Dancing with the river

Women and children displaced by flood seek shelter in Jogapurwa village of Bahraich district, Uttar Pradesh in India. Photo: NABIN BARAL

Parash Nath Kashyap, 62, has moved three times in two decades due to floods and erosion along the Ghaghara River, which is what the Karnali is called after crossing the border in southwestern Nepal.

“How different our life was 20 years ago,” says Kashyap, dragging a charpai under the shade of a tree along the left embankment of the Ghaghara in Jogapurwa, 30km west of Bahraich city.

In 2000, severe floods washed away his family’s land so they moved a kilometre east. Another flood in 2002 forced them to move again. In 2008, they were made homeless again and settled in a patch of government land along the flood-control levee. “It’s like hide and seek, we move as the river moves,” he says wryly. “For years we have danced with the river, but with tears in our eyes.”

Read also:

Part 1: Faith to reality 

Part 2: Dams and dreams a journey down the Karnali

Parashnath Kashyap is the leader flood victim communities in Jogapurwa in Uttar Pradesh, India. He has been fighting for rights of the affected communities in Ghaghara. Photo: NABIN BARAL

The Ghaghara flows into the Ganga downstream in Bihar in one of the most flood-prone regions and most densely-populated regions of the world. Floods in the Ganga basin between 2000 and 2014 affected about 93 million people. According to a 2018 report from the International Water Management Institute, there were 326 extreme flood events in the Ganga basin between 1980 to 2015 resulting in 67,000 casualties. Of these 212 floods were in India, 74 in Bangladesh and 40 in Nepal. China accounts for 4% of the basin, but there is almost no information about floods there. 

Read also:

Part 3: Climate denial in the Himalaya 

Part 5: A Karnali portrait 

After the river-engulfed more land in Jogapurwa of Uttar Pradesh, the number of people living in temporary settlements has grown. This has led to a web of social problems in recent years. “People living far from the embankment (our relatives) don’t want to get their daughters to marry our boys as we live in a very vulnerable situation,” Kashyap adds. 

Chandra Vahal , a flood victim in Jogapurwa village of Uttar Pradesh shows the level of flood that submerged their make shift houses last mosoon. Photo: NABIN BARAL

He knew that problems would get worse when he was first displaced in 2000, so he married off his daughters as early as possible while he had some money left. As he lost his land, his economic condition deteriorated. “We have land certificates but we are landless because the river is flowing over where we used to live,” he said.

Most of the younger generation have gone to bigger cities in Punjab or Delhi to look for work. The result of the exodus is visible: most people in the villages were women, the elderly and children.

“We cultivate some vegetables on the sandy land in the dry season. You can’t imagine how big this river is in the monsoon,” said Kamlesh Kashyap, another flood refugee. This land is far from where they live, so their vegetables are often stolen or eaten by animals. “If boys were here, they could guard the land at night, but women can’t because it’s very unsafe,” he adds.

Locals collect sand from the Ghaghara river at the Ganga/Ghaghara confluence. NABIN BARAL

Displaced people who move to the cities have to do low class jobs, like dish-washing or toilet cleaning, since very few had been to school. The farming community has been devastated, children do not go to school.

“They have to herd animals, so parents are reluctant to send them to school,” says Dhrub Kumar of the Panchasheel Development Trust which works with displaced communities. “Parents are forced to sell most of the milk from their cows or buffaloes, so the children do not have enough to eat.” 

The Uttar Pradesh government’s attempts to relocate the displaced have largely failed due to a lack of understanding of their long-term needs. A decade ago, the government provided land for people in Jogapurwa to construct houses, but the land was too far away from where they farmed. “It’s about 10-15 km from here and the land is just enough to build houses so where do we keep our animals, where do we produce food, how do we survive?” asks Parashnath Kashyap, whose family decided to stay put in the hope that Ghaghara would change course someday and they would get back to their land. 

Some people moved to the government provided land, but later they returned to the embankment. “We are all low caste people but the new land was dominated by higher caste people so we were afraid we would be harassed,” says Chandran Bhaal, 56.

Hare Ram and his wife sow pointed gourd in the sandy soil at the confluence of the Ganges and the Ghaghara in Chhara district of Bihar. Photo: NABIN BARAL

The Karnali River traverses the mountains from Tibet through Nepal and becomes the Ghaghara in Uttar Pradesh in northern India. The Girijapuri Barrage 16km downstream from the Nepal border was built 55 years ago to divert water for irrigation to central Uttar Pradesh. Much of the water is diverted west to the Sharada River , another tributary of the Ganga. 

“We are killing this river by diverting most of the water for irrigation and leaving the downstream areas dry,” says Dhrub Kumar.

According to the studies, the Ghaghara started shifting course particularly after 1995. The Gangetic plains are relatively flat, and after the steep descent from the Himalaya, the rivers shift course in the alluvial plains, especially when they swell during the monsoon. According to the National Disaster Management Authority of India, about 2.7 million hectares out of 24.1 million hectares of land in the state is affected by floods every year, with an estimated loss of $57 million. 

Debates whether embankments are the right way to deal with floods are not new, but the problem is getting bigger as more money has been invested in flood control levees over the past decades. Experts say the heavy sediment load is raising the river beds, and although the embankments may control floods temporarily, they can cause catastrophic flooding when the levees are breached in future.

An embankment to control floods in the Ghaghara river near to the Ganga/Ghaghara confluence at the border of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. NABIN BARAL

Many argue it is only corrupt contractors, bureaucrats, technocrats and politicians who have benefited, making billions from embankments despite their failure to curb the floods. “Long-term solutions are not a priority, but immediate relief and embankments have always been priority. It clearly shows that money is the motivation behind (embankment building),” said Ajit Dixit, a journalist based in Cornelganj in Gonda district.

Governments are supposed to protect people but many say they are not moving in the right direction. The population grows rapidly and land encroachment near rivers is a serious problem because it leaves them vulnerable to future floods. 

“If we invest the amount of money we have been investing in embankments, I think it’s possible to resettle villages in safe places. But as it’s a politically motivated move it’s not going to happen,” Dhrub Kumar says.

While the construction of embankments started during British rule, the majority were built after India’s independence in 1947. According to the World Banks’s 2014 report, about 16,200 km of embankments were constructed between 1954 and 1997 in India alone and authorities claim this has protected about 17 out of 40 million hectares of flood prone lands along the Ganga.

The story is jointly published by Nepali Times and The Third Pole. Subsequent instalments of this five-part series will appear from 8-11 January.