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Bridging the Big and the Small of Ecology for sustainable livelihoods in Kosi Basin


Under the Kosi Project (1954-59), embankments were constructed to aid flood protection, meet irrigation needs and encourage hydroelectric production across two neighbouring countries, India and Nepal. With time, crucial changes took place in the river basin area; free flow of the river water changed, siltation occurred, and the amount and nature of water logging and seepage increased, to name just a few. Soon these conditions altered the ecology of the basin, which in turn affected the ecosystem services and eventually made an impact on the livelihoods of the people dependent upon them.

Community dialogues within communities indicate that the Kosi project fragmented and disrupted the river ecology and also the communities’ dependent upon it. Usually, each splintered group looks out for its own localized interest, seeking redressal and support from authorities for their individual, specific need. Some have demands like river channelizing and village level embankments construction, which will prove disastrous in the longer run. And. many a time there is a clash of interest between various stakeholders/parties and even confrontation with the government.

Kosi basin has a rich ecological diversity. The landscape diversity includes hilly region, dense forest areas, terai, plain and so on. There have been bio-diversities evolved on such diverse ecological conditions which provided food and livelihood to the inhabitants in the area. The crop diversity, fisheries, flora and fauna on commons and so on helped local communities in providing food, fodder, fuel and other household needs.

The project-related activities undertaken in the river basin area have created many local ecological conditions that have transformed the Kosi basin landscape. This has in turn altered the traditional food-water nexus existing there.  Some of these ecological conditions created include:

  1. Silted areas: Silt deposition has made soil infertile and also partially buried houses in villages.
  2. Waterlogged areas: Permanently submerged in water, these areas are where farming is impossible today.
  3. Areas within embankments: Flooded annually, these tracts are prone to soil erosion and loss of arable land.
  4. Land jacketed by two sides of embankments:  Locked landmasses, these have no access to irrigation.
  5. Good fertile land: Available, but with low slope gradient, which leads to disrupted drainage and waterlogging during the post-monsoon months.
  6. Waterbodies and depressed areas: Large number of these are created when river changes course near embankments

Communities in the basin have been living with local ecological conditions since ages and, in the process, learned to deal with emerging challenges. This vast base of indigenous knowledge has helped them in managing floods and living with it and managing their essential needs in spite of recurring floods. They developed their own indicators for flood forecasting, diverting water at small scale, bearing shocks and stresses, health system and so on. However, the extreme events cost lives and assets and they looked at Kosi project with much hope and expectation that it will solve their problems of floods and losses. The project interventions created situations which are larger in magnitude, faster in deteriorating natural conditions and beyond managing capacities of local people due to limited resources and decision making. However, even in such exigencies communities have helped themselves through such indigenous knowledge although such interventions have been in isolated patches, like reviving traditional and resilient crop varieties, cropping in silted and inundated areas, etc.

 The communities have learned to adapt to these changed ecological conditions, and this in turn has influenced the politics and economics of the basin area. Though the irrigation and renewable energy production potential of the basin is quite significant, this can only be tapped if the basin boasts of ecology that is sustainable. There is a need for actions that connect, complement and benefit one another.

 Some recommendations to aid in the larger goal of river ecology and sustainable management of the river basin, and which include water-energy-food aspects are:

  1. Long term goals at Basin level :
    • Understand river ecology
    • Stop actions to further degrade river ecology/natural resources
    • Initiate actions to revive deteriorated conditions
    • Take measures to make river ecosystems functional
    • Establish a pro-river ecology narrative in local communities along with political parties, policymakers
    • Develop orientation and education materials in local languages
  2. Short term goals at two levels
    • a)    Landscape-level:
      • Check further deterioration of river ecology
      • Recover degraded ecological conditions for ecosystem services sustainability
      • Use existing programmes and schemes like MNREGA
    • b)    Household/ Community level:
      • Promote adaptive livelihood mechanisms/ support services
      • Help local communities to adapt to challenges
      • Encourage adaptive practices such as makhana cultivation, fish culture in waterlogged areas, crop calendars alteration

Short term interventions must be developed keeping in mind specifics of the local micro-ecology. These must eventually contribute to the larger picture of building, strengthening and reviving river ecology. Some of these strategies are:

  1. Synergy of indigenous knowledge and science & technology: Augment scientific facts with local traditional know-how
  2. Diversity-Complexity and Recycling: Enhance these amongst the farms, households and livestock; Nurture and protect diverse ecosystems
  3. Landscape/ Ecosystem: Develop primary production based interventions in the specific context of landscape and surrounding ecosystems
  4. Appropriate extension support: Provide linkage to resource institutions, accurate weather advisories and prepare Master Trainers
  5. Women headed households: Special attention to their needs and priorities
  6. Pro-ecology environment and Ecology champions: Develop educational materials and champions

Bihar government has already taken up some initiatives in a bid to synergize science and local knowledge. A few of these are:

  1.  Kosi Flood forecast model  (FFM): Integrates scientific tools with people’s feedback, gives 72-hour advance forecast to 17 Indian stations in 7 districts and 4 in Nepal.
  2. Satellite images to provision for anti-erosion efforts in land monitoring and river behaviour analysis modelling
  3. 3rd Agriculture Roadmap: Launched for better linkages between agriculture, DRR & climate risk management

The need is to adopt a pro-ecology approach that focuses on the diverse, complex conditions in the basin. The agriculture department activities must recycle their activities to include training of farmers and rural communities.  These efforts and learnings need to be more organised and systematic and in sync with the pro-ecology approach. At the State government level, directives for various concerned departments need to be issued, which adopt such strategies in their respective departmental action plans and also the Kosi basin development project.

This blog has been written by GEAG based on an Issue Brief titled – “Macro-Micro Ecological Connect for Sustainable Livelihoods in the Kosi Basin” by Dr Shiraz Wajih, Dr Bijay Singh, Ms Nivedita Mani and Mr K K Singh, as part of the project on Synergizing Political, Economic and Gender Dimensions for Sustainability of River Ecology and Resources in the context of Water-Energy-Food Nexus in Kosi Basin, supported by The Asia Foundation.