INARUWA, JUL 14 -
August 18, 2008. An otherwise quiet and calm Monday in Shreepur, Sunsari, saw things descend into sudden chaos at around 1 pm. People were running helter-skelter, urging their livestock on and carrying their
children. Bibi Jainav was resting in her house when bedlam broke. Hearing the noise, she stepped out to witness what everyone was running from: the river Koshi nearby had broken through its embankments and massive waves of water were surging towards the village. Jainav ran for her life with the others, struggling to get to the highway. Upon reaching higher ground, she promptly passed out from exhaustion.
When she came to, Jainav looked around at the devastation. Everything as far she could see had been blanketed by the river. “Four years on, even the thought of that day still gives me shivers,” says Jainav. “We lost everything.”
There are nearly 42,000 others like Jainav, who look around nervously each time the sky darkens and it rains. They lay awake at night, listening to the pitter-patter of the raindrops and wonder if this means the Koshi will rage again as it did that day, if it will once again toss aside its embankments and wash away their homes.
That fateful Monday, the eastern Koshi had started to flood in western Sunsari when the embankments gave way and allowed the water’s flow to breach its banks. An Indian team that was supposed to be maintaining the embankments said the latter had failed of natural causes. They had been unable to work due to interference from locals and from the Nepal Army at the Koshi Tappu Wildlife Reserve, claimed the team, adding that several groups had even come to them asking for ‘donations’. Locals, however, say the Indian team never showed up to work on the embankments in the first place.
The Indian government had taken responsibility for the maintenance of embankments along the river and delegated a team to carry out routine inspection and repair work. For whatever reasons, the team, despite being located just across the border in Birpur, was unable to maintain proper upkeep of the embankments, causing them to rupture when the river swelled during the monsoon. Even the barrage doors, also under the Indian team’s management, were not opened when the water level started to rise, say experts.
Seventeen hundred metres of Koshi’s eastern embankments at Sunsari’s Kusaha collapsed, prompting the Indian government to begin repair work, as per the Koshi Agreement. After the Hindustan Steel Company finished with the initial repair work, India’s Vasistha and Vasistha began rebuilding the actual structure. A cool IRS 193 crores later, the eastern embankments are now safe but areas to the north are still in danger as water levels rise. Even the spurs along the river stretch from Madhuban to Rajabas are in a very fragile state.
The area of Pulthegauda, under extreme risk of flooding, has yet to see necessary maintenance on its rickety embankments. Pulthegauda was under the Nepali government’s jurisdiction per the Koshi Agreement, but the lack of a proper budget put a halt to any and all repair work. After failing to keep up flood protection measures, earlier this year, the Pulthegauda area too was handed over to the Indian government for repair. However, maintenance work has yet to begin.
This year, three pilot channels were also constructed along the Koshi to ease pressure from the embankments and help control and manage its flow. However, construction on the channels began too late and by the time they were completed, water levels had already risen considerably, putting undue pressure on already weak embankments.
The Koshi River almost always makes the news. When the water levels first rise and then recede, there is the danger of erosion, and high levels themselves can put the embankments and the barrages in danger. When the Koshi barrage was first constructed in 1962, the water flow was 950,000 cubic feet per second (cusec). The barrage was built to control and measure the water flow in the river. Anything over 150,000 cusecs warrants a red flag and a warning light is put on in the barrage. Since the dam was built, the highest recorded flow has been 913,000 cusecs on October 5, 1968, while highs of 590,000 cusecs were reported on August 12, 1990. Recent records show a high of 157,205 cusecs on June 29 this year.
However, the embankments can burst even with relatively low water flows. When the embankments burst on August 18, peak water flow was reported at just 160,562 cusecs. In the resulting flood, 42,000 villagers from Kusaha, Shreepur, Haripur and Laukahi VDCs lost their properties while a dozen states in Bihar were submerged. Similarly, two years earlier, during a low water flow of 140,000 cusecs, the number 12 gate of the Koshi barrage came under heavy stress.
Experts surmise that the coincidence of shoddy maintenance and sand buildup on the river-bed must have caused the embankments to burst during low flows and yet allowed them to withstand much heavier flows. Locals report a sandy flood plain five feet deep after the August 18 flood in 2008.
Dinesh Rajauria, chief of the Purbanchal Irrigation Development Division Two, reports that this year, pilot channels have been built along embankments that bear heavy pressure during the monsoon and that the main rapids have been diverted back into the main body of the river. “This year, hopefully, the embankments remain safe,” says Rajauria.
Posted on: 2012-07-14 08:23