Living with Floods-How to solve Assam’s Flood problem

Floods in Assam have almost become like an absolute reality. Every year, without fail, hundreds of villages are submerged, many lives (both human and animal) are lost. This year alone, about 14 lakh people have been affected; about half of whom are in relief camps, while about 80 people have lost their lives till yet.

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NH-15 Breached. Photo Credit-JP Pegu

The floods have also become a major point for politicking and a point of discussion in Assam and sometimes in national media. While people like us, cry over the lack of media reportage of the floods, politicians start playing the blame game. Many take aerial surveys (innumerable numbers of them) to assess the flood situation. Various NGOs, disaster experts, national teams etc. have offered their version of mitigating solutions to the existing flood situation in Assam. However, they seem to have missed the point as floods continue unabated in Assam, after all these years.

Starting point- Understanding Assam and the reason for floods

To come up with a proper solution to the flood problem in Assam, one must start with developing a clear understanding of the topography of Assam. Assam, is located about 79.5m above sea level, with various districts like Sadiya 134m, Dibrugarh 104m, Guwahati 50m, Goalpara 37m, and Dhubri being placed at 28m above mean sea level. Also, Assam receives, an average of 2818mm of rainfall every year. Only Andaman and Nicobar (2967mm) receives more rainfall than Assam in India. Apart from the topography of Assam and annual rainfall received, Assam also receives floods due to reasons like rainfall in Arunachal Pradesh and even in China. Release of water from neighboring countries, especially China, to the Brahmaputra river can also cause floods in Assam.

Brahmaputra carries more water and sediment than any other in India. Moreover, it has the highest force. So, a plan based on controlling it, would have little effect on the flood situation in Assam. 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!

Funds over Management

With every flood, 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 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. About 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. (reported in Hindu in May 26, 2013)

Living with Floods-Preparedness becomes the Key

Many of the NGOs, during each flood distribute blankets, food packages and clothes in the affected districts. Similar efforts are taken up by concerned citizen groups, which spring up during every flood. While these efforts might help, it does nothing to actually solve the problem.

The National Media often ignores the flood problem in Assam and the little coverage that it gives is also limited to providing statistics of lives lost (both human and livestock). Arguments like ‘tyranny of distance’ and inaccessibility is given to cover up for their lack of will of report on Assam floods. The author had previously busted the myth of the ‘tyranny of distance’ by highlighting the presence of fully functional airports in Guwahati and Dibrugarh cities of Assam. Guwahati is on a flying distance of mere 2.5 hours while Dibrugarh can be reached in 4 hours flying with a 30-min stopover in Guwahati or Bagdogra (West Bengal). All the flood affected districts are within driving districts from the airports. However, with the presence of social media and various reporting done through it, people have an idea of the intensity of the floods in Assam. But, only reporting won’t help much, as long as the coverage does not convert into an outrage forcing the political establishment to look for a permanent solution.

Hence, in such a situation, a management based approach, focusing on living with the floods, and improving the preparedness of the people could go a long away in minimizing the effects of the floods. Mitigating the floods in Assam need a long term programmatic approach, which should combine scientific knowledge with local knowledge systems. For instance, a lot could be learned from riverine communities like the Misings. 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, they built high platforms in each village, both for the livestock and for them to move in during floods. With acute deforestation and rise of market systems, affording a boat has become extremely difficult for a poor household. Thus, distributing boats to affected households could also go a long way in increasing the preparedness. Other efforts that could be taken up are: –

  • Constructing reservoirs to make room for extra water during floods. Very little of the rainfall received in Assam in harvested. So, introducing water harvesting techniques like building reservoirs, ponds etc. could minimize some impact of the floods.
  • No construction or encroachment should be allowed in wetlands or Beels. All the Beels should be refurbished to work as flood cushions
  • Developing early warning systems and increasing the preparedness of the communities through a community based approach
  • Increasing forest cover and afforestation could minimize the rampant landslides and erosion in river catchment areas.
  • Almost all the embankments are more than 25 years old and cannot withstand the force of Brahmaputra river and its tributaries. These embankments should be rejuvenated or constructed again to control some of the force of water.
  • And last but not the least, the government should take up active efforts to control corruption among those responsible for developing flood control plans. The govt. should be more transparent and accountable to the people of Assam and developed a joint approach with the affected communities to tackle the flood problem.

Conclusion

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. While the intensity of floods differs every year, floods do come every year. 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.

(The Author can be contacted at manoranjan.pegu@gmail.com. Views are personal)

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