Living with the River: Going with the Flow of the Kosi
March 16, 2022
The Kosi is a transboundary river that springs from the Himalayan slopes of Tibet and flows through Tibet, Nepal, and India. The Kosi River Basin covers 74,500km2 and drains into the river Ganga through numerous channels, eventually passing through Bangladesh to the sea in the Bay of Bengal. The basin supports the lives and livelihoods of 40 million people, more than 80 percent of whom depend on agriculture for food and employment.
Now, concern is growing that climate change is disrupting the basin’s ecology and will seriously damage millions of lives. The basin has already faced repeated disasters including landslides, floods, and glacial lake outbursts that have devastated downstream communities. In 2020, some 9.6 million people in the Kosi River Basin, already reeling from the Covid-19 pandemic, were inundated by monsoon flooding in Nepal, India, and Bangladesh.
As the world observes the International Day of Action for Rivers on March 14, we highlight here the growing importance of citizen-centered approaches to water governance and the need for transboundary cooperation. We also call for a more inclusive paradigm of water governance, guided by the needs of riparian communities and an ethos of cooperation and conservation, rather than transboundary water politics and ill-conceived infrastructure development.
The ecology and climate of the Kosi River Basin
The Kosi Basin illustrates the interconnected effects of climate change and man-made interventions on lives and ecosystems in a transboundary basin. Floods affect agricultural production in fields that may be submerged for months. Growing population density, urbanization, and encroachment on watersheds put additional pressure on the basin’s freshwater ecosystems. Water disasters in the basin, triggered or amplified by poorly planned infrastructure, strike communities without regard to international borders.
In 2008, the Kosi breached the man-made embankments that had been built to control and contain it, with grave consequences for 2.64 million people in India and Nepal, taking lives and destroying livelihoods on both sides of the border. The floods deposited sand and silt on arable lands that left them unfit for cultivation for years. In Nepal, 4,648 hectares of agricultural land were ruined. In Bihar, India’s most flood-prone state, the 2008 floods damaged 100,000 hectares of wheat and rice farmland and the livelihoods of around 500,000 farmers.
Communities living along the basin are among the most economically disadvantaged, the most vulnerable to natural disasters, and the least able to adapt and respond to rapid ecosystem degradation. In India, the Kosi flows through one of the poorest states, Bihar, where a majority of the rural population is dependent on agriculture. In Nepal, 40 percent of the population in the basin live below the poverty line. While high-profile hydropower projects in the basin have been a development priority, they have not improved livelihoods or other socioeconomic benefits in the basin, including electricity access.
These socioeconomic inequities were echoed in a series of multi-stakeholder dialogues in the basin, organized by The Asia Foundation, in which agricultural communities described the challenges they face in the Kosi River Basin. Paddy must be harvested early to reduce flood losses. Development issues persist across the board, from lack of a minimum wage or access to land, to inadequate healthcare, sanitation, and education. Male emigration from the region has increased in the last decade. Women are particularly affected by the lack of sanitation and fresh water for domestic care work.
Riverine communities are adapting to climate change
In the 1950s, thick embankments were constructed along 150km of the Kosi River to defend against flooding. While farmers had traditionally constructed bandhs—low structures of mud and stones to control flooding and support irrigation—these were intentionally temporary, and although flooding still occurred in rural villages, the large expanses of floodplain slowed the flow of floodwaters and reduced damage to property and livelihoods. The floods nourished agricultural lands in the region.
But beginning as early as colonial times, successive governments built permanent embankments that altered the natural drainage of the basin and cut off the river from its surrounding floodplains. Unlike the traditional bandhs, these embankments often stand some distance from the river, sometimes closer to villages, and completely block the natural drainage of water in the floodplain. The rationale was to protect farms, livelihoods, and development infrastructure from flood damage, but the effect was often just the opposite. As the Kosi River flows through mountainous regions of Tibet, it carries with it large amounts of silt that it deposits onto the plains of Nepal and northern India. When traditional irrigation channels that conducted water and silt through the floodplains were subsumed by large embankment projects, it altered this flow, causing unchecked accumulation of sand and silt.
The embankments were equipped with sluice gates that could be opened or closed to control the flow of water in the main river channel, but disrepair and poor management of the gates has allowed silt to accumulate within the embankments, raising the riverbed and causing water to flow into the villages. There the floodwaters stagnate, depositing silt and sand that make the land inarable. Families in villages between successive embankments must evacuate to higher ground when waters rise. Often, they are too poor to move, but are excluded from basic government disaster relief.
Moving from water management to inclusive water governance
Water—its scarcity or abundance—shapes ecosystems and communities. Governments in the Kosi River Basin have pursued a centralized, institutional approach to water governance that has focused on irrigation, flood control embankments, and hydroelectric development. They have paid far less attention to ecosystems, water availability, and social equity.
Experts have observed that inhabitants of the disaster-prone basin live with piecemeal information on environmental risks. Adapting to new extreme-weather scenarios requires regional and subregional support systems, projects, and laws. What is needed is a citizen-centered approach that involves local communities in managing water resources. When community stakeholders in the basin are involved in resource management, their knowledge of local conditions and familiarity with their own needs create opportunities for more informed, inclusive, and integrated solutions.
The Asia Foundation has partnered with the Gorakhpur Environmental Action Group and the Centre for Policy Research in India, and with ISET–Nepal and Policy Entrepreneurs Inc. in Nepal, to better understand the lives of communities in the basin and their water governance needs. The project has launched multi-stakeholder dialogues and knowledge-sharing initiatives to develop evidence-based water governance mechanisms and transboundary collaborations in the basin. A Transboundary Citizen’s Forum has built the capacity of partner organizations to promote community understanding, trust, and collaboration.
Towards transboundary water cooperation
Several mechanisms for cooperation on ecological conservation and resilience already exist. The Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction 2015–2030 highlights the need for collaborative, regional response mechanisms and revised institutional mandates. The Thimphu Statement on climate change emphasizes regional cooperation, the sharing of best practices, and an integrated approach to climate change in South Asia. Other initiatives include intergovernmental platforms for disaster preparedness and information-sharing support for communities to better anticipate and plan for disasters.
Supporting the growing discourse on transboundary cooperation, The Asia Foundation is on the organizing committee for the “Cooperation Across Borders for Strengthened Capacity and Action” session of the UNDRR’s Global Platform 2022, coming this May. Pilot projects are needed to develop local strategies. The time has come to “coexist with the river” rather than opposing its flow.
Malavika Thirukode is a program officer and Manvi Tripathi is a former intern with the Asia Foundation’s India Development Partnership Activity. Malavika can be reached at [email protected]. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the authors, not those of The Asia Foundation.
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