Lessons from the flood
Lessons from the flood
By Ambikesh kumar jha
Reports show that, under the terms of the Koshi treaty, the overall responsibility of managing and maintaining the barrage and embankments lies with India. The river went into flood because its eastern embankment was not properly maintained and thus got washed away easily. The discharge of the Koshi during that time was less than 200,000 cusec, far less than the 400,000 cusec of previous years. Had the embankments been maintained properly, such a large human tragedy could have been avoided. It is, therefore, natural to blame India for not abiding by the agreement and keeping the embankment in good repair.
However, it is also the responsibility of the host country Nepal to cooperate, coordinate and ensure that the embankment is maintained. It should have initiated appropriate measures in time to prevent the disaster. Therefore, the Nepal government too is equally responsible for the misery of the people in Sunsari.
The Indian Embassy in Nepal had previously blamed lack of cooperation by the local authorities. If true, it points to gross negligence on the part of our local administration. It is because administrators from elsewhere do not have adequate understanding of local conditions and might be less responsive to the requirements of the residents that people in various parts of Nepal have been demanding self-governance.
The Koshi embankment has remained vulnerable for the past 15 years. Earlier, there was a rail track alongside the eastern embankment to facilitate maintenance of the embankment. The rail track was used for carrying stone and other construction material for reinforcing the embankment. Little care was taken to protect and maintain the track. As a result, the steel rails got stolen; and now there is nothing left.
In recent times, demand for stones has increased tremendously as exporting them to India became a lucrative enterprise. Contractors and operators of crusher plants were tempted to remove the stones placed on the embankment as the local administration was totally indifferent to what was going on. This weakened the embankment.
The government has failed to reduce the risk. Despite knowing that the embankment was going to fail, it took no action to shift the inhabitants to safer places. There was no flood warning system, and the people were asleep at their homes when the fury of the Koshi struck them with full force at midnight. Rescue and relief operations got delayed while the major political parties engaged in power sharing deals. Political equations were more important to them than the plight of drowning citizens. The government has not declared a state of emergency, and the Koshi flood has not been recognized as a national tragedy.
There is no clear account of the loss of lives and property. While eyewitnesses claim that hundreds drowned, the local authorities and sections of the media have been trying to play down the seriousness of the tragedy. Rehabilitation and resettlement have not yet started. It is also surprising to learn that the local authorities have been asking the flood victims to show citizenship papers before providing them basic humanitarian assistance. Telling the hapless residents to produce official documents is not only preposterous in itself, they wouldn’t be paying particular attention to grabbing pieces of paper when their whole world was being swept away by the swirling waters.
The government must not let the local people, who are mostly Madhesis, feel that they are being treated differently. The Nepali people have greater hopes from the new government. Rebuilding trust and cooperation among its own communities and among the neighboring countries is a must for New Nepal.
The destruction of life and property caused by the raging Koshi extends beyond national borders. Therefore, it is not right to be blaming each other. This is the time to act, cooperate and learn from past mistakes so that such catastrophes do not happen again. Blaming India, whose two million people are struggling to save their lives and property from the flood, will hurt its people. We should instead join hands and face together the century’s greatest natural disaster in eastern Nepal and northeastern Bihar. It is essential to realize the mistakes and correct them at the earliest.
(The writer is a water resources engineer and former general secretary of the Nepal Tarai Engineers’ Society.)
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