A flood of recrimination

This monsoon was no different than previous ones in Nepal being blamed for downstream inundation

Libya, Greece, Spain, China — videos of catastrophic floods have flooded the international media. 

Floods swept away most of the Libyan city of Derna, killing more than 11,000 people. Climate change was blamed, but it was also caused by war and unheeded warnings about weak dams.

The disasters are a warning to Nepal where a range of factors could worsen monsoon flooding in the coming years. The Melamchi flood in 2021 that nearly destroyed Nepal’s largest infrastructure project, and this monsoon’s destructive floods in eastern Nepal show that these disasters are already happening. 

But every monsoon there is also a flood of recrimination in India about Nepal releasing water on its rivers and unleashing floods — even though there are no reservoir projects and sluice gates on two border barrages on the Kosi and Gandaki, both controlled by India.  

Yet, every monsoon the media in the Indian states of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh are full of headlines blaming Nepal. 

Read also: The Kosi returns to its old ways

The 2008 flood that affected 2.3 million people in Nepal and India was actually caused by a breach in the eastern embankment of the Kosi. The rain that year was not even heavy, so one wonders what would happen in a year when there is abnormal precipitation in the Kosi catchment.

Kosi NT

“After the completion of Kosi Barrage in the 1960s, the embankments have collapsed about eight times until now, but the major one was 2008,” says Ajaya Dixit, a water expert. 

In 2008, the Indian media had ill-informed headlines like ‘Nepal opened the Kosi Barrage’ which has affected public opinion. The real story is about faulty engineering of the barrage and its embankments on the Kosi, which is a river with one of the highest sediment loads in the world.

Eklavya Prasad, water campaigner who is with Megh Pyne Abhiyan in Bihar, says it is unreasonable to blame Nepal for annual floods in India. He explains: “Geographically, a large number of Himalayan rivers flow down from Nepal and discharge the waters and sediment into the north Bihar region. It is a natural drainage path that flows across the international boundary and beyond human capabilities.”

Read also: The Kosi’s sorrow, and scope, Kanak Mani Dixit

Kosi, also known as Sorrow of Bihar, is notorious for frequently changing its course. In the last 200 years, the Kosi has gradually shifted 120km westwards.

“River always chooses the path of least resistance. And when it doesn’t get to flow, it forces its way through,” says Dixit. 

Ignoring this nature of the river when infrastructure and new settlements are designed on old floodplains is what has increased the intensity and impact of floods.

In many ways, it is the same reason Kathmandu gets flooded every monsoon. Infrastructure has been sited along floodplains constricting rivers such that even moderate rain becomes destructive.

“All of the 56 floodgates of the Kosi Barrage are operated by the Bihar government, and if they fail to open the Nepal side is flooded. If they are opened, the flood goes downstream,” says Dwarika Nath Dhungel, former secretary of the Ministry of Energy, Water Resources and Irrigation.

Read also: The geopolitics of Nepal’s water and electricity, Ramesh Kumar

Although there is no clear clause on the operational right of the barrage in the agreement between Nepal and India, on the Kosi Project, Dhungel surmises that a subclause is being used by India to manage the barrage.

Says Dhungel: “The same clause also uses the word 'maintenance' of barrage here, but there has been no maintenance effort from the Indian side.”

The barrage impounds water forcing the river to deposit its sediment behind it so that the river is now flowing a few metres above the surrounding land — increasing the dangers of floods. 

The solution to transboundary floods is to look at the river system in totality. If India and Nepal are to prepare for cataclysmic water disasters in the future, the two countries must work together. The ‘national interest’ in harnessing Nepal’s rivers must be based on bilateral benefit.

Says Ajaya Dixit: “Studying the nature of the rivers, not just where it floods but also from where it originates, and incorporating these elements while building infrastructure can minimise the risk of river-related disasters.”

Read also: India, Nepal ignore climate crisis in river talks, Ramesh Bhushal