India's "river of sorrow" brings biblical flood

Most years, the Kosi river of eastern India is a tranquil stream that flows gently into the Ganges. But every few years it becomes a raging torrent, wreaking disaster on everything in its path.

MADHEPURA, India (Reuters) - Most years, the Kosi river of eastern India is a tranquil stream that flows gently into the Ganges. But every few years it becomes a raging torrent, wreaking disaster on everything in its path.

That's what happened in August when after monsoon rains the Kosi burst its banks and flooded half of Bihar state, wiping out villages and farms and displacing more than 3 million people.

The river is notorious for such cataclysmic events and experts say the government should have been prepared for such a scenario and taken preventive action such as reinforcing embankments and removing silt from the river bed.

"This is the mother of all floods," said P.V. Unnikrishnan of aid agency ActionAid, summing up the devastation.

The Kosi, a tributary of the mighty Ganges, flooded an area roughly the size of Belgium. The floods changed the course of the river, shifting it 120 km (75 miles) towards a dry river channel it last flowed through 250 years ago.

"It looked angry, very angry and we could do nothing, absolutely nothing," said Kashiram Singh, a farmer.

When Kadam Lal was a little boy, his grandfather would tell him stories about the terrifying floods unleashed by the Kosi. Now he has seen with his own eyes why the Kosi is called the "River of Sorrow".

"Over 100 acres of my land was gone within minutes," said Lal, a now grey-haired farmer, pointing at a swirling barrage of muddy water powering down what were once lush green fields.


It's the Kosi's worst flooding in 50 years, but not all of it is nature's doing.

Poor planning, corruption and government apathy contributed to the devastating floods which have left tens of thousands of villagers in relief camps, many with little food.

When the Kosi first broke through the embankment intended to contain it on August 18, the breach was about 1 km long, but 24 hours later it had widened to over 15 km (9 miles).

Experts say the floods could have been avoided if the embankments in Nepal at the river's mouth had been reinforced as recommended by engineers who sent letters to New Delhi in April urging that such measures be taken.

Flowing from the Nepalese Himalayas, the embankments are maintained by India under an agreement with Nepal.

As the Kosi's waters began to rise, engineers faxed messages to the Bihar government desperately pleading for emergency measures be taken to alleviate the expected flooding.

Nothing was done and now half of Bihar, one of India's poorest states, is covered in water.

Engineers might only be able to plug the gap in December when the water flow decreases during the dry season, but the river may never return to its former route.

"It is an extremely difficult job at hand as the entire river is flowing through the new route," Nitish Mishra, Bihar's disaster management minister told Reuters.

"People should get away from its path now."

In 1956, India and Nepal built a dam in the Himalayas to control the Kosi's flow. It took seven years to build the dam and a 39-km (24 miles) embankment to jacket the extremely turbulent river. Once completed, authorities virtually forgot all about it.

"The silt continued to deposit and the river bed rose without anyone thinking about dredging and de-silting," said Sunita Narain, a climate change expert in New Delhi.

The inevitable happened last month when the river flooded following heavy rains.

The damage is also economic. Bihar is the fifth largest producer of rice in India and agriculture experts say it will take a long time for the region to recover.

"The impact of the floods will have a much larger regional effect," said B.P. Singh, president of the All India Grain Exporters.

Left with no means of earning a living, hundreds of farmers are migrating to western India in search of jobs.

"They don't have any choice, but I will stay here and watch," said the bespectacled Kadam Lal. "I am too old to join them now," he said as 20 men left the village.

(Editing by Megan Goldin)