The Vicious Circle of Corruption, Dams and Disaster

Kosi River Breaks Embankment
Kosi River Breaks Embankment
Transparency International’s Global Corruption Report 2008, to which your blogger contributed a brief paper, is devoted to corruption in the water sector. It states forcefully that “corruption in the water sector puts the lives and livelihoods of billions of people at risk”. The recent flood disaster on the Kosi River in Nepal and India illustrates in a shocking way how corruption, dams and disaster feed on each other.

In nature, water always flows downstream. In society, drinking and irrigation water flow to the rich and powerful, while waste water and floods flow to the poor. An important reason for this anomaly is corruption, which favors large, expensive projects over small-scale approaches and effective maintenance. My colleague Shannon Lawrence and I have documented this link between corruption and dam building in detail for the water sector in Pakistan.

The recent disaster on the Kosi River illustrates how corruption – and not unexpected or larger-than-average floods – led to the breach of the river’s embankments, flooded out three million people and killed at least 2,000 people in Nepal and India. I just came across a highly informative interview with Dipak Gyawali, Nepal’s former Minister for Water Resources, in eKantipur.com. The following extensive quote from this article shows how corruption undermined maintenance of the embankments and brought about the disaster:

Such is the racket of breaches that out of the 2.5 to 3 billion rupees spent annually by the Bihar government on construction and repair works, as much as 60 percent used to be pocketed by the politician-contractors-engineers nexus. There is a perfect system of percentages in which there is a share for everyone who matters, right from the minister to the junior engineer. The actual expenditure never exceeds 30 percent of the budgeted cost and after doling out the fixed percentages, the contractors are able to pocket as much as 25 percent of the sanctioned amount. A part of this they use to finance the political activities of their pet politicians and to get further projects sanctioned. Thus the cycle goes on. [The result is that...] the contractor's bills are paid without verifying them. The same lot for boulders and craters are shown as freshly purchased year after year and the government exchequer is duped of tens of millions. Many of the desiltation and repair and maintenance works shown to have been completed are never done at all and yet payments are made....So much is the income of the engineers from the percentages that the engineers do not bother to collect their salaries.

(Fighting the Irrigation Mafia in Bihar, by Indu Bharati in the Economic and Political Weekly from Bombay in 1991, quoted by Dipak Gyawali in his book Water in Nepal/Rivers, Technology and Society, Zed Books, London and Himal Books, Kathmandu, 2001.)   

This is what I mean by “wrong conduct”. My understanding, based on information filtering out of Saptari and Sunsari and on local FM channels, is that local cadres of ruling political parties got wise to the corruption practiced from across the border and began to demand a share, which was difficult for the Bihari contractors to agree to because of the high rake-in demanded by their traditional political and civil servant bosses in Patna and higher up. There were, it seems, tough negotiations going on before the start of the monsoon season, but no agreement could be reached. No formal approach was made by the Koshi officials to the most India-friendly government in power in Nepal because the issue to be resolved was not doing the work but sharing the booty. Which is why the complaint that the contractors had come on August 8 to strengthen the embankment but were not allowed to, itself begs the question: how come you come to do the repair works (if that is what you wanted to do) in the middle of the monsoon and not in January?

Ironically, the flood disaster on the Kosi has again led to calls for the construction of high dams upstream on the river, rather than for accountability measures that would prevent the existing river infrastructure from failing. In his interview with eKantipur.com, Gyawali elaborates why such a high dam would not address the flood problems of the Kosi. But corruption, dams and floods are a vicious cycle which happily feeds on itself.

Peter Bosshard is the policy director of International Rivers. His blog, Wet, Wild and Wonky, appears at www.internationalrivers.org/en/blog/227.

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