Bihar floods: An annual blame game between India and Nepal

Almost every monsoon, the Bihar government blames Nepal for causing floods in the state. This year, too, a blame game over the maintenance of barrages erupted. For now, the “confusion” is sorted. But, Bihar is on a high alert for flood

Rohin Kumar
| Updated: June 27th, 2020

Last year, around 67 lakh people from 12 districts of Bihar were hit by the flash floods. Photo: Abhishek Verma


Bihar is being pounded by continuous heavy rainfall, which is expected to go on for the next 72 hours. India’s most flood-prone state has already been put on a very high flood alert. Live visuals from the Kosi barrage show huge volume of floodwater gushing into the river. As per the latest data released by the state’s Flood Management Improvement Support Centre, water levels in all the major rivers – Kosi, Bagmati, Mahananda, Kamala, and Ganga – are showing an ‘increasing trend’. Reports pouring in from Saraigarh-Bhaptiyahi block of Supaul district inform floodwater has already started to enter at least a dozen villages. 

Bihar, with 70 per cent of its geographical area prone to floods, is face-to-face with its annual disaster amid the ongoing COVID19 pandemic.

Incidentally, just last week, the state government was blaming the upstream Himalayan state Nepal for obstructing flood preparedness works. As per news reports, on June 22, Nepal obstructed the maintenance of the Valmiki Nagar barrage across river Gandak, as well as Lalbakeya river bund.

Bihar’s water resources minister, Sanjay Jha, was quick enough to react over the issue. While speaking to a news agency, he said, “Gandak Barrage has 36 gates, of which 18 are in Nepal and the area where the flood-fighting material is present, they (Nepal) have put barriers in that area. This has never happened in the past.” He went on to blame Nepal for possible floods in North Bihar and said it would be “disastrous” if Nepal did not allow the maintenance work.

But, a day later it was reported that “confusion” was sorted. Local representatives from both India and Nepal met at the Gandak barrage gate number 36 in Nepal.

Posted by Koshi Barrage on Thursday, June 25, 2020

Valmiki Nagar barrage me koi danger nahi hai. Poori taiyari hai yaha par [Valmiki Nagar barrage is out of danger. We are fully prepared here],” Bagaha (West Champaran) sub-divisional magistrate Vishal Raj told Gaon Connection. “It was basically a liasoning meeting between officials of both the countries since Nepalese officials were asking for COVID-19 negative certificates for Indian workers involved in the maintenance work,” he explained. The meeting was successful as a primary health centre in Valmiki Nagar has been designated for screening and issuing health certificates to the Indian workers involved in barrage maintenance and other pre-flood preparedness works in Nepal.

“District administration is monitoring the situation closely and pre-flood preparedness has been done,” Rajiv Ranjan, superintendent of police Bagaha assured Gaon Connection.

This isn’t the first time India and Nepal have got into a blame game over floods in North Bihar. Every time the region, which is the country’s most flood prone area, inundates, fingers are pointed towards the upstream Nepal for releasing water. Media headlines read: “Heavy rain in Nepal leads to flood in several Bihar districts”, “Deluge in Bihar worsens as Nepal releases over 1.5 lakh cusecs of water”.

But this year, the blame game was heightened due to the simmering tension between both the neighbouring countries.

Last year, flood situation continued to remain grim as six rivers – the Bagmati, the Burhi Gandak, the Kamala Balan, the Adhwara, the Khiroi and the Mahananda – were flowing above danger level. Photo: Abhishek Verma

Over 10 days back,on June 15, while addressing Uttarakhand Jan Samvad Virtual Rally, the Union defense minister Rajnath Singh reiterated, “India-Nepal ties are not ordinary, we are bound by “roti” and “beti” and no power in the world can break it.” His comments came in the wake of the Government of Nepal constitutionally adopting a new map that includes territories with India — Limpiadhura, Lipulek and Kalapani.

Moreover, on June 12, a firing incident had taken place at the India-Nepal border in Sitamarhi district where a 22-year-old Indian, Vikas Yadav, was killed.

For now, the “confusion” over flood-preparedness works between both the countries is settled. But, the local people are not satisfied with the tall claims of preparedness. They claim the repair and maintenance works are delayed by days and months. Had these repair works been done when the flow of the Gandak river was upstream, the chances of flood could have been minimised. Earlier net-bags filled with big stones could have provided strength to the barrage, but now only sand bags could be used for the purpose. They fear a serious flood threat to the villages in Bagaha, West Champaran.

Bihar, with 70 per cent of its geographical area prone to floods, is face-to-face with its annual disaster. Photo: Abhishek Verma

India-Nepal: Water sharing and blame game

A large number of Himalayan rivers flow down from Nepal and discharge all their waters into the north Bihar region. During the monsoon, heavy rainfall in Nepal and north Bihar floods these rivers, which include Kosi, Gandak, Kamla Balan, Narayani, Bagmati, etc. No wonder Bihar is known as the country’s most flood-prone state.

According to the Bihar State Disaster Management Authority (BSDMA), 73.63 per cent of the geographical area of North Bihar is prone to floods. But, this year a cocktail of the COVID-19 pandemic, floods, and turbulent diplomacy with neighbouring Nepal could be disastrous for the state.

India and Nepal are linked by history, geography and economy. Still they have witnessed phases of tensed bilateral relationship that has influenced their water sharing arrangements. If the political class in Bihar for decades has conveniently used Nepal as an excuse for massive floods in North Bihar, a feeling of mistrust on the other side is very much prevalent. Nepal feels it has not received a fair share of water for irrigation and other related purposes.

Nepal has been particularly critical of at least two agreements – Kosi (1954) and Gandak (1959). In an attempt to settle grievances, both these water agreements were revised – Gandak (1964) and Kosi (1966). But, is Nepal responsible for floods in Bihar?

“Nepal releasing water through barrages and causing floods in north Bihar is a lie and fraud perpetration on the people of Bihar,” Dinesh Mishra of Barh Mukti Abhiyan told Gaon Connection. He has written extensively on the rivers of North Bihar, and has been a member of a number of state and national committees on flood control.

“The fact of the matter is there are only two barrages, one on the Gandak and the other on Kosi. Responsibility of both these barrages lies with the water resources department of Bihar. So, whenever it is said that Nepal is releasing water, it means that Bihar engineers are doing it and with the approval of the Government of Bihar. This myth needs to be exposed. Accountability of the government must be fixed,” he added.

Gandak barrage Pic: Google Earth

Last year, the state faced extensive floods. Out of its 38 districts, 28 districts were flooded causing huge loss of property, lives, farmlands and infrastructure. At least 130 people succumbed to the devastating floods and around 88 lakh people were affected. According to government estimates, crops worth Rs 353 crore were destroyed in the floods.

With the state facing continuous heavy downpour in the last two days, floods seem imminent even this year. Water and flood experts are questioning the delay in carrying out pre-flood preparation works in the state.

“Why are the repair works happening so late [end of June month]? When it was well advertised in advance that the country would witness normal monsoons this year, how and why did this delay happen?” Eklavya Prasad, managing trustee of Megh Pyne Abhiyan lashed out while questioning the state government.

“By now we only know about the barrage on the Gandak river, what about the repair works on Kosi barrage and other river embankments in north Bihar? Are we prepared to effectively deal with the breaches?” he added.

Every year the state government prepares Standard Operating Procedures that includes pre and post flood preparations. It is a set of guidelines that includes various flood fighting measures, maintenance of embankments/barrages, setting up of relief camps and others.

Inspecting Kosi river embankment at Beldaur. Photo: Twitter

As per the latest data released by Flood Management Improvement Centre, Government of Bihar, Kamla, Mahananda, Ganga and Kosi rivers are showing an increasing water trends for consecutive three days now.

Commenting on the situation, Arvind Nishad, spokesperson, Janta Dal United (JDU) said: “The government is fully prepared. The water resources minister and the chief minister are regularly following the situation.” However, he also went on to blame Nepal: “Situation worsens every year after Nepal releases water through its barrage. Amid the recent tensions, flood fighting may be challenging.”

Gaon Connection spoke with engineer-in chief, flood control and water drainage, Water Resources Department, Rajesh Kumar, to understand the nitty gritty of barrages and embankments at India-Nepal border. He refused to share information claiming “It is a matter of national security and we can’t disclose this to you over phone”. He also did not answer how Nepal could release water if the authority lies with engineers of his department.

“Government now or before has always been clueless of flood control. So, when the water level rises in barrages or pressure is created on embankments, flood gates are ordered to be opened,” said an engineer in the water resources department on condition of anonymity.

Flood warning in Bihar

For the last few days, the India Meteorological Department has been warning of very heavy rainfall in Bihar and resultant floods. On June 24, M Rajeevan, secretary, Union ministry of earth sciences tweeted: “Monsoon activity to be shifted to foothills of Himalaya and North East region. Heavy rains and possible flooding over this area from June 25 to 28.”

The Met department has issued a red alert for all the districts of Bihar. And this red warning is there till June 28. Since the beginning of the monsoon period, between June 1 and June 26, the state has received 234.4 millimetre (mm) rainfall, as against the normal of 127.1mm, thus registering 84 per cent rainfall departure (large excess category).