Millennium Post
In Retrospect

Unattended catastrophe?

Despite claiming numerous lives, spurring internal migration and rendering unfathomable socio-economic losses, mitigation of Assam floods remains centred on ineffective infrastructural quick-fixes — bereft of any long-term sustainable solution

Unattended catastrophe?

Each year, Assam experiences flooding along Brahmaputra and Barak rivers — fed by over 50 tributaries. The year 2022 has witnessed above 170 fatalities, and 2.9 million people are affected across 30 districts. Assam floods result in chaos, forcing thousands of people and animals to relocate and destroying valuable crops and assets. The greatest floods in terms of their effects on human life were those in 1988, 1998, and 2004; the 2004 floods alone affected 12.4 million people and resulted in 251 fatalities.

Assam's flood and erosion problems are singularly different from those of other Indian states. According to the Rashtriya Barh Ayog (RBA), the state's flood-prone territory is 31.05 lakh hectares, or around 39.58 per cent of Assam's total land area. This equates to approximately 9.40 per cent of the country's total flood-prone territory. Approximately, 10.2 per cent of the country's land area is considered to be flood-prone. It means that Assam's flood-prone territory is four times larger than the country's average flood-prone area.

As of now, this year, by July 2, there have been 173 fatalities, and the town of Silchar in the Cachar area has been underwater persistently. According to a report released by the Assam State Management Disaster Authority (ASDMA), the overall population affected by the floods stands at 29.7 lakh across 30 districts. In the meantime, lakhs of people have been evacuated and transferred to relief camps. Assam has experienced devastating floods twice in less than a month. In May, flooding in the state claimed the lives of at least 30 individuals. The worst-hit areas of the Assam floods of 2022 are Karimganj, Cachar, Silchar, Kamrup, Darrang, Tamulpur, Udalguri, Dima Hasao, Hojai, among a few others.

Responsible factors

Several factors contribute to annual floods of Assam. The flash floods caused by rivers coming down from neighbouring states like Arunachal Pradesh and Meghalaya worsened the state's flood situation. Due to cloud bursts in the Meghalayan catchment areas, flash floods of great scale occurred in lower Assam's south bank tributaries of the Brahmaputra in the years 2004 and 2014. The rivers Gainadi and Jiadhal also witnessed flash floods of extremely high magnitude in August 2011.

Assam is simultaneously dealing with bank erosion caused by Brahmaputra and Barak rivers, and their tributaries. Every year, erosion-related losses total several hundred crores. Since the 1950s, Brahmaputra and its tributaries have already eroded more than 4.27 lakh hectares of land, or 7.40 per cent of the state's territory. The estimated average annual loss of land is close to 8,000 ha. Due to bank erosion, the Brahmaputra River's breadth has risen to up to 15 km in some locations. Embankment breaches brought on by riverbank erosion are now commonplace. Erosion is diminishing the state's fertile riverine agricultural fields, which is particularly bad for the rural economy of the state.

Human activities — including encroachment of riverbanks and wetlands, poor drainage, uncontrolled urban expansion, hill-chopping, and deforestation — also contribute to flooding. Any haphazard development in or close to the river's natural course will end badly.

Furthermore, Assam floods are made worse by the location of the area, southwest monsoon's heavy rainfall and topographical formations that are prone to erosion. Scientists think that the rains were probably worsened by climate change. A report released by AP states that since the 1950s, the pattern of the monsoons, which is essential for India's agrarian economy, has changed, with extended dry spells interspersed with heavy rain.

Control measures

In contrast to the painful situation people face on account of natural calamities, one can see the kindest of hearts who stand in solidarity with each other. Amid these testing times, a large number of people have come forward to offer their help and support to those who are affected. Several NGOs are working relentlessly to look after the people of the state. People have been generously donating money and other necessary things. Celebrities and other important figures in the country have come forward to offer their immense support. Help is flooding in for Assam's millions of flood victims, from the 14th Dalai Lama to Bollywood. Dharamsala reports that the Dalai Lama said in his letter that he was sending a "gift from the Gaden Phodrang Trust of the Dalai Lama" to help organisations that are working to rescue and aid those who have been impacted, as well as to show his sympathy with the Assamese people.

Following the nation's historic floods in 1954, the Indian government developed a national flood policy with three phases — the immediate, the short-term, and the long-term. As of yet, no long-term solutions to the state's erosion and flood problems have been undertaken. Assam's flood control efforts really got underway after the National Water Policy was announced. The priority regions that required immediate and urgent attention were then identified, and an "outlined plan for flood control in Assam", along with numerous comprehensive strategies, was established. The Water Resources Department has so far focused its efforts on protecting important townships in both the Brahmaputra and Barak valleys as well as on the general development of the rural sector. The congestion of the drainage system in cities and other significant locations has also been addressed with plans. Since the start of the second five-year plan and up until the present, the Water Resources Department in Assam has been carrying out programmes like "Construction of Embankments and Flood Walls," "River training and bank protection works," "Anti-erosive and town protection works" and many more.

Assam must rely more on grants from the federal government because of its own financial constraints. The flood control activities are currently being carried out with the aid of the financing sources including Flood Management Programme (FMP), Additional Central Assistance (ACA), and State Disaster Response Fund (SDRF).

Lack of permanent solution

Sooner or later, there must be a permanent solution to this yearly destruction that comes with an endless amount of loss. Building dams and reservoirs to reduce flooding was recommended by the Brahmaputra Board in its master plan for the river in 1982. But there have been issues with dams. Even if they aid in controlling the flood waters' flow, the release may still exceed the capacity of the canals downstream. The construction of dams has also been opposed by communities and environmentalists since it may result in environmental harm and eviction. The government has put a number of dam projects on hold over the years. There can be long-term measures, for instance, rejuvenation of wetlands, decentralised weather forecast, and reconstruction of embankments. Another significant exercise is the zoning of floodplains, which classifies areas according to their vulnerability, and prohibits certain activities like farming and home construction there.

It is odd that a region that frequently floods should be so unprepared. The state government, the Union government, environmental organisations, and the general public may all work together to address the issue at its root.

Despite the recurring nature of the disaster, neither the Central Government nor the mainstream media acknowledge the floods, nor do they express any sorrow. The issue is still solely Assam's. Numerous pressure groups' cries for the situation to be treated as a National Calamity went unanswered.

According to the Disaster Management Act of 2005, a disaster is defined as a catastrophe, mishap, calamity, or grave occurrence in any area that results in a significant loss of life or human suffering; damage to, and destruction of, property; degradation of the environment; and is of a nature or magnitude that is beyond the coping capacity of the community of the affected area — whether it be caused by natural or man-made causes, accident, or negligence.

In addition to the occasionally insufficient regular funds set aside by the Centre, Assam, at times, also receives donations from a number of prominent "celebrities". However, these would appear to be little more than crumbs tossed at the north-eastern state from the inside point of view.

The destruction caused by floods in Kaziranga National Park — which is home to two-thirds of the world's one-horned rhino population and numerous bird and animal species — as well as the slowly shrinking landmass of Majuli — the largest riverine island in the world — which has reportedly been reduced to less than half of its original size due to erosion, have failed to win the support of mainstream media.

If declared a national calamity, there are a number of relief measures and solutions that can be expected to help Assam cope with the destruction and losses. It will lead to a national show of support for the state from the NDRF. The National Calamity Contingency Fund (NCCF), which is fully funded by the Centre, will be helpful when the resources of the CRF prove to be inadequate. It will also lead to the granting of concessional loans to people affected if the disaster is declared "severe".

Human-induced crisis

Floods are frequently included in the natural catastrophe category when classifying disasters into natural and man-made types. Floods, for instance, are listed under "natural disasters" at the National Institute of Disaster Management. Floods are referred to as "the most frequent sort of natural disaster" by the World Health Organisation. However, this characterisation obscures the fact that flood devastation has human causes. Floods, along with earthquakes, landslides, avalanches, storms, and tsunamis, have always been a part of the earth's natural system. However, human activity has been directly causing floods since the advent of agriculture and urbanisation. Man-made structures such as dams and barrages, hydroelectric projects, unsustainable mining, deforestation, watershed degradation, and encroachments in riverbeds have all had an impact on the cause and nature of floods.

While dams are frequently promoted as a way to prevent rivers from flooding, they are also the cause of numerous flood disasters. Every dam should, in theory, be able to reduce floods in communities downstream if it has a place to store water. Actually, every activity that helps hold back, replenish (to groundwater aquifers), or delay the flow of rainwater from the catchment to the river serves to control its flow which, in turn, moderates river floods. However, because of the ongoing degradation of local water bodies, wetlands, natural forests, and soil's ability to retain water, our catchments are rapidly losing this capacity. Only when dams are operated with this goal in mind can their potential to help mitigate floods be realised in practice. There is no room left to hold more water when dams are not operated with this goal in mind and are instead filled as soon as water becomes available. The only remaining option is to let all of the inflow flow into the river downstream. Due to this, downstream areas that are already experiencing flooding from local rainfall or other factors have their flood disasters exacerbated by the dams.

Flood prevention strategies must go beyond simple infrastructural improvements and incorporate stakeholders from riverine communities. What must be realised is that river flooding is a natural occurrence that needs not turn into a catastrophe. Modern flood control technologies are neither particularly effective nor friendly to people. Additionally, flood management cannot be seen in isolation and must be included as a component of a comprehensive environmental strategy that re-examines the concept of "development" in its entirety.

Views expressed are personal

Majuli: A sinking island

Floods severely damage infrastructure and claim many lives. They also spread poverty and permanently exclude the devastated area from growth. Majuli, one of the most populous river islands in the world, has been designated as a Cultural Heritage Site by the Assam government and is home to 1,67,304 people. It has an area of about 584 square kilometres (Census of India 2011). A sizable chunk of the island has been lost to the river over the past 66 years. The precise amount of harm brought on by riverbank erosion is up for debate, though. The Brahmaputra riverbank erosion has three effects on Majuli Island. First, over two-thirds of Majuli's original area has been lost to erosion, altering the island's topography. Second, the loss of land has impacted agriculture, the island's main economic activity, and third, the relocation of satras outside of Majuli could lead to the eradication of Majuli's centuries-old neo-Vaishnavite culture. Majuli's landscape has undergone significant alteration as a result of riverbank erosion, which has also altered the island's traditional society and economy.

Recurring Homelessness

In order to make ends meet this year, Rafiqul, a farmer in the Patharsali hamlet of the Barpeta district, recalls how his family was looking forward to the harvesting season. But the flooding caused terrible destruction. We had no time to care for the farms because of the flood's continuous surges. He remarked, "Our entire crop has been gone, and our tin-shade house is totally soaked." At least 150 families from Rafiqul's hamlet were compelled to leave and relocate to one of the 304 relief camps established by the state government in Chatala Char. A riverine island on the Brahmaputra known as a "char" is prone to erosion upstream and deposition downstream. Despite the weekly rice and dal handouts that each family currently receives, they wish to be rehabilitated in order to jumpstart their livelihoods. "Our town has been completely destroyed, but we managed to flee with what little cattle we could." We want the government to provide us with some financial assistance so we may resume farming. Rafiqul lamented, "So many of us are homeless and have lost farmland." For millions of people in Assam, being forced to relocate due to unpredictable and extreme weather has become a terrifying reality. Currently, Assam CM Himanta Biswa Sarma has been visiting the flood-hit regions in the state to review the situation. While he listens to the problems of locals who have been affected by the floods and assures them that the administration will provide assistance for the reconstruction of damaged houses and other losses, the state's role in assisting these people's plight has been significant.

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