Deforestation, water flow diversion resulting in flash floods in north Bengal

Late on Wednesday evening on the occasion of Dussehra, the plains in the Terai and Dooars regions in the northern part of West Bengal witnessed a tragedy because of a sudden flash flood

IANS Photo
IANS Photo


Late on Wednesday evening on the occasion of Dussehra, the plains in the Terai and Dooars regions in the northern part of West Bengal witnessed a tragedy because of a sudden flash flood.

So far eight people have been reported killed and several are missing following the flash flood in Mal river at Malbazar in Jalpaiguri district in north West Bengal.

During the last few years, the small and shallow rivers in the plains of north Bengal have witnessed several incidences of such sudden flash floods, which according to experts, is something unique. However, Wednesday's tragedy has resulted in the resurrection of certain questions.

Is this changing trend of frequent flash floods in the small and shallow rivers in north Bengal just a quirk of nature? Or is this basically a human-invited calamity resulting from abuse of nature like mass deforestation in the region and forceful diversion of river-flows through use of stone-bounders or sand embankments? IANS spoke to environmental experts and specialists on the changing behaviour of such rivers in north Bengal.

Environment activist and founder-secretary Jalpaiguri Science & Nature Club, Dr Raja Raut has been studying this trend for quite some time. Speaking to IANS, he said that for the sake of tourism and other trade related activities, there has been massive deforestation and illegal cutting down of the trees in the region.

"Water from rivers and springs flowing down from the hills of north Bengal, Sikkim and Bhutan is the main reason for the flash floods in the rivers in the plains of north Bengal. Now forest trees have the natural strength to control the speed of the flowing water. Because of the massive deforestation the speed of the water flow remains uncontrolled. Secondly, because of the massive deforestation the land connecting the rivers in plains is fast losing its capacity to absorb the flowing water. So, this is the first and primary reason why flash floods have become so common in the rivers in the plains of north Bengal," Raut said.

Forest minister Jyotipriyo Mullick admitted that cutting down of trees is a problem not just in the forest areas of north Bengal but also elsewhere in the state. "We have already taken some measures to control this menace. Now we are going a step further. Even cutting down privately owned trees adjacent to the scheduled forest areas will require prior permission of the forest department. Any deviation on this count will attract major legal action including penalty," he said.

Another reason, according to Raja Raut, is the frequent diversion of the water flow of these rivers through the use of stone-bounders or sand embankments. "This can be dangerous unless done with proper homework. Indiscriminate change in the river water flow can lead to a major mishap, which is exactly what happened on Wednesday leading to the loss of so many lives," he said.

Another expert Partha Pratim Biswas feels that diversion of the river water flow has to be done keeping in mind a number of aspects. "First is to identify the exact places where the boulders for diversion would be used. Second, the diversion should be avoided as far as possible when there is a forecast of heavy rain that will result in the fast flow of water from the uphill rivers or streams. During the rains these otherwise shallow and small rivers take a critical shape. In this case the forecast was there and still diversion was done to facilitate immersion. The diversion was done in a totally unscientific manner that ultimately led into the mishap," he stated.

Despite claiming that a fact-finding committee might be formed to look into allegations of illegal diversion of the river flow, Jalpaiguri district magistrate Moumita Godara Basu said that she has no information about such illegal diversion. "The Mal river is extremely shallow and probably some channels were dug for the purpose of water ponding to facilitate idol immersion. Still, if necessary, a fact-finding committee might be formed with experts in the related field," she said.

State BJP leaders, especially the Leader of the Opposition in the West Bengal assembly Suvendu Adhikari, have claimed that despite warnings of a flash flood the district administration did not take any precautions to prevent the people from going to the river on Wednesday night. The BJP leaders said that they were not accidental deaths but culpable murders because of the negligence of the administration.

However, Adhikari's logic has been rubbished by north Bengal development minister, Udayan Guha. "Had the administration stopped people from going in the river on the occasion of Vijaya Dashami, then the same Suvendu Adhikari would have alleged that the state government does not allow the performance of Hindu rituals. This is nothing but politics," Guha said.

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