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The plains of Bihar, adjoining Nepal, are drained by a number of rivers that have their catchment in the Himalayas. Torrential rains in the mountains aid these rivers – including the Ghaghra, the Gandak, the Buhri Gandak, the Bagmati, the Kamala, the Kosi and the Mahananda – in carrying a very high sediment load, down to the plains. Plains of North Bihar plains are therefore one of the most fertile regions in the country.

Kosi river breach timeline 2008. Image Source: http://www.zakku78.wordpress.com

Monsoon rains in India cause a lot of rivers to swell resulting in floods. One such river is the Kosi – a transboundary river between Nepal and India. Kosi, one of the largest tributaries of the Ganges crosses into the Indian mainland at Bihar. When the river enters the plains, much of the silt begins to settle, raising the bed of the river, resulting in shrinking of its channels and blocking the flow. During the monsoon, the rivers cut fresh paths through the sediment. The government response was to construct embankments. As the river’s embankment is eroded, it deposits silt and sand on more than 380 villages located between the embankments forcing the villagers to move. The villages affected by this phenomenon are known locally as “floating villages” – because they are constantly on the move, every monsoon.

“By building embankments on either side of a river and trying to confine it to its channel, its heavy silt and sand load is made to settle within the embanked area itself, raising the river bed and the f lood water level. The embankments too are therefore raised progressively until a limit is reached when it is no longer possible to do so. The population of the surrounding areas is then at the mercy of an unstable river with a dangerous flood water level , which could any day flow over or make a disastrous breach. Embankments provide partial protection to people by preventing the river from overflowing its banks during times of floods, but they also prevent the flood water from going back into the river and this leads to a major problem,” explains Dinesh Kumar Mishra, an engineer-turned-activist-researcher and convener of the Barh Mukti Abhiyan (BMA), an NGO working for the welfare of the ‘floating villagers.’

For families in these floating villages (floating villagers as they are called), it is a harsh existence. There is no hospital, no school, no government ration shop, no police station and no post office. The only way to reach them is by boat. Farmlands covered in sand and converted into a wasteland have been taken over by bandits and criminals. The shifting sands have shredded the social, cultural, economical, and environmental fabric of these communities. Government records  label these villages on the move as “illegal” and therefore they are not entitled to any compensation.

While the benefits to the nexus of politicians, engineers and contractors of the embankments may be enormous, for the communities in India’s most flood-prone state, living under this recurring threat of devastation is horrifying.

Common sense would suggest understanding the needs of local communities and involving them in the decision-making process. Read more of this story here.

Some of the earlier flood maps can be found here.