Scarcity in Abundance: Addressing Drinking Water Woes in Flood-prone Zones in North Bihar
As called for in agreements between India and Nepal on the tributaries of the Ganga River such as the Sarada (1920 and later included in the Mahakali Treaty 1996), the Koshi (1954) and the Gandak (1959), barrages have been built in and embankments along rivers largely to derive irrigation and flood mitigation benefits in the plains of Uttar Pradesh, North Bihar, and Nepal. While these structures have regulated the rivers, they have also created new ecologies in the flood hazardscape.
North Bihar is particularly susceptible to regular flooding that affects the lives and livelihoods of a large number of people, many of whom are already struggling with poverty and sometimes coping by migrating. During and after the flood period in North Bihar, the lack of basic hygiene and sanitation facilities exacerbates scarcity and the decline in the quality of groundwater further impedes people’s access to safe drinking water.
From March 2005 till June 2006, while working in the districts of Supaul, Saharsa, Khagaria, and Madhubani in North Bihar, I observed a situation of ‘scarcity in abundance’. There was too much low-quality water, a fact leading people to suffer from the scarcity of drinking water. I began to hold discussions with local organizations of the districts to improve the supply of safe drinking water as well as to work on other water challenges.
In December 2005, I helped to form Megh Pyne Abhiyan (MPA: Cloud-Water Campaign) a network that would work to provide safe drinking water to flood-affected communities in the four districts of North Bihar. Two years later, in 2007, MPA included Pashchim (West) Champaran as its fifth district of work, thus, covering the Koshi-Bagmati-Kamla-Gandak river basins in Bihar.
The majority of flood-affected people were displaced temporarily and often took refuge on embankments, elevated land, and national highways. Though they were safe from floods in the places they gathered, people lacked access to safe drinking water and sanitation facilities. Most hand pumps did not work: they were submerged in floodwater, covered by silt deposits, or were simply damaged. The dumping of dead human bodies and animals in and defecation close to rivers further deteriorated the quality of drinking water.
Temporarily displaced households on eastern Koshi embankment in Supaul District: Megh Pyne Abhiyan
The flood-affected people were forced to drink low-quality river water, which, along with unhygienic conditions, caused people to suffer from diarrhea and gastrointestinal diseases. Infants, women, and the elderly have higher morbidity and mortality rates than other segments of the population. Flood victims also did not get sufficient nutrition and spent a substantial portion of their meager incomes on medicines. Social, economic, political and governance challenges worsened drinking water insecurities during floods. People were disgruntled and expressed a sense of hopelessness. Such conditions persist even today.
To improve the supply of drinking water during the flood season, MPA conceived of erecting a temporary rainwater harvesting system (TRWHS) using a polythene sheet held in place by bamboo poles as the catchment area. In most villages, bamboo is available and even flood-affected households put up polythene sheets. The cost of erecting such a structure is low: between IPR 20 to IPR 300 per unit. The rain falling on the sheet is collected in a vessel placed underneath. There was, however, a caveat to promoting the use of TRWHS.
Local innovation in TRWH system in a flood-prone village: Megh Pyne Abhiyan
In North Bihar, rainwater was never considered as a source of drinking water, and therefore the proposal was initially met with suspicion and skepticism. This was largely because of the ubiquitous myth that drinking rainwater would result in the development of a goiter. In order to motivate people to use TRWHS, MPA began discussions with potential beneficiaries about the problems brought about by the lack of drinking water as well as other water challenges. The physical abundance of water during flooding and groundwater in the post-flood period led many in North Bihar to believe that no intervention in water management was necessary. To change this perception, we organized a jal samvad yatra (a “water dialogue journey”) in the selected panchayats of MPA’s work districts. We conducted door-to-door visits, organized focus group discussions (FGD), and demonstrated the use of TRWHS. We also organized capacity-building activities for members of MPA and local communities.
These efforts led to the following outcomes:
- Partial acceptance of rainwater as an alternative water source during emergencies.
- Development of locally built cost-effective and location-compatible TRWHS.
- Authentication of the quality of rainwater for safe drinking purposes.
- Establishment of a cadre of jal doots (“water messengers”) to popularize TRWHS.
- Establishment of a jal samiti (a platform) to discuss the challenges and practice of using TRWHS.
- Introduction of a “do it yourself” approach.
- Women sharing their perspectives on water management.
- Media sensitization about the potential of TRWHS in flood-prone areas.
- Development of materials on rainwater harvesting.
- Documentation of people’s experiences in using rainwater.
From July to October, the region receives rain, enabling TRWHS to capture water that can meet the drinking water needs of flood-affected people for the remaining months. Even so, providing safe drinking water remained a challenge. In 2006, while promoting TRWHS, the people mentioned texture, odor, color, and flavor as the main indicators of groundwater quality. About 98 percent of rural drinking water schemes in North Bihar are dependent on groundwater. We realized that to make TRWHS a success, the larger issues related to drinking water had to be considered. In the flood-prone areas of North Bihar, these issues include the following:
- Diverse nature of floods.
- Complex socio-economic and political context.
- Short- and long-term implications of flooding.
- Low priority accorded to water access and quality.
- Changing the mindset of flood-affected people.
Improving drinking water and sanitation services in flood-affected areas required us to take a comprehensive approach and to consider groundwater as a buffer. However, we had very little idea about how to contextualize groundwater as a source of safe drinking water in our work areas. We were aware of the terminology commonly used in discussions of groundwater, such as overexploitation, depletion, rapid development, and unhealthy competition, but these words did not help us visualize the complexities of groundwater use and management at the local level.
To understand groundwater dynamics, we began a participatory assessment of the uses of groundwater with our local partners and communities. This process required a better understanding of the sociological, ecological, anthropological, and technological aspects of safe drinking water services. Drinking water storage had to be provided not only during floods but throughout the year, a need that would involve reviving dug wells and providing cost-effective household filtration units to remove iron, biological, and arsenic contaminants.Water testing kits were necessary for testing water quality.
To improve awareness about water challenges, in all work areas we organized jal mahotsav (water festivals). This awareness-building effort was combined with networking, advocacy, and lobbying with government agencies and village institutions. To promote the use of groundwater, we began an aquifer-based approach involving hydrogeology and governance as its key elements. MPA also developed Jan-Jal Tarang (popular effort on water), an approach aimed at protecting and accessing safe water by taking a multi-layered approach at the settlement, ward, panchayat, block, and district levels to build partnership among government agencies, water professionals, peoples’ representatives, and civil society members. MPA developed the following methods to generate localized groundwater information:
- Field observation (surface exposure, stream cuttings, excavation, and collection of sub-surface samples)
- Field interaction (local understanding of groundwater/sub-surface composition and perception of groundwater quality) and
- Data collection (groundwater levels along with latitude/longitude, elevation, and hydrogeology (accumulation, movement and quality)
Groundwater in the alluvial plains of North Bihar is the only source for meeting the drinking water needs of the population. The aquifers are regionally spread with vertical layers of clay, silt, sand, and gravel. In the classical analytical approach, alluvial aquifers are considered to be large spatial units that exhibit far more homogeneity than aquifers in hard rock regions. Preliminary research in MPA’s work districts showed significant aquifer and groundwater heterogeneity as well as diverse hydro-geological, socio-economic, and ecological contexts. To improve services, groundwater quality and quantity as well as the nature of aquifers and socio-economic conditions needed attention.
We gathered evidence for developing a preliminary typology of groundwater within the region’s hydro-geological and aquifer characteristics. The typology would help us plan the use of groundwater to supply safe drinking water during floods using participatory groundwater management (PGWM) involving dug wells, hand pumps, deep borings, pumped storage, and piped water schemes as supply methods. The following typology was proposed:
- Waterlogged regions.
- Flood-affected regions along riverbanks (within embankments).
- Flood-affected regions in the countryside (outside embankments).
- Flash flood-affected regions and
- Trans-boundary aquifers along the Nepal-Bihar (India) border.
Because the contamination of groundwater with arsenic is linked to geology, total dependence on groundwater is a high-risk endeavor. Any effort to provide safe drinking water throughout the year will require mitigating arsenic, iron, and microbial contamination and linking sanitation with drinking water services. Given the close linkages between sanitation and drinking water in high water-table conditions, alternative sanitation technology such as phaydemand shauchalay (beneficial toilet with ecological sanitation technology) was adapted as an integral component to helping minimize the biological contamination of groundwater.
Erratic monsoon rain, recurrent floods, groundwater contamination, and the unreliability of sources make provisioning safe drinking water a major challenge in the flood-affected region of North Bihar. Past efforts based on an engineering approach to flood mitigation, such as the construction embankments, while they have led to waterlogging, have also served as a point of refuge for flood-affected people who face acute water insecurity. Such local-level water insecurity remains outside the radar screen of states that cooperate on transboundary water issues. A recent article argues that “When we think about trans boundary rivers, it is easy to get lost in their immense scale and lose track of the fact that sometimes the most impact is not on a grand scale but at a more local level.”
MPA’s work aims to address drinking water woes faced by flood-affected people, a very local context. While we must continue to address such woes, it is also necessary to document and share these efforts, which can help promote deeper deliberation and scholarly inquiry on effective water governance including transboundary river management. Such inquiries can bring about the convergence of technology, knowledge, and people’s interpretation and broadly identify appropriate water solutions for the flood-affected populations.
 Gramyasheel in Supaul, KosiSevaSadan in Saharsa, Samta in Khagaria and Ghoghardiha Prakhand Swarajya Vikas Sangh in Madhubani)
 We partnered with a local NGO, Savera and Water Action
 Social anthropologist Luisa Cortesi, who specializes in community-based water management in South Asia, was included in the team to identify issues of concern.
 Between 2000 and 2020, approximately 167.21 million people were affected.
 The villagers provided this information during the landscaping exercise and thereafter, but there are no official records. Government records mention the total flood-affected population and total deaths, but do not segregate data according to age and gender.
 An abnormal enlargement of thyroid gland commonly develops as a result of iodine deficiency.
 A 2002 study led by the School of Environmental Studies, Jadavpur University, Kolkata, identified the groundwater in Semaira Ojhapatti village of Bhojpur District as beign contaminated with arsenic. Though arsenic has emerged as a problem it is not yet recognised so.
 The Pune-based Advanced Centre for Water Resources Development and Management (ACWADAM), with support from Argyam Trust, Bengaluru, helped us better understand groundwater dynamics in the five districts.
 MPA team comprising of Pradeep Poddar and Kumod Kumar Das, the experienced members along with young professionals (and now former colleagues) Aparna Unni, Trinayani Sen and Simran Sumbre conceptualized, formulated and designed Jan-Jal Tarang.