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Experts Blame India’s Government For Mismanaged Monumental Flood

September 11, 2008

In August torrential rains devastated the banks of the Kosi River of eastern India, displacing more than 3 million people.

The monsoon rains weren’t unprecedented, they occur every few years, which is why experts say the government should have been better prepared for such a scenario.

“This is the mother of all floods,” said P.V. Unnikrishnan of aid agency ActionAid.

The Kosi, which feeds into the Ganges, flooded an area roughly the size of Belgium. The floods changed the course of the river, shifting it 120 km (75 miles) towards a dry river channel it last flowed through 250 years ago.

“It looked angry, very angry and we could do nothing, absolutely nothing,” said Kashiram Singh, a farmer.

“Over 100 acres of my land was gone within minutes,” said Kadam Lal, a farmer, pointing at a swirling barrage of muddy water powering down what were once lush green fields.

Poor planning, corruption and government apathy contributed to the devastating floods which have left tens of thousands of villagers in relief camps, many with little food.

Within 24 hours of the Kosi’s breakthrough the embankment, it had widened to over 15 km (9miles).

Flowing from the Nepalese Himalayas, the embankments are maintained by India under an agreement with Nepal.

Experts claim much more could have been done on behalf of the government. Floods could have been avoided if the embankments in Nepal at the river’s mouth had been reinforced as recommended by engineers who sent letters to New Delhi in April urging that such measures be taken.

Even after experts faxed messages to the Bihar government, no action was taken. Now half of the state is covered in water.

Engineers might only be able to plug the gap in December when the water flow decreases during the dry season, but the river may never return to its former route.

“It is an extremely difficult job at hand as the entire river is flowing through the new route,” said Nitish Mishra, Bihar’s disaster management minister.

“People should get away from its path now.”

In 1956, India and Nepal built a dam in the Himalayas to control the Kosi’s flow. It took seven years to build the dam and a 39-km (24 miles) embankment to jacket the extremely turbulent river. Once completed, authorities virtually forgot all about it.

“The silt continued to deposit and the river bed rose without anyone thinking about dredging and de-silting,” said Sunita Narain, a climate change expert in New Delhi.

“The impact of the floods will have a much larger regional effect,” said B.P. Singh, president of the All India Grain Exporters.

Left with no means of earning a living, hundreds of farmers are migrating to western India in search of jobs.

“They don’t have any choice, but I will stay here and watch,” said the bespectacled Kadam Lal. “I am too old to join them now,” he said.

Image Caption: Silt deposition near Kosi embankment at Navbhata, Saharsa, Bihar, India. Courtesy Wikipedia

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