"We Have Given Up Hope": Why Residents of Ghatal Are Tired of Frequent Floods
Recurring floods in Ghatal in Paschim Medinipur district damage people's homes and crops, shattering their lives and livelihoods.
Argora and Sukhchandrapur Ward I, West Bengal: "Floods in Ghatal are a curse," says Pacharam Bera, a resident of Argora in West Bengal.
Ghatal is situated in the lower reaches of the Chota Nagpur plateau's catchment for the Shilai River, 66 km west of Kolkata, West Bengal. Administratively, it is located in West Bengal's Paschim Medinipur district, in the Ghatal sub-division.
"If you had come last year in August, you would have seen water reaching the second floor of my two-storey house!" says Ganesh Maity, a resident of Ghatal.
Ghatal saw devastating floods in 2021 along the Shilabati and Burigang rivers. At least 10 embankments were breached as relentless rain drenched the region in August of that year. All of Ghatal municipality's wards were flooded, as were at least four of the adjoining Kharar municipality's wards, and floodwaters reached all four blocks of Ghatal sub-divisions in Paschim Medinipur district (Daspur-1, Ghatal, Chandrakona-1, and Chandrakona-2).
Ghatal, and its network of rivers.
"Ghatal," says Narayan Goswami, a resident of Argora, "is like a bowl that collects water from neighbouring regions."
Because of the basin-shaped geography of the region, the low-lying parts of West Medinipur, East Medinipur, Howrah and Hooghly Districts, all of which are part of the Chota Nagpur plateau, frequently flood.
The Ghatal block's regular flooding is because it is traversed by a dense network of rain-fed, partially regulated, east-flowing rivers including the Shilabati, the Dwarkeshwar, and the Rupnarayan.
Nabendu Sekhar Kar, assistant professor of geography at Shahid Matangini Hazra Government College For Women, who wrote the paper Flood-Prone Ghatal Region, India: A Study on Post-'Phailin' Inundations of 2013, says, "A significant amount of rain falls during the monsoon during a certain amount of time, and the Shilabati and its tributaries are also bringing quite an amount of rain from the upper catchment and concentrating it on this specific location. Due to a lack of basin lag time, the river Shilabati is unable to transport this enormous amount of water, which leads to river overflow in the Ghatal block."
Bad planning exacerbates the floods. Ghatal's many river dams are in dangerously poor shape owing to neglect. The Ghatal region is particularly vulnerable to annual flooding when the embankments are breached. The silt that arrives with the tide is unable to get past the barrier, so it builds up in the river. Therefore, the river's ability to store water steadily declines, resulting in flooding whose frequency seems to be growing.
Ganesh Maity, a resident of Ghatal block, Paschim Medinipur, West Bengal.
Maity, like all residents of the area, is tired of the frequent floods that have become even more frequent in the last couple of years.
G.P. Sharma, President of Skymet, a private Indian company that provides weather forecasting services, says that change in temperature due to climate change is an important ingredient for floods to happen. "The higher the temperature due to global warming, the higher the capacity of the air for holding the moisture and then higher the potential to give a downpour or heavy rainfall over those areas."
Overall annual rainfall is decreasing slightly in Paschim Medinipur (or West Midnapore), according to an analysis by the India Meteorological Department, using daily rainfall data between 1989 and 2018 from nine weather stations in the district. The number of dry weather days with no rain have increased in three weather stations–Mohanpur, Kalaikunda and DP Ghat–which means that rain is concentrated on fewer days. In Kalaikunda, which has a weather station managed by the Indian Air Force, the number of heavy rainfall days has increased, said a scientist at the IMD, Pulak Guhathakurta.
They did not analyse data for the Ghatal weather station because they could gather data only for 5-6 years, too few to reach to any conclusion, said Guhathakurta.
"Slow or moderate rainfall means that the soil would be able to absorb the water which improves the quality of the soil. If it rains fewer days but rains more heavily, the soil will be saturated, and most of the water will flow as runoff, also leading to floods," said Guhathakurta. "It's very concerning that light to moderate rainfall days are decreasing in the region."
"Rising global temperatures increase the moisture the atmosphere can hold, resulting in storms and heavy rains, but paradoxically also more intense dry spells as more water evaporates from the land and global weather patterns change," according to a 2021 World Bank report. "These changes to the hydrological cycle can deliver stronger, longer droughts and floods, and bring these hazards to parts of the globe that have not seen them in living memory."
Even though Paschim Medinipur received less average rain during the monsoon season than Kolkata district between 1989 and 2018, a combination of its geography and absence of sufficient mitigation efforts makes it prone to climate disasters when heavy rain strikes.
A boat in every home
"Ghatal," says Narayan Goswami (left in the photo), a resident of Argora, "is like a bowl that collects water from neighbouring regions."
He is with Pacharam Bera, another resident of the village, on September 26, 2022.
The people of Ghatal have come to expect this annual flooding, and have grown used to it. Nearly every home in the region has a wooden boat that is maintained in case of floods. The important state highway linking Ghatal and Chandrakona gets cut off by the floods, so the only means of transportation for both people and commodities is by boat. "Just like how you maintain a bike, we maintain a boat in our house," grins Bera.
According to Maity, a resident of Ghatal, "high-speed water flow sweeps away roads in different locations in Ghatal block during floods, and the electricity as well as phone connection goes down for a few days or even weeks at a time." If people in a flood zone require a boat to get to higher ground, the government will provide one free of charge. "If you want to collect supplies like food and water for your own family, however, you will need to use your own boat," said Maity.
A principal market of Ghatal municipality, the major business hub along the highway, gets flooded for a few days each monsoon season. "The highway is the only place where there are haats or markets, because the rest of the area in Ghatal is completely submerged. We all depend on this market for our essential needs during floods," says Goswami. Thousands of locals, not just in Ghatal but also in the neighbouring Daspur-1, Daspur-2, Chandrakona-1 and Chandrakona-2 blocks, rely on this market.
A house upended by a flood in Ghatal. Pictured, September 26, 2022.
Homes and other buildings constructed with mud in the village areas get entirely wrecked by floods, and concrete houses go underwater as the floodwaters deposit large quantities of sediment over them. This is why you will see houses in the area constructed on high pillars.
"This is one of the few ways we know how to protect ourselves from floods. We built pillars underneath our house because floods had gotten extreme lately," says Jamuna Dolui, who lives in Sukhchandrapur Ward-1 in Ghatal. Dolui's earlier home was built on the ground; after facing floods for several years, her family eventually saved up enough to construct a new house built on high pillars.
According to Ganesh Maity and other residents living in the area, the technique of constructing pillars underneath the foundation of the house is a recent phenomenon. Maity said: "Probably, people started this technique around 8 to 10 years ago. That is why all the houses you see in the area with pillars under the foundation look newly constructed."
"But even that was no help during floods," says Dolui. "We could feel our house swaying one night, when the tide was high and the current of the water was strong. We woke up the next morning to find a crack in one of the pillars, and the cemented steps to our house had a clean break in the middle."
The family had to seek shelter on the rooftop of their neighbour's two-storey home. Later, they arranged for a ladder which they laid over the broken steps leading to the house entrance.
What the floods bring: dirty water, illnesses and out migration
The floods devastate everything in their path. Many families, such as the Dolui's, whose house is pictured above, (from September 26, 2022), have built houses on tall pillars to keep themselves safe, but often the floods damage the pillars too.
Access to clean water is a huge issue during floods. Few homes in the region have their own water supply; most residents rely on water from one of many tube wells built and maintained by the local government. Water from the Dwarakeswar River is used for almost every household necessity, including washing clothes, flushing toilets, watering gardens, and washing dishes.
The Ghatal municipality frequently experiences water logging during the monsoon. From June through September, the pace at which water may be drained away during times of heavy rainfall is slowed by a variety of factors. These include the rainy season's abundance, the area's lowland nature, siltation of the river bed and inadequate drainage systems.
Damages to the ground floor, the collapse of the home, the destruction of the vegetable and flower gardens, the destruction of the agricultural crops etc. are all magnified by the water logging.
As a result, the health of locals takes a major hit whenever flooding lasts for an extended period. Diarrhoea is the most prevalent disease brought on by floods; additionally, cholera, food poisoning, various water-borne diseases, and even snake bites are common.
Malaria and dengue are recurring threats during periods of heavy rain and consequent flooding; the spread of such diseases is somewhat mitigated thanks to the coordinated efforts of medical and health teams and ASHA workers, who visit flood-stricken areas and administer medication to the people.
Anindita Mandal, who works at the district hospital at Ghatal, says that after floods, she and her colleagues visit the houses in the flood-prone regions to spread bleaching powder around the tube wells and homes, to inhibit the spread of water-borne diseases. To combat the mosquito population, sanitation workers sweep away the mud, then use bleaching powder and drop oil balls in the flood-affected areas.
Sawdust or hay is wrapped in jute cloth and then steeped for a week or more in old oil to make the balls. When put into the water, the oil from the balls forms a filament on the surface, depriving the larvae below of oxygen. In addition, it stops mosquitoes from laying eggs in the drain, which eliminates mosquito populations.
Anindita Mandal, works at the district hospital in Ghatal, and visits flood-stricken
households to take steps to reduce water-borne diseases and those spread by mosquitoes.
"Because open defecation is still quite prevalent in the rural areas," Mandal says, "it becomes hard for women to locate a safe place to defecate [in the floods], which leads to several health complications."
The annual flooding and resulting uncertainty has resulted in men from the villages and cities of the Ghatal sub-division migrating out in search of work. Jamuna Dolui's son is a worker in the gold industry in South India. "Many youth of Ghatal have left their homes for urban areas because there are limited job opportunities here apart from agriculture and aquaculture," says Dolui. "I don't blame them."
The outmigration of men means women are becoming even more vulnerable to recurrent floods in the region. Women here, as elsewhere in rural India, are disproportionately engaged in agricultural work, rendering them more vulnerable to natural disasters like floods. In addition, societal conventions prevent women from pursuing other careers because they are expected to stay at home and care for their children.
Agriculture in Ghatal takes a big hit during the monsoon season. As a result of the prolonged inundation, most farmers avoid sowing during the monsoon season, thus adversely affecting the kharif or winter crop. The flooding ruins their farms, and yearly output drops. Although the farmlands in the region are fertile and suitable for growing a variety of crops, they are often only used for a single crop or, at most, two crops every year, with the monsoon season factored out of the farming calendar.
"All is not lost," says Kar. "Farmers have discovered a positive effect of water on their agriculture. The increased sedimentation on their property after such a flood will help them harvest more produce the next year. However, annual crop losses remain high, and sedimentation continues to rise."
Several people we spoke to on the ground mentioned that they were dabbling in aquaculture–breeding and harvesting aquatic animals and plants–and that there has been some increase in the trade because of frequent floods in the region, which disrupts agriculture. But there is no conclusive data on this trend.
The Ghatal Master Plan
The West Bengal government first proposed the Ghatal Master Plan (GMP) in 1976 to address flood-related issues in the area. In the decades that followed, however, it never really took off.
In June 2022, the Union government approved the West Bengal government's Rs 1,500-crore GMP. The project aims to dredge the riverbeds and strengthen the embankments of at least 10 important rivers in the state, including the monsoon-swelled Shilabati, Rupnarayan and Kansabati, and several canals in the Paschim and Purba Medinipur districts.
The problem sought to be addressed is that the rivers in the Ghatal region carry enormous amounts of silt, which accumulates in the river beds particularly towards the lower reaches, and reduces the river's capacity to carry water. This in turn leads to flooding during monsoons. Regular dredging of the river can boost its carrying capacity, allowing more water to flow through it even during the monsoon.
The proposed Ghatal Master Plan is yet to be approved by all state government departments involved, and is not available for the public to see, said Samim Middya, who works with the districts disaster management team in Paschim Medinipur.
Jamuna Dolui's son works in the gold industry in South India.
Repeated floods and the damage they wreak has led to many men migrating from the Ghatal region.
Pictured, Jamuna Dolui and her daughter in law, Deepali, September 26, 2022.
Skymet president Sharma says we can neither prevent nor control extreme weather events--the solution is to be prepared. "The state agencies must be in a state of preparedness for disaster management on short notice," he says. "You need preparations well in advance, keeping in mind that disasters can happen anytime and don't give you much warning."
Sharma says short-term disaster management implies that all state and central agencies must keep upgrading their infrastructure; that their planning should be well in advance, and that these plans, backed by design, should be operational at short notice.
Middya says that the West Bengal government's priority in the region is district planning, implementing early warning systems, and planning awareness and preparedness programmes. "General work like drainage clearance and strengthening and looking after dams is our main work," says Middya.
Since May 2016, the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) has been implementing a central sector scheme, Aapda Mitra, to train 6,000 community volunteers (200 volunteers per district) in disaster response, in 30 of India's 25 most flood-prone districts, including West Medinipur, said Middya.
The program aims to provide community volunteers with the knowledge and abilities necessary to respond to their community's urgent needs during a disaster, empowering them to carry out basic relief and rescue operations in emergencies like floods, flash floods, and urban flooding, Middya explained. ""This scheme was implemented in Ghatal this year in 2022, and it has been a very helpful addition in our fight against floods."
IndiaSpend reached out to members of the West Bengal Disaster Management & Civil Defence Department and the National Disaster Management Authority but none of them responded to calls or emails about the Ghatal Master Plan. We will update the story when they respond.
Embankments are another common solution proposed for flood control. However, the problem with embankments is that silt, sand, gravel and stone accumulate in the riverbeds. As the water levels rise, the scouring of embankments can cause catastrophic breaches.
Embankments, according to experts, give people a false sense of security whereas in fact, embankments can and do exacerbate the damage caused by floods. "Embankments restrict the natural overflows and the twisting course of rivers," Kar says. "This produces a low-lying, pocket-lobe topography that is more prone to flooding. Strengthening the embankments is a short-term fix, because it is only a matter of time before they get breached again."
It is not the breach itself that is dangerous, says Kar. The real danger is the water level rising in the constricted river during peak monsoon. In the case of an unrestricted river, the rising waters will seek and find their own level--but when it is constricted by embankments, the water level rises vertically; the embankment breaches, and the water cascades in huge quantities. "Rivers now tumble down upon the floodplain like a waterfall, rather than just flowing out over it," says Kar.
While experts weigh pros and cons and come up with prescriptions, the residents of Ghatal are fatalistic. "We have been hearing about this master plan for decades," says a dejected Bera. "Politicians make many promises during elections, but we have given up hope of having any solution being implemented in this region."
We welcome feedback. Please write to firstname.lastname@example.org. We reserve the right to edit responses for language and grammar.