Engineering a season of floods
This monsoon, several Indian towns hitherto not known for flooding were submerged for days resulting in significant destruction of property and life. Amitangshu Acharya who is a Leverhulme Trust PhD scholar in human geography at the University of Edinburgh, takes a shot at explaining this increasing incidence of flooding by attributing it to the construction of dams by humans in an attempt to ironically ‘control’ the flow of rivers. Indeed, he reckons the idea of constructing dams to control the rivers is outdated and is a result of a British colonial hangover, even though western countries are moving away from dams.
“In 13 states of India this year, the monsoon appeared in the form of floods. The same happened in the Terai region of Nepal, Karachi and the Neelum valley area in Pakistan, several low-lying districts near the Padma river in Bangladesh, and Galle and Matara districts in Sri Lanka. In India, before the devastation of the 2005 Mumbai floods could recede from memory, floods have reappeared regularly in the cities of Mumbai and Chennai, as well as in the states of Assam and Bihar. In school geography textbooks, we were taught that rivers are productive only when caged with concrete. Our nation’s leaders and engineers decided to place greater trust in dams and embankments than “unpredictable” rivers. This mimicked colonial engineering which attempted to civilize rivers in a subcontinent where civilizations were birthed by rivers. The language of colonial engineering—training and disciplining rivers—has continued to dominate policy.
But insurgent South Asian rivers like the Brahmaputra, Indus, Kosi and Gandak have breached embankments repeatedly, turning engineered floodplains into hydrological dystopias. Dams kept getting built, and embankments kept getting longer and higher. A veteran scholar of rivers and an engineer by training, D.K. Mishra calculated that, in independent India, approximately 35,199km of embankments have been built around rivers as well as 4,728 large dams. Ironically, the flood-affected area of the country increased from 25 million hectares in 1952 to 49 million hectares in 2011. The solution had become a problem.
…Himalayan rivers used to bring fine silt to north Bihar from Nepal which would be deposited across the plains, making it one of the most fertile agricultural regions in the subcontinent. Embankments cut off this efficient transport of nutrients, making the land poorer and agribusiness corporations richer. It has been calculated that each year the Kosi carries 19 cubic metres of sediment per hectare, five times higher than any other river in Bihar. Unable to deposit this sediment, the Kosi is forced to retain it. This raises its bed, making floods an inevitability, not an accident.
….River engineering solutions are crafted by those who do not live on the floodplains. Floodwaters do not lap at the foot of their beds at midnight. The poor who live by the banks experience the river differently. They know its cycles and rhythms. They know when a river will overflow its banks simply by observing the colour of the water or the behaviour of fish. River engineering plans exclude such granular understanding of rivers acquired through lived experience. The late ecologist and conservationist Dhrubajyoti Ghosh had termed this “cognitive apartheid”—a systematic exclusion of the knowledge of the poor by the educated elite. This is a replication of the colonial system, creating a hierarchy based on privileging the lettered over the unlettered.”