I grew up playing in local streams in the Koshi River basin in the hills of Sankhuwasabha District in Nepal. I used to go to the fields with my father to graze cattle. I would stand by my parents when they performed puja on river banks. Sometimes, my mother would recite stories about Indra—the rain god—and the Ganga River flowing to the earth from the sky. Dumbstruck, I wondered about the Ganga’s flow in the sky as she came down.
When I was in the fifth grade, I travelled to Madhes in the south. On my way, I saw the Arun River—a tributary of the Saptakoshi—for the first time. I was amazed by its vastness and its whistling sound. The river appeared to be nature’s most beautiful creation and gift. On both banks of the river were sand dunes and a few rocks that appeared to have been deliberately placed there. Many years later, I found out that, in the past, heavy floods had carried them with them and deposited them on the banks as the floods subsided. Today, the building of large hydropower dams along its course are transforming the river.
On both banks of the river were sand dunes and a few rocks appeared to have been deliberately placed there.
In 1988 after the School Leaving Certificate examination was over, I visited Kathmandu. On the way to the capital city, the bus crossed a bridge built in the Koshi barrage. I was amazed by the vastness of the Koshi River to the north of the barrage. I remember someone telling me that the barrage was built in Nepal but operated and managed by the government officials of Bihar, India. I did not understand why.
A year later, I joined Hattisar Campus, Dharan, Nepal for my Intermediate degree. From Dharan, I would often visit the Koshi barrage with a few friends. On our way to the barrage, we would stop to watch the Saptakoshi flow downstream. We often talked about Nepal’s being the second richest country in the world, after Brazil, in terms of water resources. We recalled reading about the electricity the rivers would produce and how its sale would make Nepal rich. We also talked about how rivers helped irrigate fields and meet other human needs. x
One day, while on our way to the barrage, we met a few persons on the Saptakoshi bank. We stopped to talk to them. They told us stories of their loved ones having been carried away by flood water; of paddy harvest being lost to floods; of the disappearance of the cattle of inundated households. They also told us stories of inundation, erosion, flooding and the non-payment of compensation for the damage they had suffered. Some of them had been displaced for a long time and lived on public land. They said they felt abandoned by the state. I had not heard such stories earlier. They shocked me to the core.
Those suffering inundation, erosion, flooding and non-payment of compensation for the damage they had suffered felt abandoned.
A few years later, I found out about the treaty on the Saptakoshi River signed by Nepal and India and that the barrage was a part of it. One day, during our visit to the barrage, we observed large canals on the east and west which diverted the Koshi’s flow. We asked where the water was going. The answer was to irrigate agricultural fields in Bihar. We wondered about the lack of canals from the barrage in Nepal. I asked one of my teachers and he explained to me that the canals at Chatara and Saptari were built as part of the Koshi treaty. I had little idea of this world. There was so much to learn.
Student organizations in Nepal argued that the Koshi treaty was unequal and demanded its abrogation. The stories of suffering that I had heard earlier, however, were absent from these discussions. When I met some of the victims again, they were desperate to overcome their miseries. I wanted to help them in their efforts to overcome their suffering, but I did not know how. I talked about their suffering with some local officials. They would point to the provisions of the treaty and seemed insensitive to the locals’ plight.
A few years later, in 2005, we established Koshi Sarokar Samaj (Koshi Concern Society). We took up the cases of those affected by flood disasters. I had begun my journey to help the victims become more organized, collectively tell their stories and demand justice. In 2007, we organized the first Saptakoshi Pani Sambad (Saptakoshi Water Dialogue) in Itahari—a town located a few kilometres east of the Saptakoshi River. Scientists, river engineers and local politicians from Nepal and India and representatives of flood victims participated. The Sambad focused on both immediate and long-term issues, flood disasters, compensation, river management, promotion of local knowledge, and public policies.
Embanked Kosi River
ver a period of ten years, we organized ten dialogues. In each dialogue, local participants shared hereto untold stories of woe. Unfortunately, these stories remain largely unaddressed till date. We also heard similar stories from people along the Gandak and Mahakali rivers in Nepal. The condition of people living along the banks of these rivers in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh in India and Bangladesh was no different. Their voices remained unheard. I was particulary pained that while governments promised development and wellbeing, people were suffering and there was little concern at the higher levels. Officials would refer to the provisions of policies, but those provisions were hardly complied with. We networked with groups in Nepal which worked to minimize suffering.
In one of the dialogues, a water expert suggested: “A river has democracy, too. If people respect this democracy, the river will respect people. Otherwise, it will only bring trouble.” This idea of democracy was new to me. I had to better understand the relationship between people, water and rivers. I decided to work with the people living in villages along the banks of the Saptakoshi River, Barah, Mahendranagar, Prakashpur, Madhuban, Laukahi, Sunsari District and West Kusaha, Saptari District and Belka Municipality, Udaipur District. Those interactions helped me understand the local perspectives and use those as a basis to engage with experts at various levels of government and in other platforms.
Participants in a meeting Photo Keshab Dahal Early 2000
We held dscussions in Kathmandu, New Delhi and Dhaka. In those discussions, people presented different views. Those within the government and in the private sector emphasized their own views of rivers. For them, a river was a resource to be used to meet the predefined agenda of States. Others recognized multiple meanings and relationships between rivers and people and the social costs of past development. Those from the grass roots highlighted stories of sufferings and argued for taking measures to minimize them.
In the dialogues, the participants discussed the provisions of several bilateral treaties. I found bilateral agreements, laws and acts bureaucratic, with many untied knots. In a way, those discussions have helped me draw my own conclusions. Water development in South Asia, at worst, has disregarded and, at best, homogenized the intrinsic relationships between rivers and people, layered with many other relationships.
Bilateral agreements, laws and acts had many untied bureaucratic, with knots.
Did my decade-long campaign through the dialogues help right the wrongs done to those affected by river development in the past? It would be presumptuous to believe that they did. My effort was a tiny dot in the history of rivers and nations. However, it changed my initial perspectives. The ten years I had spent on the banks of the Saptakoshi were akin to university education. I learned the meaning of rivers and life. I began to understand that rivers have multiple uses, that people have different meanings, values and pespectives about them, that river development produces both those who gain and those who lose out, that people and rivers are inseparable but politics separates them, that the stories of water are linked to the stories of people, fishes and animals, and so on and so forth. I realized that every river has its own story.
Nonetheless, our and similar other efforts in Nepal and elsewhere have, in a limited way, contributed to improving community’s access to knowledge about floods and to underscoring the fact that the use of a river is dependent on political, social, cultural and economic factors. That floods and inundation are not natural disasters but by and large outcomes of social and political conditions. Such efforts have helped people living on river banks get organized and demand greater accountability from the agencies of State to deliver better services.
During my days in the campaign, I was anguished by the nature of politics in the region. The more I thought of the people affected by floods, inundation and injustice, that people did not get even the promised compensation, the more I realized the need for new ways of organizing politics. The body politics, I believed, would have to undergo systemic changes if it had to value water justice and river democracy. I decided to move on from local campaigns and began a journey of alternative politics at the national level. I began to write on contemporary politics and a novel.
A public meeting meeting Photo Keshab Dahal Early 2000
Despite the herculean task, I have continued my endeavours of reform. The time I spend with people on the banks has me given strength. When ever I get an opportunity I go back and interact with the river people. Today, whether I’m on a political campaign or engaged in writing, I begin with a conviction of knowing something about the soil, the water and people’s concerns. I try to keep the idea of river democracy alive.
By valuing water justice and river democracy we can begin systemic changes to steward rivers.
Rivers across the world, including the Koshi, Gandak, Sarada and the Ganga and their tributaries face serious degradation. Climate change—a new stress—has worsened the social costs, particularly for marginalized families. Snow-fed rivers like the Ganga, Mahakali, Karnali, Gandaki and Koshi face threats to their natural rhythms of flow and their relation to nature and community as ice deposits and glaciers melt at a faster rate. The impacts are likely to manifest in the flows of the snow-fed rivers in Nepal, India and Bangladesh, with major consequences for the people. The state of many other rivers is no different.
Ongoing human interventions and climate change will make the already large footprints on rivers and people even larger. These emerging, as well as past untold stories, must be captured and shared for their lessons for healthy rivers and life. I believe new generations of actors with a passion for healthy soil, water and rivers and with deeper insights and new communication skills will tell these stories even more emphatically for a journey that respects river democracy.