Please zoom in or out and select the base layer according to your preference to make the map ready for printing, then press the Print button above.

Dams and embankments in the Ganga-Kosi floodplains, BR, India


Controlling river flooding has been a politically sensitive and conflicted issue in the naturally dynamic and abruptly shifting rivers of North Bihar in India [1,2].  With majority of the discussion being focussed on the impacts of engineering structures (dams, embankments, and their operation) on human vulnerability to flooding hazard [3,4,5], a new perspective on ‘flood control politics’ in this region [6,7] has emerged. This perspective has brought to the fore issues of serious conflict and marginality that millions of people face with centralized state and local non-state regimes of power and control, being trapped between embankments and highly exposed to flood risks due to the very structures that have sought to protect them [6,7,8,9,10]. Conflicts today are based on differential access to land and flood protection, blocked access to water bodies for fisheries and aquatic crop resources, and the constant reality of adjusting to displacement-induced poverty and socio-economic vulnerability [7,10,11,12].

In the dynamic riverscapes of the Ganga-Kosi region in eastern Bihar, monsoonal flooding, channel course changes, tectonic events, and high rates of sediment erosion and deposition are characteristic hydro-geological features [13,14,15,16]. The Kosi River, called the ‘Sorrow of Bihar’, has shifted its course by about 120 km westward in the last 250 years [6,14].

The eastern Bihar region supports high agricultural production on account of its fertile silt, but its dynamism may also be naturally adverse to permanent settlement by people [8,16,17]. Yet, throughout history, people have been settled in these regions in high population densities [10,12,18]. Some methods to adapt to and regulate flooding involved the creation of complex drainage networks and diversion channels across the floodplain to route silt-laden, fertile streams into agricultural fields and wetlands where fishing and aquatic cropping was carried out [19,20].

But in the 19th and 20th centuries, the drive for centralized control of revenue in the name of land protection from flooding and erosion led to the dominance of engineering solutions to flood control [6,8,11,19, 21,22]. This originated in the colonial ‘hydraulic bureaucracy’ with long embankments running for hundreds of kilometers built along riverbanks for flood control [22] causing a ‘great’ hydrological transformation of floodplain rivers [8,21,22,23]. The result was that oppressive regimes of control became fortified at the cost of river-dependent communities that were further marginalized and victimized [25]. These communities included floodplain dwelling fisher folk, boat-ferrying people, aquatic crop growers, seasonal farmers, marginal livestock tenders, and other labouring castes. India’s Flood Control Policy in 1954 [27] and an earlier committee constituted in 1928 recommended the intensive construction of embankments throughout Indian rivers. Within two decades, the construction of dams and barrages further aggravated the erratic modifications to river flooding, in tandem with embankment effects [28]. The Birpur barrage on the Kosi at the India-Nepal border and irrigation canals along the western and eastern Kosi embankments, further controlled the river flow. In the dry-season, they have now made the Kosi a water-starved river by regulating its flow regime [12,28,29]. The extremes between which river flows fluctuated in this river were further aggravated, adding to the vulnerability of people directly dependent on river-based livelihoods [7,12,20,30].  Those thought to be “flood-affected” were perhaps more affected by “flood-control” instead [7,17,29,30]. Among those who did not permanently migrate could not get access to land beyond the embankments, and got trapped between the river embankments and the risk to them from flooding worsened multiply. The number of people who still suffer from this travesty ranges from 1.5 to 3 million in eastern Bihar [11].  Embankment breaching by larger floods is also frequent, and points to the mismanagement of embankments by poor maintenance and repair work activities [20, 31]. The ‘cues’ that several floodplain dwellers might have traditionally tracked for pre-emptive and adaptive decision-making in view of imminent large floods, were severed by the embankment system [personal observations, reports, and references 7,20,31,32]. Embankments also broke the lateral connectivity between floodplains and river courses, which proved critical for fisheries production. Stocks of several fish species dependent on lateral migration into floodplain wetlands for breeding, juvenile nursery, and growth prior to returning to the river channel, have now plummeted [32,33]. Ground surveys suggest that nearly 80% of the fishery in the Kosi River has now ended [32]. The bad management of drains dug out from the embankments for moving out excess water and sediment has led to higher impoundment of water within the river channel, submerging crops and other property and risking people’s lives. This is reflective of the hard-engineering nature of the embankment operations, most of which often do not work well under the highly dynamic sediment and water fluxes of these rivers [12,29,31]. Large floods and embankment breaches have also created enormous expanses of permanently and seasonally waterlogged areas. Aquatic crops and fish spawns are grown in many of these, yet, runoff from surrounding agricultural areas, unsustainable application of weedicides and pesticides in the waterlogged reaches, and the lack of drainage flows out of these areas have together caused declines in the water quality of these wetlands [11,12,31]. The wetlands have also turned into breeding grounds for multiple disease vectors, and malarial outbreaks are common in the region [11]. Wage labour in farms and distant urban centres is the primary occupation of people with displaced livelihoods, and labour outmigration is now high in the area [30].

Embankments in the Ganga region have a slightly different trajectory. These embankments are mainly ripraps built along eroding meander banks using cement and RCC bags, but their life is not generally more than two flooding seasons (2-3 years, personal observations). Contracts are given out every year for embankment building, and heavy corruption is suspected in the process. The presence of the Farakka barrage downstream is said to have aggravated riverbank erosion in upstream reaches over the last 40 years [34], from Maldah all the way up to Bhagalpur. Mosquito-nets and stake-nets (that catch and destroy larval recruits of fishes) sprung up throughout the area following embankment building of this sort, and are a major driver of fishery conflicts here [32].

Overall, the environmental injustices met out to marginalized communities by flood control structures and management paradigms have proved to be highly problematic for livelihood security, ecological productivity, and human development in eastern Bihar’s Gangetic floodplains. Advocacy against the injustices of flood control, and activism for strengthening the capacity of affected communities for living with floods form the forefront of justice organizations in the area. Remarkable research by respected activist-scholars such as Dr. Dinesh Kumar Mishra, and civil society efforts by the Barh Mukti Abhiyan (Campaign for Freedom from Floods) have focused on mitigating these impacts by seeking softer solutions and adaptive management regimes. However, the embankment-dam regulation on river flows, erosion rates and sediment fluxes continues. The current scenario of livelihoods and justice is still uncertain and difficult, but grassroots action by civil society, broader trends of economic development, and cooperative management might hold promise for correcting some of these injustices in the future.

Basic Data

Name of conflict:Dams and embankments in the Ganga-Kosi floodplains, BR, India
State or province:Bihar
Location of conflict:Saharsa, Supaul, Katihar, Bhagalpur districts
Accuracy of locationMEDIUM (Regional level)

Source of Conflict

Type of conflict. 1st level:Water Management
Type of conflict. 2nd level:Dams and water distribution conflicts
Aquaculture and fisheries
Water access rights and entitlements
Land acquisition conflicts
Building materials extraction (quarries, sand, gravel)
Transport infrastructure networks (roads, railways, hydroways, canals and pipelines)
Specific commodities:Land
Sand, gravel
Ecosystem Services
Construction materials and boats

Project Details and Actors

Project details

Total length of embankments in the area: 300 km

Total length in Bihar: 3500 km


Birpur barrage (Kosi Multipurpose Project, 1963): Irrigation project through West and East Kosi Canals (lengths of 91 km and 43.5 km in India and Nepal) and hydropower project (20 MW electricity generation installed capacity), 254,700 ha area irrigated by west canal and 612,000 ha by east canal.

Project area:1,200,000
Level of Investment for the conflictive project285,714,285
Affected Population:1,500,000 to 2,500,000
Start of the conflict:01/01/1954
Relevant government actors:Government of India, Government of Bihar, Departments of the state of Bihar: Public Works, Agriculture, Animal Husbandry, Fisheries, Water Resources, & Revenue and Land Reforms: national, state, and district-level relief work bodies, local block development officers, district administration and police
Environmental justice organizations (and other supporters) and their websites, if available:Barh Mukti Abhiyan, Bihar, 1991
Civil society organizations, international forums, academic institutions, hydrologists:
Nepal Water Conservation Foundation, Kathmandu:
United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO)
Indian Institute of Technology, Kanpur,
Prof. Rajeev Sinha.

Conflict & Mobilization

IntensityLATENT (no visible organising at the moment)
Reaction stageIn REACTION to the implementation (during construction or operation)
Groups mobilizing:Farmers
Indigenous groups or traditional communities
Informal workers
Landless peasants
Social movements
Ethnically/racially discriminated groups
Fisher people
Forms of mobilization:Boycotts of official procedures/non-participation in official processes
Development of a network/collective action
Development of alternative proposals
Lawsuits, court cases, judicial activism
Public campaigns
State-level discussions, activist writings


Environmental ImpactsVisible: Floods (river, coastal, mudflow), Food insecurity (crop damage), Soil erosion, Surface water pollution / Decreasing water (physico-chemical, biological) quality, Large-scale disturbance of hydro and geological systems
Potential: Loss of landscape/aesthetic degradation, Reduced ecological / hydrological connectivity
Other Environmental impactsGreenhouse gas emissions from submerged aquatic vegetation in waterlogged areas may be high
Health ImpactsVisible: Accidents, Infectious diseases, Deaths
Potential: Malnutrition
Socio-economical ImpactsVisible: Increase in Corruption/Co-optation of different actors, Displacement, Increase in violence and crime, Lack of work security, labour absenteeism, firings, unemployment, Loss of livelihood, Loss of traditional knowledge/practices/cultures, Land dispossession
Other socio-economic impactsOutmigration for labour and coolie work, associated vulnerabilities related to remittance economy, isolation of families


Project StatusIn operation
Conflict outcome / response:Compensation
Deaths, Assassinations, Murders
Institutional changes
Land demarcation
Strengthening of participation
Local political strife
Proposal and development of alternatives:The Barh Mukti Abhiyan has been at the forefront of constructive and robust critique of ‘hard engineering solutions’ in favour of soft flood control strategies based on local channel diversions and drainage network systems for containing and routing flood water through agricultural areas and wetlands. The Abhiyan’s foundation is based on a belief that the local communities would be self-reliant and achieve better control of floods than what is even possible by current embankment and dam operations [5,10]. The embankments provide a false sense of security to people, but instead can worsen floods by not allowing releases of water (in fact, embankments have been broken down by people in some cases to allow flood waters to find their way) [7,10]. The problem of flood risk for lakhs of people trapped between embankments needs urgent resolution by identifying solutions for better resettlement of affected families. Currently, displaced settlements regularly have to move around, with an interval of about 3 years at any given site. This lack of livelihood security has also led to cases of violent conflict between displaced refugees and settled village populations in the countryside.
Hydrologists have also identified the better management of barrage operations in order to provide ecological flow regimes in the river channel through the dry season, at a steady flow rate. It is argued that the current modified extremes will reduce the intensity with which barrages are compelled to release waters (in a burst, typically) at the onset of the monsoonal flooding season. Managing releases from barrages based on ecological flow (e-flow) regime guidelines would also temper down the ultimate impact of immediate alarm situations that often occur due to extreme rainfall in the Himalayan catchments or with breaches of upstream embankments [28]. E-flow maintainance also involves allocating and using irrigation water with greater efficiency and productive output, improving communication across different sectors demanding water, and decentralized management of canal and groundwater irrigation systems. These solutions are more at a systemic level but their flood management implications are critical.
More proximate solutions include providing aid packages to displaced as well as embankment-trapped villages, better alarm systems (e.g. Flood Management Information System-Bihar), and improved disaster response both on part of the state and civil society.
Do you consider this an environmental justice success? Was environmental justice served?:Not Sure
Briefly explain:Several settlements still continue to remain trapped within embankments, and face conflicts from not only the state structures of water management / control, but also local power structures strongly based on caste and class divides, and conflicts that result from entrenched paradigms of water control continue over agriculture, ownership of and access to land and water, and fisheries / aquatic cropping systems. Baghel (2014) accurately points out that despite wide acknowledgment of these problems and risks, governments continue to wholly depend on the same flood control approaches, citing immediacy and the need for more engineering to mend the failures of current engineering. Underlying this rigidity are many factors, right from a rationality that remains persistent despite its chequered but long history, the drive for control of landscape boundaries and revenue, and political strategies and corruption that is based on maintaining risk in societies for continued reproduction of power structures and control.

Sources & Materials

Juridical relevant texts related to the conflict (laws, legislations, EIAs, etc)

Hunter, W.W. (1874) A Statistical Account of Bengal. Vol. I-XX. 257 p.

The Permanent Settlement Act, 1793; The Laws (Local Extent) Act, 1874. 1–17; Bengal Act II of 1882.

Baden-Powell, B.H., 1901. The Land Systems Of British India. Manual Of The Land-Tenures And Of The Systems Of Land-Revenue Administration Prevalent In The Several Provinces.

Mitra, B.B. (1934) The Laws of Land and Water in Bengal and Bihar, with the Case-law Thereon, Eastern Law House, Calcutta, India.

Bihar Fish Jalkar Management Bill - 2006 (Bihar Act 13). Govt. of Bihar, Patna, India. 11 p.

Flood Control Policy, 1954, Government of India, based on Flood Committee Report (1928)

Embankments Act

The Bengal Tenancy Acts of 1882 through 1885.

References to published books, academic articles, movies or published documentaries

Kelkar, N. (2014) River Fisheries of the Gangetic Basin, India: A Primer. SANDRP, Delhi, India. 53 p.

8. Hill, C. V. (1990) Water and Power: Riparian Legislation and Agrarian Control in Colonial Bengal. American Society for Environmental History, 14(4), 1-20.

33. Thoms, M.C. (2003) Floodplain–river ecosystems : lateral connections and the implications of human interference. Geomorphology, 56, 335 – 349.

Rorabacher, J.A. 2008. Gerrymandering, poverty and flooding: a perennial story of Bihar. EPW, 43(47), 45-53

Chakraborty, T., Kar, R., Ghosh, P. & Basu, S. (2010) Kosi megafan: Historical records, geomorphology and the recent avulsion of the Kosi River. Quaternary International, 227, 143–160.

Baghel, R. 2014. River Control in India. Springer. 180 p.

3. Somanathan, E. (2012) Are Embankments a Good Flood–Control Strategy? A Case Study of the Kosi River. Discussion Paper 12-04, Indian Statistical Institute.

Mishra, D.K. (2008) Trapped! Between the Devil and Deep Waters. Dehra Dun and Delhi, People's Science Institute and South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People.

Iqbal, S. (2010) Flood and erosion-induced population displacements: a socio-economic case study in the Gangetic riverine tract at Malda District, West Bengal, India. Journal of Human Ecology, 30, 201–211.

Mishra, D.K. 2008. The Kosi and the Embankment Story. EPW, 43(46), 47-52.

Singh, P., Ghose, N., Chaudhary, N. & Hansda, R. (2007) Life in the Shadow of Embankments – Turning Lost Lands into Assets in the Koshi Basin of Bihar, India. WinRock International India. 54 p.

Sinha, R. & P.F. Friend. (1994) River systems and their sediment flux, Indo-Gangetic plains, Northern Bihar , India. Sedimentology, 41, 825–845.

Bhargava, M. (2007) Changing River Courses in North India: Calamities, Bounties, Strategies Sixteenth to Early Nineteenth Centuries. Medieval History Journal, 10, 183–208.

Sarkar, S.K., Bhattacharya, A. & Bhattacharya, B. (2000) The river Ganga of northern India : an appraisal of its geomorphic and ecological changes. Water Science and Technology, 48, 121–128.

Sinha, R. (2008) Kosi: Rising Waters, Dynamic Channels and Human Disasters. EPW, Nov. 1: 42–47.

D’Souza, R. (2004) Rigidity and the affliction of capitalist property: colonial land revenue and the recasting of nature. Studies in History 20: 237–272.

Singh, P. (2008) The colonial state, zamindars and the politics of flood control in north Bihar (1850-1945). Indian Economic & Social History Review, 45, 239–260.

Gyawali D. 1999. Institutional forces behind water conflict in the Ganga plains. Grid-Group Cultural Theory 47:443–452.

Dixit, A., Moench, M., & Opitz-Stapleton, S. 2008. When realities shift: responding to floods and the challenge of climate change in the Gangetic Basin. Working with the Winds of Change Report, p. 271-285.

Sinha, N. (2014) Fluvial Landscape and the State: Property and the Gangetic Diaras in Colonial India, 1790s–1890s. Environment and History, 20, 209–237.

Sharma, M. (2006) Landscapes and Lives. Oxford University Press, New Delhi. 12-41 p.

Mukherjee, J. (2011) No voice, no choice : Riverine changes and human vulnerability in the “ chars ” of Malda and Murshidabad. Occasional Paper No. 28, Institute of Development Studies, Kolkata, India, 91 p.

Mishra, DK. 1999. Flood Protection That Never Was Case of Mahananda Basin of North Bihar. EPW 34:2013–2018.

Kumar, M. 2012. Governing flood, migration and conflict in North Bihar. Independent Report, 21 p.

Lahiri-Dutt, K. (2014) Commodified Land, Dangerous Water: Colonial Perceptions of Riverine Bengal. In: Asian Environments: Connections across Borders, Landscapes, and Times. Edited by Ursula Münster, Shiho Satsuka, and Gunnel Cederlöf, RCC Perspectives 2014, no. 3, 17–22.

Guha, R. (1963) A Rule of Property for Bengal: An Essay on the Idea of Permanent Settlement. Duke Univ. Press, USA. p. 264.

Devkota L, Crosato A, Giri S. 2012. Effect of the barrage and embankments on flooding and channel avulsion case study Koshi River, Nepal. Journal of Rural Infrastructure Development Nepal 3:124–132.

Dixit, A. (2009) Kosi embankment breach in Nepal: need for a paradigm shift in responding to floods. EPW, 44, 70-78.

Rampini, R.F. and M. Finucane, 1889. The Bengal Tenancy Act. Act VIII of 1885. Thacker, Spink and Co., Calcutta, India.

Ray, K.B. (1954) Flood Prevention in the Rivers of Bihar , North Bengal and Assam. Economic Weekly, October 9, 1121–1126.

Sinha, R. 1998. On the controls of fluvial hazards in the north Bihar plains, eastern India. In: Maund. J. G. & Eddleston,

M. (eds.) Geohazards in Engineering Geolo. Geological Society, London, Engineering

Geology Special Publications, 15, 35 40.

Hill, C.V. (1997) River of sorrow: environment and social control in north India, 1770-1994. Association for Asian Studies, Ann Arbor, Michigan

Mishra, D.K. (2012) Resuscitating a Failed Idea - Notes from Bihar. EPW XLVII: 48–51.

Singh, V. (2014) Gangetic Floods: Landscape Transformations, Embankments and Clay Brick-Making. In: “Asian Environments: Connections across Borders, Landscapes, and Times,” edited by U. Münster, S. Satsuka, and G. Cederlöf, RCC Perspectives 2014, no. 3, 17–22.






Meta information

Contributor:Arpita Lulla, Kalpavriksh, [email protected]
Last update18/08/2019
Conflict ID:2594



Floods in Bihar


Map of Kosi river