Firstly may I send our concern to all those who suffered from Hurricane Sandy, both in the Caribbean and the USA. As someone who has seen at first hand the devastating effects of flooding, (although not in a developed country) I understand only too well the heartbreak it can bring.
Well flooding this year in the project area, I am very pleased to report was not as bad as previous years. That’s not to say flooding did not occur in several places or that the river of sorrow, the Kosi did not bring any misery with its monsoon waters this year. It did, but thankfully not on a scale compared to previous years.
This article by Ranu Sinha of the New York Times illustrates what progress has been made in recent years, and People First is proud to have been part of this process through this appeal.
“The year was 2008, and I had just walked out of a meeting on flood management with the chief minister of Bihar, Nitish Kumar. Mr. Kumar, fully aware of the challenges of annual floods in Bihar, had asked for assistance in building new flood defenses.
Unfortunately, this call for help came a little too late. Hours later, the eastern embankment of the Kosi barrage, a major flood protection infrastructure in Nepal, collapsed on its left side, resulting in one of the most devastating floods in the history of the state. In Bihar alone, over three million people were affected, with official sources reporting over 500 deaths and close to 3,500 missing.
However, this flood did not occur as a result of too much rain. In fact, the water levels in the river were much lower than expected. What caused the flooding was too little maintenance. Official reports state that much-needed repairs on the embankments had been delayed for a number of years, severely weakening the effectiveness of the infrastructure. Eventually, the day came when the barriers of the embankment could not withstand the pressure of the river.
The business of flood management in India — the ability to predict, prepare, respond and recover from flood-related disasters — is the responsibility of state governments. Though non-state actors and the people affected can play a part in flood management, the lion’s share of the formal responsibility generally lies with state-run irrigation or water resources departments. Other agencies, like state disaster management and local governments, also play a key role.
Though research is limited on this topic, it is clear that there is a significant gap in the quality, performance and ability of these institutions to manage the complexity of floods.
As one of India’s most flood-prone states, Bihar faces enormous challenges. Bihar’s river systems and its 16 river basins are some of the most complex in the world, with a heterogeneous set of rivers flowing into the state from the Himalayas. Excessive rainfall, bursting rivers and breaching embankments are a recurring phenomenon that tend to wreak havoc on the lives of millions, with the poor usually the worst affected.
The 2008 Kosi floods were a wake-up call for the government of Bihar. Its water resources department is now trying to make sure the disaster of 2008 doesn’t happen again. I am leading a team of experts to study how the department institutionally manages floods. Our research, which is sponsored by the International Growth Center (I.G.C.) India-Bihar country program, a global research and policy center headquartered in Britain, has attempted to investigate the institutional factors that may be contributing to increased risks from floods to Bihar’s 103 million people.
Our team conducted household surveys of affected communities and staff interviews of water resources department engineers, from junior officers to the leadership in the state capital of Patna.
The findings were eye-opening. The water resources department is in charge of both irrigation and the management of floods, but in most cases the supply of staff in the department does not match the demand of the dual responsibilities of irrigation provision and flood management. Staff shortages tend to lead to an overemphasis on the construction of new flood protection infrastructure and little time and manpower for ensuring the quality of what already exists.
Some staff members stressed the need for further training in modern-day flood management techniques, particularly the junior members who generally bear the responsibility of being the first to protect infrastructure and communities in the event of a flood. The staff also did not have sufficient hardware and software to adequately perform their duties. Tools like vehicles and computers, as well as flood-related technology, are in short supply. Inefficient systems monitor the performance of staff and the quality of the maintenance of flood infrastructure.
Engagement with communities, actively involving them in essential flood-fighting activities, seems to be ad hoc and underdeveloped, while coordination with other agencies at the local and state levels needs to be severely strengthened. Essentially, the problem boils down to too much to do in too little time, with too few resources.
Bihar is not alone in grappling with these challenges. In June, an embankment breach on the island of Majuli in Assam on the Brahmaputra River affected more than 200 villages and is being called one of the worst floods in the state in the last 14 years. Reports from the flood indicate that much of the early work of flood preparedness and embankment maintenance was largely nonexistent. This recent flood may have been less severe had the local irrigation department conducted high-quality maintenance work on the embankments.
It is not purely a coincidence that total flood damage in India, in terms of population affected and crops and assets destroyed, has risen from approximately 520 million rupees in 1953 to over 88 billion rupees in 2000. India, therefore, desperately needs to transform its water management agencies to address these concerns rather than pour money into more concrete.
Bihar is one of the few states in India to begin transforming its flood management practices. Data from first hand experiences has convinced policy makers that reforms are necessary. This means hiring thousands of new staff, setting up world-class training institutes, improving the knowledge of field staff in state-of-the-art techniques of flood management and creating new quality procedures and inspection systems that can track how well an embankment is performing. It also means actively involving communities in disseminating warnings and sharing the burden of flood protection alongside its engineers.
In Bihar’s 2011-12 budget, the government estimated it would spend close to 77 billion rupees ($1.4 billion) on irrigation, flood control and energy. This is significantly higher than the amount budgeted in 2010-11, which was close to 56 billion rupees. The increase in funds will be critical to implement crucial changes.
What India has now is more like underpaid, poorly trained fire fighters fighting blazes with leaky hoses and battered trucks, and this status quo cannot adequately protect the millions of lives at stake. Reform must happen even though these are not easy changes to make. They cannot happen overnight, but they will make a difference in the way state institutions plan, manage and respond to the inevitable flood. The changes under way in Bihar may soon lead the way for the rest of country”
Cleary things have improved, but there is still some way to go. As this appeal nears its completion we ask you to provide us with donations to buy the emergency supplies like medicines, food and blankets that we can distribute in the area when needed in the next monsoon. Your support has meant a great deal to so many families, both the immediate assistance of essential items and the longer term help with livestock and help with new small scale income raising enterprises. This is Rajiv Kumar a local villager. “ the consistent help and support we have received has really helped us in so many ways, but the fact that People First is a small community based organisation working with local people directly has meant we get the materials and help we need without any delay. “Thank you all so much for helping us”
Please help us complete this important appeal.
It really has transformed lives.
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