Flood: A familiar story of Bihar

Geographically, the plains of North Bihar have always been prone to floods. And this is the reason the eastern Indian state has witnessed devastating floods in the past few decades. But government is also dragging its feet in putting in place measures to control the floods and minimize damage, writes Rakesh Kumar

Ram Abhilash, 65, is a resident of Kurson village, Darbhanga. Ever since he can remember, hardly any year passed by when his village was not deluged during the monsoons. With the arrival of the rainy season, Abhilash starts packing his belongings to save them from the floods. This fear remains with him throughout the monsoon season. He pointed out that many things have changed in Bihar down the years but not floods. They have become a yearly affair, not only for Kurson villagers but for the entire northern Bihar. In fact, it has become part and parcel of their lives and now they have developed a tendency to live with these rains.

 “It is not the scene of today, but these floods have been part of our lives for generations, ” shared Ram Sewak, who is in his late 50s. “When I was young, my family along with our little belongings would run to the village doctor’s home. Only he had a pucca house, built on a little elevation. Now, our houses have changed from thatched roofs to pucca buildings but the floods have not changed.”

People of Bihar have learnt how to survive these floods without much help from outside. It is not once or twice but multiple times in the past that their houses were devasted by the waters. Floods of 1978, 1987, 1998, 2004 and 2007 are some of the prime examples. In fact, the total area affected by floods has been increasing very rapidly. In the floods of 2004, a vast area of 23,490 sq km was badly affected by the raging waters of Bagmati, Kamla and Adhwara groups of rivers, causing loss of about 800 human lives, even though River Ganga, the master drain, was flowing low. The Ganga divides the state into two halves ~ North and South Bihar. This year too, around 15 lakh people have been affected by floods in 11 districts of Bihar, of whom at least 10 have lost their lives.

Now the big question is: Why is Bihar affected so much by recurring floods? Even though it is an annual affair, why can’t the damage be minimised? Experts blame it on the state’s geography and government’s apathy towards states.

Number speaks

As per a study of Bihar Floods: 2007 by the National Institute of Disaster Management, India is one of the worst flood-affected countries, being second in the world after China. It accounts for one fifth of global death count due to floods. In India, floods are a recurrent annual feature, particularly in the eastern and northeastern regions. In Bihar, the scenario is the worst, as floods have become a yearly phenomenon.

 Why is Bihar so prone to floods? Its geography, say experts. Bihar falls in a flood-prone region, mainly north Bihar. The condition is such that in northern Bihar around 76 per cent of the population lives under the recurring threat of devastating floods. As per the Flood Management Improvement Support Centre, Bihar, about 68,800 sq km out of a total geographical area of  94,163 sq km, comprising 73.06 per cent is flood-affected.
 The story is no different this year. As stated above, as per official figures, floods in 11 districts have affected 15 lakh people and killed at least 10. These are government numbers, but the count could be more. At the same time, there seems to be no end to the plight of the people of north Bihar as the Patna Meteorological Centre has warned of more rains till August in Bihar. Now one can imagine their situation.

 The visuals of the Bihar floods are quite horrific. In Darbhanga district, not only the houses but also police stations and flood relief camps have been inundated. The condition is so bad that even some trains in the Darbhanga-Samastipur section have been diverted due to floodwaters coming up to the girders of the railway bridge between south Hayaghat and Thalwara. The embankments are under pressure in these areas. At last, Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar has asked that embankments should be monitored round-the-clock and engineers of the water resources department have been asked to be on alert.

Why Bihar?

The plains of north Bihar are some of the most susceptible areas in India, prone to flooding. Sadly, these plains have recorded the highest number of floods during the last 30 years. The total area affected by floods has also increased during these years.
 The seven rivers flowing through this region ~ Kosi, Gandak, Burhi Gandak, Bagmati, Kamla Balan, Mahananda and Adhwara Group ~ all originate in Nepal. They carry high discharge and very high sediment loads and dump them in the plains of Bihar. Kosi, called “the sorrow of Bihar”, is the widest river and frequently changes its course, causing devastation.
 Around 65 per cent of the catchment area of these rivers falls in Nepal/Tibet and only 35 per cent of the area lies in Bihar. In fact, the plains of Bihar, mainly adjoining Nepal, have always been drained by a number of rivers that have their catchments in the steep and geologically nascent Himalayas. This is the prime reason for the damage to this part of Bihar.
 Another reason is the rapid increment of conversion of forests to agriculture and pastural land in the middle hills of Nepal. Also, people have started occupying the flood plains. Last but not the least, little work has been done by the government to curb the floods. Many experts agree that total elimination of floods is neither possible nor achievable. But one can prevent the fury and havoc caused by floods and mitigate its effects.

 The state government has built about 3,000 kms of embankment, but the flow of the river has grown 2.5 times, resulting in the collapse of embankments with every flood. If government doesn’t work seriously, the floods will become worse every year, just like 2004, when catchment area of North Bihar rivers received heavy rainfall in the first week of July itself. This not only broke last three years’ flood record but also surpassed the 1987 flood level.

History of floods

The plains of north Bihar have recorded the highest number of floods during the last 30 to 35years. The state witnessed the four major floods since independence, in 1954, 1974, 1987, and 2004. In addition, in the years 1978, 1987, 1998, 2004, 2007, and 2008 Bihar witnessed high magnitudes of floods.

In 1954, an area of 2.46 million hectares (MH) was flooded and a population of 7.61 million (out of 18.393 million) were affected. This flood covered 8,119 villages (out of 21,107) in North Bihar, leading to loss of standing crops over 15.96 lakh hectares. About 1,79,451 houses
were destroyed and 63 people lost their lives in this flood. The composite flood loss was estimated at Rs 50 crore.

This year’s flood was felt south of the Ganga also in the districts of Munger and Santhal Parganas and had a spread area of 3.182 MH. It hit a population of 16.39 million, 5,16,353 houses were destroyed and 80 people died. The total losses were put at Rs 354.59 crore.

This flood is said to be the worst recorded of the 20th century. It devasted North Bihar, South Bihar and  Jharkhand (it was a part of Bihar those days) also. An area of 4.668 MH of present day Bihar and a population of 282.38 lakhs were hit by the floods that engulfed 23,852 villages and destroyed 16,82,059 houses, killing 1,373 people. As per government’s record, the rains that started on 11 August, continued almost non-stop till 19 August. No food packets could be dropped in flood-affected districts of Madhubani, Darbhanga, Samastipur and Khagaria for about three weeks despite deployment of 13 helicopters and 58 Army boats.


This year’s flood was spread over 20 districts of North Bihar covering an area over 2.772 MH (4.99 MH according to CWC) and affected population of 21.3 million. This flood engulfed 9,346 villages, destroyed crops over an area of 1.399 MH and swept away 9, 29,773 houses, killing 885 people.

Government claim
However, this year government claims that around 17 teams of the National Disaster Response Force (NDRF) and eight of the State Disaster Response Force (SDRF) were involved in rescue operations in the flood region. These disaster management people are carrying relief work using boats and other means. Around 1.77 lakh people were being fed at 463 community kitchens in the state and Indian Air Force (IAF) helicopters have dropped food packets in several flood-hit areas.  Meanwhile, a woman delivered a baby on one of the rescue boats of NDRF’s 9th battalion in East Champaran.

What government missed

The study, BIHAR FLOODS : 2007 (A Field Report), which was done just after the devastating flood of 2007, has highlighted various loopholes in the government action and recommended ways to enhance Bihar’s infrastructure to deal with recurring floods. The report reads that over the last 55 years of Plan development, Bihar has been able to provide only reasonable flood protection benefits. It also says, according to another estimation, only about 42 per cent of its flood-prone area has been covered through flood protection embankments. It recommended that if the state intends to cover most (over 90 per cent) of its flood-prone area through protection measures over the next 25 years, embankments will have to be constructed at the rate of 150 km per year. What is the real scenario is still not known. It also questioned the condition of existing embankments as their condition is deteriorating day by day. It has also said that the bed levels of the rivers are rising every year. The raising and strengthening of embankments, therefore, needs to be taken on a priority basis. It also suggested the government must construct pucca road on the existing embankments because that will ensure rapid inspection and execution of anti-erosion measures as well as flood fighting works, and provide all-season road communication in rural areas of the state. This will also facilitate other development works in the area.

 How much progress Bihar has made since then is still not known. But one thing is clear. Had some measures been implemented, perhaps the villages of North Bihar would not be under water right now. 

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