A few years ago, on the occurrence of late flooding, one of my distant relative had opined, ‘this year, the flood is late, we are bored now….”. While both of us had a laugh about it, it made me wonder, was the statement just made in pure zest or is it just that they have accepted the yearly occurrence of floods as fate. But the bigger question here is why do people accept it as fate? Every year hundreds of villages are submerged, many lives (both human and animal) are lost. Last year itself, the floods, believed to be the worst since 1998, killed more than 120 people, 550 wild animals in the Kaziranga National Park and countless livestock. The authorities in the affected districts reported loss of crops on 254,935 hectares of land. Again this year, over 350 villages in 11 districts were submerged under water, affecting over one lakh people.
The floods have also become a major point for politicking, where many are observed pocketing flood funds. But till date all observers have remained relatively silent on this matter. The reason mostly seems to be that everyone seems to be benefitting from the floods! In fact everyone loves a ‘good flood’ – simply because it means easy and good money for all. NGOs start accepting donations and funds, contractors start preparing projects to build the next embankment; and politicians, student unions and so called activists use the devastation it causes and demand for it to be declared as a ‘Natural Disaster’.
Funds over Management
As soon as floods come into Assam; politicians, across parties, cry discrimination over the Assam floods being not declared a natural disaster. Students’ organizations, a potent force in Assam soon join in, failing to realize that it is just a ploy for getting in more funds. They are made to believe that shortage of funds is the reason behind the perennial occurrence of floods. But is it really so? The answer is no. It is the prevalence of rampant corruption, misappropriation of funds which is increasing the disaster every passing year.
Since 2001, more than 11,000 crores of money has been spent in the name of flood control and river management. The river island of Majuli, one of the worst impacted, has alone received a staggering amount of 125 crores till yet. So where does all this money go?
Floods as mentioned above have the biggest source of money and income for Assam. Of course much of it is pocketed by contractors and politicians. The contractors year after year keep building embankments, which actually should not be there in the first place, as it has been proved time and again that embankments are not a sustainable way of managing floods. Another question that arises is, ‘Can a river of Brahmaputra’s might be ever stopped with embankments?’ But still year after year, the government, ‘experts’ are still suggesting for further embankments to be built. The answer is simple, because it would mean ‘high cost’ solution benefiting the contractor nexus around it. Further, various areas are cordoned off in order to protect them from flooding. Large elevated roads, platforms etc. are built to suit the purpose. Strangely, not only are they built with low quality materials but also constructed only around monsoons, which never solves the purpose. Thus, every year stretches of embankments are washed away by floods. But funds still continue to be allotted every year in the name of building embankments.
Moreover, in the recent years, International Financial institutions are also seen constantly recommending embankments as a way of solving flood problems. The Asian Development Bank, influenced by positive experiences from Malaysia, through one of its loan, suggested that Geo Tube Embankment be built in Assam to stop floods. A pilot project, utilizing geo-tubes installed as submerged dykes, was undertaken in 2006 to protect shoreline erosion at many vulnerable sites along the Malaysian coast. Encouraged by the success of the pilot initiative, a similar project was undertaken two years later to protect a five-km-stretch of the beach at Pantai Batu Buruk. Buoyed by the success stories emanating from the Far East, 146 geo-tubes were laid at Matmara in Majuli, the biggest river island in Assam, amidst fanfare and optimism. Since the original embankment was breached at this site by the Brahmaputra in 2008, geo-tubes were installed to strengthen a five-km-stretch of the weakened dyke. But the river had little regard for the geo-tubes laden 3.5 km stretch (which was the only portion that could be completed) and swept it away the following year. It not only meant loss of materials worth Rs. 100 crores but the consequent damages caused by surging waters were several times over.
Living with Floods
A holistic flood management planning integrating all the scientific innovations with local knowledge is the need of the hour. Management based (living with floods) needs to take precedence over ‘control based approach’. Tribes like the Misings have been living with floods since ages and have developed their own innovative techniques to deal with it. Their houses are built over bamboo stilts, which protect them from displacement. Also every household keep a boat handy for evacuation purposes.
Moreover development should not risk the survival of the people of Assam. It is being feared that with increased construction of dams in Arunachal Pradesh and Assam, the intensity of floods will further increase to unprecedented levels in the times to come. Adding to the agony is the allotment of marshy low lying lands for construction purposes. Until 20 years ago, a network of 121 rivers lorded over by the Brahmaputra, had more than 4,500 Beels or wetlands, which existed to absorb excess water. But today they no longer exist!
The regularity of the Assam floods since years innumerable, should by now have taught us the dangers of construction in fragile and vulnerable lands. While on the one hand the biggest disadvantage that comes with a ‘Natural Disaster’ is its unpredictability, the case out here is very different. And it does not take a scientist’s brain to understand that this ‘natural disaster’ is very much avertable! However, from the given reactions of the people and the way floods have become a part of socio economic life of people and the state, it seems that unless a larger movement towards the issue is not built and all not held accountable, the status of the consistent flooding would remain the same.
(N.B.: The pictures used here are only for representative purpose only and are compiled from internet sources. I don’t own copyright to them)