Over the years, many of Bihar’s districts have been facing serious challenges with recurrent and massive flooding. This year too, it has been a double whammy — of flooding and the novel coronavirus pandemic. It is the right time to look at some of the key aspects of India-Nepal flood management under the existing arrangements of India’s federal system that offers enough room for better coordination between the Centre and State governments. The background: some of Nepal’s biggest river systems originate in the Himalayan glaciers which then flow into India through Bihar. During the monsoons, these river systems flood causing many problems for Bihar. It is a necessity that there is process-driven coordination between the Centre and the Government of Bihar to handle the flooding in Nepal’s Terai and North Bihar (largely the Mithilanchal region).
As part of the long-term measures to address the problem of massive and recurrent floods in Bihar, the Joint Project Office (JPO), Biratnagar, was established in Nepal in August 2004 to prepare a detailed project report to construct a high dam on the Nepal side (on the Kosi, Kamla and Bagmati rivers). The Government of Bihar has raised the matter at regular intervals. The Central Water Commission (CWC), Ministry of Jal Shakti (MoJS), Government of India, convened a special meeting of the joint team of experts (India side) on February 10, 2020 at New Delhi to ascertain the status of the detailed project report. A group of officers formed by the CWC has to work on various aspects of the detailed project report and propose an action plan for its early completion. The Water Resources Department, Bihar has repeatedly requested the MoJS (most recently, through Letter no. 295, dated August 2, 2021) to expedite the progress of the detailed project report. Despite the best efforts made by the Government of Bihar, the task remains unaccomplished even after 17 years.
The Minister of Water Resources Department, Bihar, Sanjay Kumar Jha, met the Minister of External Affairs, S. Jaishankar, in September 2020 to highlight long-standing water sharing issues with Nepal. The crucial matter of water sharing with Nepal has been flagged by India officially as well. What is evident is Nepal’s lack of prompt reciprocation. It is essential that Nepal shows the required will to find a long-term solution with India in ending a perennial disaster.
Flood protection work
As in the existing India-Nepal Agreement on water resources, the State government is authorised to execute flood protection works up to critical stretches inside Nepal territory along the India-Nepal border. In recent years, all such flood protection works have had to be carried out in the face of increasing local resistance. Even during the COVID-19 pandemic, the Water Resources Department, Government of Bihar, was intensively engaged at two levels: with local Nepalese authorities and through appeals to the Central government for carrying out flood protection works in 2020. After sustained coordination between the Centre and the State (Bihar) and expedited interventions by India with Nepal, Kathmandu gave its conditional permission for manpower and machinery operation in the Nepal area of Kosi basin. Accordingly, 21 out of the 22 works could be completed. Also, some progress was made to facilitate the smooth movement of manpower, machinery and flood control materials across the Gandak and Kamla rivers situated on the Nepal side to carry out flood protection work during the flood period of 2020.
But despite the requisite permission for movement on the Kosi barrage and associated embankments, the movement of departmental vehicles and work activities did not draw the attention of the Kosi Project Authority, Biratnagar, for various reasons. Since bilateral cooperation remains the fulcrum of water sharing and water management between the two countries, Nepal must play its part in ensuring a sustainable way forward.
As in the figures shared by the Water Resources Department, Government of Bihar, a total of four new flood protection works in the Gandak basin area were proposed before the floods of 2020. A request was made on June 22, 2020 by the Water Resources Department, Government of Bihar, to the Government of India for entry into the Nepal region for execution of these flood protection works and for maintenance works of the Gandak Barrage Structure located in Valmikinagar. After receiving conditional permission from Nepal, maintenance work of the structure and components of the Gandak barrage (Valmikinagar), top regulator gates, Right Afflux Bund, and three of the proposed works in the Gandak basin were completed.
During the strengthening work proposed on the right marginal bund on the Lalbekia river, the local Nepali administration claimed that the said bund area fell in no man’s land. This is notwithstanding the fact that the embankment was built by India 30 years ago and there has not been any dispute regarding its maintenance all these years. Breach closure/protective work of right guide bund of the Kamla weir remains incomplete due to the lack of permission. However, resolution of the impasse is awaited. This is another important matter to be looked at.
Aware of the operational impasse during the flood season in 2020, Bihar’s Chief Minister Nitish Kumar visited the Jainagar weir site in Madhubani, and upon sensing the seriousness of the situation, instructed the Water Resources Department to explore converting the weir on the India-Nepal border into an efficiently operated barrage. It is evident that Nepal’s attitude towards mutual issues (water sharing, flood control, etc.) has been short of collaboration, unlike in the past.
An alternative paradigm
In the best spirit of friendship, Nepal and India should restart the water dialogue and come up with policies to safeguard the interests of all those who have been affected on both sides of the border. It is time the two friendly countries come together and assess the factors that are causing unimaginable losses through flooding every year. Optimisation of the infrastructure will be decisive in finding an alternative paradigm of flood management. Moreover, it is also linked to how the Himalayan glaciers and the green cover are managed.
Water cooperation should drive the next big India-Nepal dialogue, and despite the challenges, wisdom should prevail to turn the crisis into an opportunity, for the sake of development and environmental protection. Water resources are priceless assets. By controlling the flooding and using the water resources for common developmental uses such as hydroelectricity, irrigation and waterways, India-Nepal relations can be strengthened even further.
Atul K. Thakur is a policy analyst and columnist