The Kosi has this year lived up to its name of Bihar's 'river of sorrow' by changing its course and rendering nearly three million people homeless, but now trying to jacket it with embankments and barrages as engineers are planning to do may cause further devastation, says noted water expert Anupam Mishra.
Enclosing the silt-laden river within an embankment that will force it to run in east-west course against the region's topography is a recipe for future disaster, Mishra told IANS.
The author of several books on water systems and traditional water harvesting methods explained: "The seven currents of the Kosi cannot be tamed. The topography of the flood plains is elevated at the north along the Himalayas and slightly lifted in the east owing to silt deposition in flood plains.
"The river is about 20,000 years old. In the past 200 years, equivalent to a day in our lives, the river has shifted about 120 km because its original flow is eastward, to merge with the Ganges."
According to Mishra, the barrage on the India-Nepal border built to control had failed and had only "hastened its changing course. The Kosi is a meandering river. The natural tendency of the river disapproves the steady-water equilibrium engineering of authorities.
"Embankments may work on rivers that are stable and carry moderate amounts of silt. Holding a river like Saptakosi, as it is also called, only adds to its defiant nature."
In his Hindi book "Saaf Maathe ka Samaj" (Society with a Clear Mind) Mishra has analyzed the behavior of rivers in northern Bihar, their impact on society, floods and their management.
Excerpts from his 2006 book read: "Flood are no guests here (in northern Bihar). They never come by surprise. Their occurrence is set in time. There may be a delay of a few days in its arrival. But come they will.
"Yet, on its arrival we consider it sudden. Perhaps in earlier days, society was more capable of flood management, independent of useless administration, so they never seemed rattled by flooding. The lack of preparations before the flood magnifies its destructive impact."
Mishra said: "People and tribals in the region own boats as we do cars. If instead of spending millions on helicopters and fuel, which anyway turn out to be inadequate for flood relief, these locals and their boats are employed and engaged by the government prior to and during the floods, flood management will prove to be more efficient and cost effective.
"The meandering waters, big or small, are best known by the locals. With their collaboration, the impact can be less destructive even in situations like the flooding of a major river like Kosi."
Mishra, a Gandhian and environmental activist, feels that there is a need for authorities and people to understand flood management techniques adopted by local people in the past and assess how to use them today.
"Earlier this region had thousands of natural and man-made depressions, which ran for 5 to 10 kilometers. While these became lakes during monsoons and controlled flooding waters, during dry weathers, these were used as water holes. The government and authorities, in a haste to tap the agricultural potential of the soil, filled the depressions and encouraged cultivation there.
"Now with no depressions left, the waters run helter-skelter wreaking havoc on the lives of people that worship it. Ironically all that agriculture is of no use any more. The authorities have to choose what is important. Is agriculture of any use at the expense of the lives of millions of people?"
Speaking about the present flood relief efforts in Bihar, he said that authorities have to surrender their political agenda and consider the victims' plight rationally.
"The railway minister has announced that 100,000 bottles of 'Rail Jal' (water packaged for Indian Railways) will be distributed among over two million flood victims. Is this sustainable? How many bottles can reach these victims who are affected by the flood? Instead one can consider distribution of filtering devices and tanks to filter and decant flood waters rendering it relatively drinkable.
"Society, as it has proven in the past, will rehabilitate itself in due course. But it is not society that has created barrages and embankments. Authorities have created them, so it is their duty to set an agenda on how to control future floods and live with them - to think, discuss, deliberate with engineers, locals, and representatives from Nepal and Bangladesh to plan in advance, and execute in time."