kosi and Gandaki rivers on the Nepal-India border. A barrage does not store floodwater, and in any case, the state Government of Bihar maintains control over both.

The politics of blaming Nepal started back in the colonial era. In 1941 Sir Claude Inglish. the director of the Hydrodynamic Research Cenrre at Poona, attributed floods in the Kosi River to the hill farmers cutting trees. Even though the theory of deforestation-triggered flood stands debunked today, the legacy it left behind still makes it convenient to lay the blame on Nepal for the floods in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh.

A corollary to this view is that dam-reservoirs in the river valleys of Nepal are consistently shown to be the panacea to control lowland flooding. The mantra of the Bihari establishment is-build the "Kosi High Dam" at Barahachhetra (just before the Kosi exits the mountains) and all of Bihar\'s problems, including floods, would vanish. It is different matter that no one mentions that storing floodwater would turn a seasonal natural event into a permanent feature in the hills and nobody is willing pay the cost of submergence.

There is an inherent contradiction in the philosophy of flood mitigation through reservoirs. To attenuate floods, a reservoir needs to be kept partially empty, or to put in technical terms it has to provide for a "flood cushion . An empty reservoir, however, cannot be economically justified, and in all likelihood electricity and irrigation benefits will be dovetailed in the design of the dam. Which further means that in order to optimise the latter two objectives, the dam will have to be kept full.

Even if these inherent contradictory purposes of the dam-energy (full) vs flood control (empty)-were to be reconciled, it is doubtful that the annual flood disaster in the Ganga plain can be minimised. This is because a large number of rivers of North Bihar and Uttar Pradesh originate in the Siwalik (Chure) Hills. These rivers are ephemeral in nature and have no storage sites in their basin and neither can dams be built to control them.

In the months of July and August the low-pressure monsoon trough shifts north of the Gangetic plains and stations itself over the hills for a few days in a phenomenon called "break monsoon". During this period the skies can release almost two feet of water in a 24-hour period. The Siwalik rivers, which are no more than drainage channels, then have to transfer the incoming water to the sea and can do it only by flowing downstream.

The resulting flood hits all communities in its path. It cuts across political boundaries without distinction. The high stages of river become disasters due to political, social and institutional failures, made worse by poor governance, exploitative social formation, and inappropriate selection of technology for flood control.

The real issue is not what is stored upstream but what drainage congestion has been avoided downstream. Over the last 50 years, Bihar\'s embankments, stretching over 3,000 km, have made more land susceptible to floods than what they were meant to do-provide deliverance from the annual inundation. And the reason is simple: embankments prevent the natural backflow of rain and small streams into the main river channel after the moonsoon has expended its fury.

Failures remain unacknowledged. And inefficiency is ceremonially transferred elsewhere-upstream to Nepal. The most distressing aspect of this political ritual is the total lack of scientific or historical depth and its appeal to pseudo-universats. Ultimately, it ends up trivialising the complex specificities of flood disaster.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)