Reflections on Floods, Droughts, and Irrigation

We must find ways to better understand our local realities before proceeding to present a grand proposal of development.

Early agriculture

It is said that the human race started growing grains about nine thousand years ago.  If that is so, our ancestors might have shed their nomadic pattern of life and begun sedentary living in a particular place, one no doubt near a river offering advantages like availability of abundant water and navigation. They could have harvested fish for eating to start with. It is said that, initially, when flood season arrived, fearing inundation, they would construct dwellings close to nearby high lands or foothills, away from the river. In due course, however, they would have studied and understood the river’s behavior. They would have seen that the river had high flows only for some time when the rains came. Only then would the river be a threat. They would have realized, too, that if they could deal with the instability of the river, they could live on its banks. They could plant and harvest year-round and not have to move to the uplands.

Some enthusiasts among the early settlers on adjacent uplands would have decided to settle on the bank of the river, knowing full well that the river would bring them problems during the rainy season. It was not a bad bargain for them, though: they could reap the benefits that the river provided, like irrigation, fish, and navigation for trading. In due course, this decision to embrace the risk must have helped river civilization to develop. Those who dwelt on the river’s banks may have taken measures to protect themselves against the wrath of the river when it swelled during the rainy season. They would have constructed bunds around their dwellings for protection or created raised lands on which to move their livestock for safety when the river flooded.

As the population grew, a stage no doubt came when people thought of preventing the spill-over of the river by building embankments along the river’s banks. Except for building ring bunds around their individual dwellings, all other initiatives must have been undertaken through collective effort. Building embankments would have been possible only with the help of the State, in whatever form it existed in those days. This arrangement seems to have lasted for centuries.

It is known that the construction of embankments along rivers has a long history. The embanking of the Hwang Ho River in China, for example, was started in the seventh century B.C. and continued for decades. In the first century C.E. the Po River in Italy was embanked. Similarly, the Kosi River was embanked both in North Bihar, India, and the Nepal Tarai in the 12th century C.E. After they landed in the United States in the 15th century, the Europeans began embanking the Mississippi River. Dams were also built across rivers to store water to meet needs in addition to offering some protection against floods. Bunds of low heights were popular. After independence in 1947, India pursued the building of embankments on a massive scale for flood protection in the Indo-Gangetic plains.

Embankments for flood control

Embankments were built for laying railway tracks and on their top road pavements have been made. Embankments have ended up reconfiguring local hydrology and today their performance is questionable. The basic reasons for their low performance are (i) embankments prevent surface runoff from flowing into a river freely and thereby result in water-logging outside the embankments (ii) embankments prevent sediments from spreading onto fields as floodwaters travel and (iii) sediment loads are deposited within embankments, thereby raising the levels of the river bed and lowering the free board available for flood waters.  As a result, the levels of embankments have to be raised periodically; otherwise, flood waters will flow over the top damaging the embankments. In any case, all embankments breach; it is impossible to construct a breach-proof embankment. When an embankment breaches, a major deluge occurs, devastating people, land, and property. River erosion in many palaces adds to human suffering.

In the Indo-Gangetic plains, technocracy has mooted another proposal for controlling floods: building high dams in the upper reaches of the Ganga’s tributaries. These dams would store flood water and make downstream areas flood-proof. The locations for building high dams are in Nepal, and the Government of India can do little unless Nepal agrees to its proposals. The first proposal for a dam in the Kosi was made in 1937 C.E. Negotiations between India and Nepal have been going on since then but have not yet yielded a result.  High dams bring high social, environmental, and other consequences anywhere they are built, but building in the seismically active Himalaya mountains incurs very high risks and has cost implications. The effectiveness of dams in controlling downstream flooding is debated. Moreover, the question of how to manage flooding that rainfall in the plains itself brings is still an uncomfortable question indeed.

Locals who live by rivers have a different story to tell. Eighty-four-year-old Munnar Yadav lives within the Kosi embankments constructed in the early 1960s.  He says, “The river was deeper before the embankments were built. During the rainy season, the river used to rise over the banks and spread over a large area. The river was free to wander, and the river water returned to its course once the quantity of water in the river decreased. Earlier, flood waters used to come, disperse on the flood plains and then go; now they only come and do not go easily These days the river has also become shallow due to the deposition of sediments. The water level of the flooded river rises very fast and reaches the top of the embankments. The flood levels also stay for a longer time than they used to. The reduction in flood flow does not offer much help as the river which is trapped between the two embankments is already shallow. This has implications for the paddy we plant. We have to depend on other crops planted in our fields outside the embankments. Earlier, floods used to creep in like a cat. People know how to handle a cat. Today, floods pounce like a tiger, and people find it very hard to deal with such an attack.

Schematic of 2008 Kosi Embankment Breach Dixit et al (2020)

Ramesh Jha, aged 93, of the village of Bela Goth also lives within embankments in the Supaul District of Bihar. He said, “Those of us living within embankments at least know the hardships that we will face during the monsoon, but those living outside of the embankments do not know how the river is going to behave toward them. Since the embankments were completed in 1963, they have been breached eight times. If they breach, it is the people outside who suffer and they do not know where to run for safety. In normal years, they suffer water-logging throughout the year. This embankment is a great equalizer as far as the suffering of those living within the embankments and the suffering of those living outside the embankments are concerned.”

Political class, engineers, and education

Neither learning from past water development efforts nor the real concerns of the people found salience in public policies on water. Politicians and engineers have no time to listen to people’s stories. Engineers do not talk to local people or make even the slightest of efforts to understand locals’ versions of the problem or the solution. They align themselves along with politicians and push to continue the status quo.  In the meantime, in the countryside, knowledge development takes its own independent course. A child living in a village on a river’s banks starts to visit the river with his or her parents at an early age. She or he learns to swim by the time she or he is eight years old and can row a medium-sized boat by the time she or he is twelve. She or he knows how to catch fish and can tell how a wave in the river will travel past his or her village. He or she will be able to speak about the crops most suited to the area, the timing of sowing, taking precautions while raising the crops, and harvesting them once they are ripe.

His or her only limitation is that he or she is not endowed with mathematical skills. In common parlance, such individuals are called ‘laymen’ while those who study engineering in universities are called ‘experts.’  Engineers do understand mathematics but are not cognizant of local ecologies or societies. Their knowledge system filters out locally rooted insights because they put themselves on pedestals and dismiss the locally rooted understanding of laymen (read the uneducated) as not knowledgeable. The hubris of the expert and wisdom of the layman do not match at all. These are two very different universes, and dialogue between the two does not take place. Unless this gap is bridged, the problem of flooding will continue to become more acute. The beneficiary of this deadlock, in the meantime, the political class, though closer to the masses, does very little for them.

The British started building embankments in the Damodar River in West Bengal. They tampered with the river and their efforts failed. For flood control, they stopped recommending embankments as a solution. In the drought-dominant areas in the west of the sub-continent, they built irrigation canals and succeeded in generating more revenue. They thought that they could similarly intervene in the flood-prone areas of the east and generate even more revenue. After investment in flood-control measures and making the area flood-secure, they thought, irrigation intervention would become an additional source of revenue. This assumption, however, went horribly wrong and their strategy failed miserably. The embankments did not perform as designed and had to be demolished.

An embankment would survive on average ten monsoons and then breach in the eleventh year. The breach would incur more loss to the exchequer than all the benefits accrued in the previous ten years. The British learned this lesson the hard way. Unfortunately, after independence from the British, the inhabitants of the Indo-Gangetic basin received the embankments as a “gift.” The government had to be seen to be doing something worthwhile for the welfare of the people. Embankments became the tangible example of their care. Unfortunately, embankments have brought more flooding than they have made land flood secure. It is clear that rethinking embankment as the tool is necessary. How will it begin? Who would evaluate the viability of the embankments and using what approach? How would people who are supposed to have been benefited by embankments be brought into this evaluation in a meaningful way? These simple questions must be answered as we seek effective ways to deal with flooding.

Irrigation Accountability

Much literature is available on Indian agriculture and its progression, including the efforts made in post-independent India. When they landed in the sub-continent, the British possessed little knowledge about local agricultural or irrigation practices. Britain had rain almost throughout the year but in the sub-continent, the weather was different. For four months there is too much water and then too little. Even in the four months, rains do not come continuously but in short spells. The British began learning about irrigated agriculture not because they were interested in providing welfare to the farmers but because they wanted to generate revenue. Irrigation would increase agricultural production. They also acquired knowledge about crop cycles and their water requirements and timings of applications of water to crops.

They conceived three types of irrigation systems: productive, protective, and minor. In drought-prone areas of the sub-continent, irrigation canals did succeed in bringing about benefits. The productive irrigation schemes were the milch cow from which the British extracted as much as possible. Protective irrigation was meant to avert the incidents of famine that had plagued the colonial regime. Failure of successive rains did trigger drought but poor management was the bigger culprit. The regime could not move grains to the right place at the right time. Political pressure to export was very high. The greed of the administration and those at the helm of affairs turned droughts into ravaging famines. Minor irrigation that used traditional methods such as water-lifting devices, ahar and pyne received very little attention.

The British focused more on productive schemes because the revenue they generated would meet various demands. The demands came from funders, for paying interest on borrowed capital, paying salaries, meeting administrative costs, paying dividends to the company’s shareholders, and meeting the obligations of the government back home. Meeting the revenue target was the measure of accountability, and every functionary of the raj had to meet this goal. On the surface, it appeared that functionaries did meet their obligation to generate revenue sincerely. The reality was more nuanced. Water-logging and soil salinity had become major problems but the colonialist had no knowledge about how to deal with either problem.

The story of R.G. Kennedy is relevant. In 1873, Kennedy worked in Swat Canals in present-day Pakistan. He decided to assess the performance of the irrigation canals. He found that only 28 percent of the water fed into the head-work of a canal reached the field. The remaining 72 percent evaporated, seeped into the ground, or leaked through the canals into the adjoining fields. The seepage caused water-logging and salinity and thereby rendered the land useless for farming. He suggested that the fees levied on farmers who received water from the canals must account for the loss of production due to water-logging. This consideration, he argued, would also compensate the farmers. Kennedy’s superiors, however, were not interested in his findings or his suggestions.

In fact, his suggestion, unfortunately, became his undoing: as he had exceeded his brief, he would be punished. Subsequently, he was transferred to the battlefield in Afghanistan. He survived the war and stayed in Afghanistan till 1891. He then returned to his old position and kept searching for a solution to the problem of water-logging and soil salinity which he had investigated before his departure to Afghanistan. Because of his seniority, he was promoted to the position of Chief Engineer. But the establishment had no reverence for him. In 1906 he returned to his home in England.  Nobody from the department came to see him off at Bombay as he was leaving, nor was he accorded any formal farewell.

The early twentieth century saw major reforms in India’s irrigation sector. The government pushed for protective schemes even though these schemes did not generate enough revenue and were a liability to the exchequer. Yet the schemes were implemented, with the argument that even though they did not generate revenue, they supported economic activities within their jurisdiction. Irrigation targets would not be the criteria such as water delivered, area irrigated to assess their performance, but by the increase in economic activities that would justify investment in a protective irrigation scheme. This policy shift resulted in the execution of many such schemes even though the establishment did not consider them beneficial. The shift came in handy to the irrigation establishment and its hierarchic rise. Around this period, the British Raj ended and the countries of South Asia attained freedom. Subsequently, the notion of accountability in irrigation schemes began to get relegated to the background. It is no wonder, therefore, that today the performance of the irrigation sector is dismal in all countries of the sub-continent.

New Beginning

In this march of history, South Asians did not revisit their own indigenous methods of irrigation: tanks, ahars, pynes and small canals built and maintained by the farmers themselves. These methods remained neglected as an indifferent technocracy with no accountability to farmers took the baton. An alternative approach would have been to increase investments in farming through lending, encouraging the use of indigenous seeds and local fertilizers, and advising farmers not to shift or change their cropping patterns.

Mosaic of North Ganga Basin Adapted from Dixit (2020)

Even without much external input, agriculture was a self-supporting venture. Today it is no longer so. In its place, the lexicon of “sustainability” unheard of about 60-70 years ago, is born.  Sustainability is an offshoot of the technological pathway that began about 300 hundred years ago. For about 8,700 years, ever since the discovery of grains, South Asian society had managed their agricultural practices without ever purchasing seeds or fertilizers. That reality no longer exists.

Stories of people across the Indo-Gangetic plains reflect this contradiction. But there is no listening. Eighty-nine-year-old Hariballabh Singh of the village of Madhepur Chandel, Block Bhagawanpur, District Begusaray, reflects, ”It is worth noting that famine does not spread over all districts simultaneously. This is also true for floods. It strikes sometimes here, sometimes there, north Bihar or south Bihar or hits three to four districts. Wherever these incidents occur, the food grains were brought from other places. The villagers maintained more or less cordial labor relations between the farmers and the landlords. Everybody needed each other’s help. Farmers could not do much without laborers and the laborers could not do without farmers. A landlord depending on laborers would not let his laborers suffer, and they helped each other during a calamity. There may be famine all over but within the village boundaries, everybody was secure. Extreme conditions would be faced collectively. Big farmers had enough reserve stock to sustain the village for a year or so.”

A present-day protagonist of development would claim that Hariballabh Singh’s thoughts romanticize the past. Indeed, the past was not a bed of roses. Planners and engineers and those championing modern knowledge systems had their blind spot too. They did not care to unpack prevailing social dynamics, understand inherent contradictions or take adaptive actions. Instead, the presiding governance system reacted in a panic and proposed a totally new, almost alien, mechanism for social and economic transformation. The administration lacked a basic understanding of the local reality, yet decided to continue the experiment despite its being flawed. The approach of this powerful and hegemonic technocracy began to stress and has continued to stress South Asia’s waterscape.

A new journey should start with revisiting the water education system opening one’s mind to the specific nature of South Asian hydrology and rivers.  In this journey, South Asians need a new imagination of their Ganga in its celestial, brought to the earth by King Bhagirath, cultural and physical manifestations. They must find ways to better understand their local realities before suggesting grand proposals of development.

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