River Erosion and Shooting Wars

BUXAR, India – For farmers living on the banks of the India’s signature river, the Ganges gives and the Ganges takes away.

River erosion is an age-old worry for farmers living in the basins of the Ganges, Bramhaputra, and Meghna rivers in India and Bangladesh.

Land that was yours one season can vanish, only to reappear as someone else’s home-stake a hundred miles – or a hundred yards – away.

Sometimes, it can spark a shooting war.

Nardeshwar Tiwari of India's Buxar district visits the farmland claimed by villagers on both sides of the shifting Ganges River. Photo by Dan Morrison

In India’s Buxar district, annual erosion and natural variation in the Ganges’ course has led to a perennial standoff between farmers here in the state of Bihar, and farmers just across the river in the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh.

Disputes over shifting farmland led to armed conflict in the 1990s, when six villagers were killed and a high ranking Bihar police official was injured by gunfire. Local administrators in Buxar even handed out rifles to farmers so they could defend their fields against raiders from over the state line.

“It’s like the India-Pakistan border here,” Nardeshwar Tiwari, a 72-year-old farmer from Buxar, told me during a visit to 6,000 disputed acres of prime farmland claimed by farmers in both states.

These land wars are a longstanding problem along the state border. “Some of their portion lies on our side, and some of our portion lies on their side,” Ajay Yadav, the district’s highest-ranking administrator, told me. Cases have been moldering in the courts and in Delhi since the 1930s.

Synthetic-fiber bags line a section of the Ganges River in Buxar, India, to stave off river erosion. Photo by Dan Morrison

Taming, or mitigating, river erosion is a thankless – and ultimately impossible — job. In Buxar, engineers are reinforcing portions of the district’s 51-kilometer Ganges River embankment with synthetic, sand-filled “geo-bags,” that resist wear and tear longer than traditional jute sandbags.

A.K. Prasad, the district’s executive engineer, escorts me to a riverside village where the geo-bags are being tested. The sloping riverbank, lined with hundreds of white 100-pound sacks, amplifies the intense summer sun. Despite the presence of the Ganges, the embankment, on this day, resembles a salt field. But when the floods come, nearby fields will be preserved.

Further downriver, Tiwari points to a fertile patch of land that is shared by farmers from both sides of the border under an informal peacekeeping agreement. Trust, but verify. Half a mile back sits a seasonal cluster of straw huts that farmers erected to keep an eye on their crops.

“Every year,” says Tiwari, “someone burns them down.”

A cluster of straw huts erected so local farmers can watch over their crops on a disputed stretch of farmland. Each year, someone torches the settlement. Photo by Dan Morrison



Meet the Author
Dan Morrison is a contributor to National Geographic Voices. From 2007 to 2012 he reported for National Geographic News from South Asia, Africa, and the Middle East, filing dispatches on climate change, conflict, the environment, and antiquities. Dan is author of The Black Nile , a nonfiction account of his 3,600-mile journey down the length of the White Nile through Uganda, Sudan, and Egypt. The Daily Beast called The Black Nile "a masterful narrative of investigative reportage, travel writing, and contemporary history," and The Village Voice named it one of the Ten Best of 2010. Dan was a 2013 United Nations Foundation Global Health Fellow. Currently at work on a book about the Ganges River, Dan also contributes to the New York Times, POLITICO Magazine, Slate, The Arabist Network and the Dhaka Tribune. To contact Dan please see his website.