India pressurizing Nepal to shift the course of Kosi

KATHMANDU, June 1: India is putting pressure on Nepal to change the course of the Koshi River, which has shifted toward east after breaching the embankment over two years ago, by constructing a pilot channel that may sweep away a Nepali village development committee (VDC).

India had unilaterally started construction of the pilot channel around two months ago and work was halted after the Saptari District Administration Office issued a directive around seven weeks ago to immediately halt the construction following protests by locals.

A senior officer at the Department of Irrigation (DOI), which monitors the Koshi barrage from the Nepali side, confirmed that the department did not give the pilot channel a go ahead as Gobargada, an island VDC of Saptari with a population of around 1,500 to the south of the barrage, will be swept away if Koshi were brought to the central course. “They did not consult us, as required by the agreement, before starting the pilot channel.

The irrigation department of Bihar contacted us several times after the work was halted. We asked them to use the diplomatic channel in the matter around a month ago,” the officer said.

Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar has himself started to lobby the Indian central government to take up the issue of constructing the pilot channel with the Nepal government.

“The center should immediately take up with Nepal the issue of strengthening and protecting the embankment in the wake of forceful stoppage of work in Nepal and digging of a pilot channel to re-establish the central flow of the river to avoid undue pressure on both the western and the eastern embankments,” the Press Trust of India (PTI) had quoted Kumar as saying on Friday.

If the digging of the channel is not resumed, he would meet Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and External Affairs Minister SM Krishna and urge them to take up the issue with Nepal, the PTI report added. A local journalist in Saptari said Kumar had even visited the site on Saturday and urged Nepali journalists to stop writing negatively about the pilot channel.

The DOI officer said bringing Koshi to the central course may be even more dangerous for Nepal as Koshi may take the western course and threaten the Hanumannagar area to the south of the barrage if the work were not to go exactly according to plan. There is no Nepali land to the south of the barrage on the eastern side and the river has already been under control on the north side of the barrage.

Current status of Koshi

The DOI officer said there was not any real threat on the Nepali side this year. “There is little threat on the western side as the river has taken eastern course and things are better than 2008 (August) when the embankment was breached even on the eastern side,” the officer added.

The Indian government became serious about Koshi after the breach, the officer claimed, and the Koshi High Level Technical Committee — that includes the Deputy Director General of DOI and Chairman of the Ganga Flood Control Commission from the Indian side — has been formed.

“The high-level committee meets every November to decide the course of action for the coming monsoon and India carries out the maintenance work with Nepali approval as per the agreement,” the officer explained. The whole maintenance work is done by India, the officer contended, with India authorized to work up to 32 km north of the barrage on Nepal´s consent as per the agreement.

The spurs are being repaired, porcupines (barriers that reduce velocity of water flow and stop sand) are being placed at different places for the past two years and dredging machines are being used to weaken the obstructions created by silt at banks. The officer attributed the 2008 breach to such obstructions claiming that the water flow was just 178,000 cusec at the time of breach.

“The water level crosses 300,000 cusec on several occasions every year,” the officer revealed.

The barrage was constructed to withstand pressure of 800,000 cusec when it was completed in early 1960s. “But if the water flow were to reach 800,000 cusec, water would overflow from both eastern and western sides of the barrage as the capacity of barrage has been drastically reduced by massive sedimentation,” the officer claimed.

“I am told the level had reached 800,000 cusec just a couple of years after completion of the project but it has not crossed 400,000 cusec after that so we can´t exactly forecast the threshold,” the officer added.