The Koshi Deluge: A History of Disaster for Nepal

September 16, 2008 at 5:04 pm Leave a comment

The Koshi Deluge: A History of Disaster for Nepal

Situation Update 77: By the Conflict Study Center

Impact of Koshi’s devastation

The Koshi River breached on the nose of spur 12.90 and 12.10 on the eastern embankment, 12 km north of the barrage near midnight on August 18, 2008. Immediately, five Village Development Committees (VDCs) — West Kushaha, Haripur, Sripur, Laukahi, and Bokraha of Sunsari District — of Nepal and 14 Districts in Bihar, India were inundated by severe flooding. About a dozen people were killed in Nepal and 42 in India as of now. There are several reports that many more are missing. In the initial days, displaced persons were compelled to drink unsafe (Koshi flooded) water which resulted in 20 deaths due to cholera and other water borne illnesses. Many people have suffered eye disorders such as conjunctivitis. Children are suffering from pneumonia. About 60,000 inhabitants in 10,530 families of Sunsari district have been evacuated, whereas one million have been in Bihar. Koshi is also called Sapta Koshi – which includes seven major tributaries (Sun Koshi, Tama Koshi, Dudh Koshi, Indrawati, Likhu, Arun and Tamar) and 125 small tributaries in Nepal.

The full loss of lives, cattle and property is not yet known, but billions worth of property has already been spoiled. Most temporary homes along with their domestic animals have been washed away, whereas permanent homes are still inundated. The near complete discharge of the Koshi river is now flowing from the eastern collapsed embankment, changing from its earlier course through the barrage. The Koshi flood disaster swamped Nepal’s breadbasket and disconnected the fundamental East-West Highway. The farmers of the Eastern Tarai, who provide rice and vegetables to other parts of the country, have been cut off. Food insecurity will likely ensue. The flooding also swept away underground optical fiber, resulting in intermittent telecommunications.

The 300 meter length of the August 18 breach has widened through erosion to over 2 km. There is still fear that the fragile embankment will break in more places. A Standing crop of 22,000 hectares (worth approx. US $4 million) has been damaged by flood in Nepal, whereas 250,000 ha of crops were effected in Bihar. Flooding caused a blackout of the entire region and about 40,000 labors are without work. The governments of Nepal and India are now in a dilemma as to how to work with a river that has changed its course. The Koshi barrage and embankment was constructed by the Indian Government after the Koshi Treaty was signed between acting Prime Minister Gulzari Lal Nanda and Nepal’s Bir Shumeshwar on April 25, 1954 during the premiership of Matrika Prasad Koirala in Nepal and Jawaharlal Nehru in India. King Mahendra inaugurated it five years later on April 30, 1959. The barrage’s estimated lifespan of 30-years expired in 1986. The Proposed 269 m high dam near Chatara (45 km north from the Koshi barrage) is another ambitious project which is intended to generate 3,000 MW of hydro power.
Eight major floods occurred during the 55 years of Koshi treaty. Among them, western embankment Dabala in Nepal (1863) and eastern embankment, Joginia, Nepal (1991) including the eastern embankment, west Kushaha in Nepal in 2008. Remaining 5-breached were western embankment, Jamalpur, Darbhanga (1968); eastern embankment, Matania, Bihar (1971), eastern embankment, Hempur, Bihar (1984), and Gandoul and Samani, Bihar (1987) in India.

Gushing but unmanaged aid

Immediately after the inundation, the Government of Nepal (GoN) called for support of the floods victims. Disaster relief aid continues to flow from both the national and international community. The (I)NGOs, civil society, and donor communities are engaged in rescue and are ensuring relief materials get to the flood victims. Security forces, in particular, have been mobilized to rescue the trapped people from roofs and trees through helicopters, boats and other means in the inundated areas. Apart from immediate rescue, the challenge of settling the displaced on a long term basis remains. Still, there is lack of coordination and insecurity among the rescue workers and material providers due to separatist movements launched by socio-cultural groups in the Madhes.

The GoN announced a 25 million NRs. relief package at the beginning of the flooding and later committed 2.5 billion NRs, whereas the European Commission provided a total of 1 million Euros as humanitarian aid. The government secretaries of Nepal decided to provide three days of salary while other civil servants could only spare one day’s earnings. The Kantipur publishing group alone collected more than 10 million NRs and handed it over to the PM’s fund. This assistance targets all 60,000 victims for emergency food aid. Despite the collection of a huge sum of money, there has been a lot of debate over whether the humanitarian relief is being distributed transparently and with accountability. The flood victims have started to encircle the local district authorities to punish the alleged relief workers believing that a huge sum of aid has been misused.

Indo-Nepal agreement on Koshi river

The Koshi River, which in earlier days was known as the “sorrow of Bihar” due to flooding in the monsoon and drought in winter, became the “pride of India” (Bihar) when the Barrage was completed. It was constructed between 1959 and 1963 on the Nepal side of the Indo-Nepal border for the purpose of irrigation, flood control and hydropower generation. It has 45 spurs, 500 m apart, on the eastern embankments in Nepal. The Koshi is a 729 km long river, originating near Mt. Everest from the world’s highest glaciers — on the Tibetan plateau and in Nepal. The Koshi enters Bihar (the Northern most State of India) and finally ends at the confluence of Gangas, travelling from Nepal. It may be the only river in the world to horizontally change its course as much as 120 km in the last 250 years. The Koshi Barrage has a capacity of 950,000 cusecs in a peak flood. The Twelve to 16 km wide embankment has, unfortunately, also served as a silt trap, raising the bed of the river higher than the surrounding alluvial plane.

Nepal is the second richest country of water resources, after Brazil. The Freshwater flowing down through the Himalayan range across the Chinese border as attracted a few powerful interests. Although, China has upper co-riparian rights, it has not created any major trouble for Nepal. Relevant excerpts from the Indo-Nepal Koshi agreement 1954 on authority, duties and responsibilities are:

• The Government of India (GoI) shall be authorized to conduct necessary investigation for storage or detention for dams on the Koshi or its tributaries – soil conservation, check dams, forestation, etc. for prevention of future problems (Art. 2.2).

• Nepal shall provide necessary lands to execute the said project (Art. 3.1). And compensation of land to be provided by India to Nepal (Art. 3.2). India shall execute all necessary repair work and maintenance, and if incident occurs, compensation for every damage case shall be provided to Nepal (Art. 3.3). Required construction materials shall be brought from Chatara, Dharan Bazar, etc. (Art. 3.4).

• India shall regulate all the generated power supplied by the Koshi River (Art. 4.1). Nepal shall utilize up to 50 percent of the hydro-electric power generated at the Barrage, paying tariff rates to India (Art. 4.2).

• India shall be the owner of all lands acquired from Nepal. The sovereignty rights and territorial jurisdiction of the Government in respect of such lands shall continue unimpaired by such transfer (Art.5).

• Nepal shall receive royalties in respect to power generation (art. 6.1). The prices of stone, gravel, etc. shall be paid to Nepal (Art. 6.2). Compensation is to be given to Nepal against the use of timber (Art. 6.4).

• Nepal shall charge no customs duty for any kind of construction and maintenance materials (Art. 7). Compensation shall be provided in cash for lands, forests, village houses, etc. in Nepal (Art. 8.1). The barrage shall be open to public traffic but India shall have the right to close it (Art. 8.4).

• India shall give preference to Nepali labor (Art. 12). India shall establish schools, hospitals, provision of water-supply and electricity, drainage, tramway lines and other civic amenities in the project territory of Nepal (Art. 13). Nepal shall be responsible for ensuring security in the project areas (Art. 14). Nepal agrees to establish special courts to settle the disputes raised within the Project area (Art. 15). India shall be responsible for investigations and necessity of storage or detention dams and other soil conservation measures on the Koshi and its tributaries (Art. 16). Two persons – one to be from Nepal and the other by India – are to be appointed for arbitration (Art. 17).

In 1978, when the Koshi tried to breach eastern embankment which had made endanger even to Biratnagar (eastern Nepal), second urban city after Kathmandu, Nepal Government repaired the dam borrowing 7 billion Nepalese currency loan from World Bank without seeking any support from India.
Nepal signed a second similar treaty with India, the Gandak Treaty, in 1959. When the Tanakpur Treaty was signed by Girija Prasad Koirala in 1991, he tried to hide the facts by saying that it was an agreement. But the Supreme Court gave a verdict canceling it, as it was indeed a treaty. Later, the Mahakali Integrated Development River Treaty was signed by the then Prime Minister of Nepal, Sher Bahadur Deuba, and his counterpart in India, PV Narsimha Rao, on February 12, 1996. The CPN (Maoist) initiated the People’s War the following day. Cancellation of the Mahakali treaty was one of the major demands out of the 40 submitted to the government before initiation. Due in part to the Mahakali treaty, the CPN(UML), along with the Nepali Congress, paid a heavy price in the recent Constituent Assembly (CA) elections, becoming third and second party in the CA respectively. Madhav Kumar Nepal lost in both his constituencies. Nepal’s leadership claimed that the Mahakali Treaty remained as a benchmark in Nepal-India relations, but the treaty could not be implemented even after 12-year. Thus, India has been gaining lower riparian rights (consumptive rights) of water use, minimizing in many cases the upper riparian rights of Nepal.

Witness of the Koshi treaty

The Koshi Control Board meeting, held in Patana on March 2, 1956, orally agreed to rehabilitate approximately 45,000 displaced Nepali people. It agreed to:

• find land for affected families; the Government of India shall provide the financial assistance to build their houses as compensation;
• manage schools, roads, and drinking water;
• provide “one employment opportunity to each family.”

The rehabilitation was started in 1958, allocating 21.2 million NRs to support victims’ families. However, by the end of 1960, only 70 villages were rehabilitated. From1972 to 1973, only 32,540 (72%) families received installment I to build their new houses. Again, 10,580 families received installment II as compensation. However, no families received the remaining installment III. Due to the Indian Government’s negligence, even the rehabilitated families suffered from floods due to improper drainage in summer, despite what was assured in the treaty.

In 1962, a committee was formed to find out ways of all-round development, particularly for agriculture, health, road, industry, etc. for the displaced families, but their efforts were in vain. A similar committee headed by the Koshi Development and the Chief Administrator of the River Basin Project came into existence five years later. But again, the families were disappointed as it only partially succeeded. In the course of addressing the socio-economic problems of the displaced families, a committee was formed under the leadership of Chandrakishor Pathak in 1981. The committee submitted its report the following year, but the report didn’t become enforced until 1987. That finally formed the Koshi Pidit Vikas Samiti. Yet again it proved useless in delivering political economy to the affected. The huge (321bighas) land that Nepal had provided to India in September 1959 for field research has not been returned, although the contract period ended 30-year back, in 1978.

India, water rights and her neighbors

The waters of Jhelum and Chenab, originating in Jammu and Kashmir, helped instigate the India-Pakistan war. Lower riparian right holder, Bangladesh, shares 54 rivers and has serious differences with New Delhi that delay agreement on eight. Dhaka continues to complain to New Delhi about water sharing of the Gangas. India’s linking project from the Gangas to Brahmaputra has been fueling tension with Bangladesh for a long time. Unlike Bangladesh and Pakistan, Nepal is a small, landlocked country that has not had any serious bargaining leverage due to the asymmetrical treaty of Sharada Dam (1927), the Koshi Agreement (1954), the Gandak Agreement (1959), the Tanakpur Agreement (1991) and the Mahakali Treaty (1996). A few important statements or reports from India on the Koshi have been given below (

“…The last point, no discharge control — no flood control. Unless discharge is controlled, scientists all over the world are convinced that floods cannot be controlled…Embankments do not control discharge, they can, at best, prevent water from spreading. Weak embankments cannot hold uncontrolled discharge and flood will continue to bother us as a natural calamity. If we want to control floods in this state, we will have to control discharge in the upper riparian states and the neighboring countries. We have had negotiations with them …unanimously agreed to proceed jointly.”
– Jagadananda, Minister, Water Resources, Bihar Assembly (July 22, 2002)
“…So far as Bihar is concerned, we are having constant interaction with the government of Nepal because we all know these rivers originate from Nepal. Unless we have any kind of agreement with Nepal, this problem cannot be solved. The proposal for setting up a joint project office in Nepal for taking up field investigations and preparation of a detailed project report has since been approved. 100 officials from Nepal, and 42 officials from India are to carry out field investigations and studies. The project will inter alia have 269m high dam with an installed capacity of 3,300 MW and irrigation benefits accruing both to India and Nepal…. the Koshi Multipurpose Project, it will include Sun Koshi Diversion scheme as well.”
– Arjun Charan Sethi, Minister, Water Resources, Lok Sabha, New Delhi (August 22, 2003)
“… a sum of Rs 29 crores has been sanctioned for the construction of the Koshi High Dam. As far as Barahkshetra Dam is concerned, politicians in India are sticking to the same statement that dialogue with Nepal is on since 1947.”
– Jay Prakash Narayan Yadav, State Minister, Water Resources, New Delhi (June 24, 2004)
“ …But the proposed Sapta Koshi Dam too has not been provided with any flood cushion which should be provided for flood moderation…”
– Report of the Expert Committee (April 2005)
“The flood caused by the Koshi in Bihar underlines the need for storing water by building dams or barrages. Since the issue involves Nepal, vigorous diplomatic efforts are needed.”
– Montek Singh Ahluwalia, Deputy Chairman of the Planning Commission, New Delhi (August 2008).

India has long been silent, as Bangladesh wants to hold a tripartite meeting among Nepal, India and Bangladesh on riparian water rights.

The Nepali Congress and its policies toward neighbors

On December 19, 1966, the Government of Nepal and the Government of India revised the Koshi project agreement to address the concerns of Nepal. This superseded the previous agreement of April 25, 1954 on some issues. In the major amendments, Nepal agreed to provide the Koshi on lease for a period of 199 years. To resolve the ongoing problems, both governments agreed to establish a Joint Indo-Nepal Koshi Project Commission. They agreed that the Coordination Committee for the Koshi Project which had first formed under the leadership of Matrika Prasad Koirala in 1954, would continue to function until the said commission was formed. The Committee consisted of 4 representatives from each country. Nepal would chair the committee and the administrator of the Koshi Project would be the secretary of it. If any dispute were to arise concerning the construction, any of the parties could inform by notice in writing the other party of its intention to refer to arbitration such dispute or difference; and within 90 days of the delivery of such notice, each of the two parties would nominate an arbitrator for jointly resolving such dispute or difference, and the decision of the arbitrators would be binding on the parties. In case the arbitrators were unable to agree, the parties could consult each other and appoint an umpire whose award would be final and binding.

Till 1991, 17-ministerial levels meetings had already been conducted. When Nepal’s Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala visited India along with Water Resources Minister Mahendra Narayan Nidhi in 1991, the ministerial level Coordination Committee had been dissolved and a Joint Committee headed by Secretary, Ministry for Water Resources was formed. The first meetings of the secretaries decided to form a Joint Koshi-Gandak Coordination Committee under the Director General of the Water Resources Department of Nepal without any prior work or cost-benefit analysis.

Interestingly, only two meetings have been held so far, in spite of the commitment of at least two meetings at each year. There is a provision for one Nepal Government official to be appointed to operate/monitor the Koshi sluice gates, but it has not been acted on since 1992. Thus, history is witness that the previous Nepali Congress-led government always tried hard to win hand, head and heart of India, resulting in the Governments’ loss of Nepal’s upper riparian rights, sovereignty, integrity and independence. Besides, NC-led government tried to put China in a distant. This has resulted in a great loss of its affinity with the people in the recent elections; a trend that will continue until it is again in tune with the people’s wishes.

Riparian water rights

Under the riparian water rights principle, all landowners or users adjacent to a body of water have the right to make rational use of it. If there is insufficient water to satisfy all consumers, water is generally shared proportionally among all users. Riparian rights cannot be sold or transmitted to land owners other than those adjoining. This means water cannot be transmitted out of the watershed. The rights include: access for swimming, fishing, and boating ? cut off at the point of navigability; straight structures such as harbors, wharfs, and boat ramps; utilization for domestic purposes; and flood control measures in areas of water level fluctuations. Indeed, riparian rights apply to adjacent reasonable users of the water resources fairly and equitable more strongly than to distant owners/users. Riparian rights are property rights; riparian rights are inherent rights in a riparian packet/parcel of land; and a packet/parcel of land should border the natural body of water to be riparian. Nepal is entitled to upper riparian rights for all water resources on the Koshi, as it starts from the glaciers of the Himalayas.

Embankment and its maintenance

After a high-level government team inspection, Nepal concluded that the devastation of the Koshi River took place due to the carelessness of the Indian Government. Prachanda, Prime Minister of Nepal, said, “[the] Koshi agreement was a historic blunder.” Upendra Yadav, Foreign Minister of Nepal, said, “India should understand that the strong nexus between the contractor, engineers and Bihar Government officials was responsible for the Koshi Disaster, regardless of how India explains it. The people responsible for maintenance work on a commission basis. Once there is talk of commission, the laborers get cheated” (The Kathmandu Post: September 8, 2008).

As the Bihar government did not carry out required repair and maintenance works on the Koshi barrage and its embankment, the agreement has been violated. India is responsible for the maintenance, cleaning and siphoning of the barrage, as per the bilateral agreement of 1954. “Every year in the past the Indian side used to do at least some maintenance work. But this year they did not carry out the repairs,” Khom Raj Dahal, Deputy Director General of the Department of Water Induced Disaster Prevention (DWIDP), told the Kathmandu Post. ICIMOD says, “Average discharge of Koshi River at Chatara at the peak of August is about 4400 m³/sec….On August 18, when the embankment breached, the discharge at the Koshi barrage is reported to have been about 4200 m³/sec, which is below the average monthly discharge….It is due to structural failure of the embankment that led to the flooding rather than an extreme rainfall event.” Despite India’s failure to perform its duty sincerely in the last 20-year, Upendra Yadav stated that siltation pushed the Koshi back to its previous course. The report of the ICIMOD also agrees with Upendra. It says, “Due to extensive soil erosion and landslides in its upper catchment by factors both natural and human, the silt yield of Koshi is about 19 m³/ha/year, accounting for 40% of the total sediment load of the Gangas system, and is considered to be one of the highest in the world.”


In the beginning of the disaster, both Nepal and Bihar tried to blame each other. The Bihar government said that the devastation of the Koshi has loosened India’s ties with Nepal, since Nepal demonstrated apathy toward timely maintenance of the barrage. In addition, India stated that they could not conduct their work due to insecurity and eastern regional transport strikes, even though the disaster was noticed 13 days before the embankment was breached. International news agencies such as the BBC, CNN, etc. continuously focused on the suffering in India only. Some Indian news papers alleged that the Koshi changed its course due to Nepali actions. Water resource expert, Gipak Gyawali, said that the wrong technological choices for this kind of a hydro-ecological regime, wrong institutional arrangements, and wrong conduct in public service over the last half-century are the root causes of the Koshi breach. Regardless of the details, negligence of technician, insecurity (continue tussle between Nepal-Indian contractors), labors threat to contractors as contractors get cheated them, smugglings of stones, gravels, timbers, etc. from Nepal to India, separatists continue pressure to contractors to provide donations to them, etc. are the prime cause of the victimization of both Nepalis and Biharis.

Even for the Karnali-Chisapani project, Indian company competes with Russian bidders for the license of construction. Indian companies are also interested in having the license for Arun III and Upper Karnali hydro-power projects. However, Nepal’s primary rights to use electric-power and lower riparian rights need to be guaranteed. Snowy Mountain Engineering Corporation (SMEC), Australia has received the license for the West Seti, wherein India shall obtain free water through the Karnali and 90 % of the resulting cheap electricity.

Then Indian Ambassador Chandreswar Narayan Prasad Singh, and then Prime Minister of Nepal, Mohan Shamsher JB Rana, signed on July 31, 1950, the Indo-Nepal Peace and Friendship Treaty. The basis for its name is a mystery to many Nepalis. It, and the subsequent unequal irrigation, flood control, hydro-power and power-benefit sharing treaties and agreements have all been signed under the leadership of NC. The results for Nepal have been massive flooding during the monsoon and crippling power outages during the dry season. The communist forces seized an opportunity to attract commoners, in large part due to an increasing perception that the NC has been selling out the country to India. Due to Koshi’s flooding, 69% Nepalis asked PM Prachanda to nullify the Koshi treaty in his forthcoming visit (Kantipur TV: September 8, 2008).

Now, the Maoist-led government faces many challenges. Either these unequal treaties and agreements must be reviewed/nullified or new arrangements must be made following upper-lower riparian rights and international water laws and practices. If the Maoist-led government fails to carry out any fundamental change in Indo-Nepal water relations, including the revision of the controversial “Peace and Friendship Treaty” of 1950 and the asymmetric Koshi treaty of 1954, people shall consider it no different than previous governments. In this regard, politically conscious eyes remain fixed upon the Maoists.
Though, India’s reluctant acceptance that it is responsible for the Koshi’s deluge has gradually calmed down the anger and frustration level, India’s recent decision to be ready for amendment or cancellation of the aforementioned treaties/agreements is the genuine move towards peace and friendship between the nations.

Despite great loss of lives and property, the Koshi breach is a historical example of brotherhood to Nepal, as flood victims ? mostly tarai dwellers ? are being rescued and provided humanitarian relief mostly by hill-and-mountain dwellers. This is a golden opportunity for all Nepalis to achieve greater adherence of unity, integrity, sovereignty and independence. Therefore, the crisis of identity and security on political economy along the Indo-Nepal cross border is to be resolved by concerned state actors through mutual dialogue putting people of both nations at the center.
Author: Bishnu Pathak PhD and edited by: Neil Horning
Assisted by: Rushma Shakya, Rita Chaudhary, Man Pd. Neupane ‘Manish’, Ganga Puri and Meena Siwakoti

9. Nepal. Bhadra 22, 2065 BS. Kathmandu
10. Nepal. Bhadra 15, 2065 BS. Kathmandu
11. Samaya. Bhadra 20, 2065 BS. Kathmandu
12. Samaya. Bhadra 13, 2065 BS. Kathmandu
13. Kantipur
14. The Kathmandu Post
15. Naya Patrika
16. The Himalayan Times
18. Koshi Flood Disaster. August 27, 200I. CIMOD.
20. Revised agreement between Nepal Government and Indian Government on The Koshi Project.
21. Nepal. Bhadra 29, 2065 BS. Kathmandu
22. Himal Khabarpatrika. Bhadra 15-31. Kathmandu
24. Kantipur TV: September 8, 2008


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Dams, embankments led calamity & migration Prejudice Nepalese Medias and Anti-Khas Madhesis

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