Brahmaputra, Climate Change & Politics: Why Assam Floods Annually

There was a time when people welcomed the ‘first flooding’ of the year as it replenished the fertility of the land.

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(This story was first published on 2 August 2019. It is being republished in the wake of Assam Floods 2024. Our on-ground climate journalism needs your insights, ideas, and financial support - as we cover the biggest crisis of our times. Become a member so we can bring more such stories to light.)

Producer and Animator: Puneet Bhatia
Narrator: Saakhi Chadha

Believe it or not, the Brahmaputra is so vast that it is even visible from space.

The river cuts northeast India's biggest state, Assam, into two halves – the north and the south banks.

Every year, Assam sees major floods – and you probably see that in news.

Annually, as the Brahmaputra river floods, lives are lost, millions get displaced, villages, crops, and even basic infrastructure get destroyed.

This year, over six lakh people across 20 districts have been affected by the grim situation in the state. As many as 13 rivers flowing through the state have crossed the danger mark in the second episode of flooding being witnessed this year.

The Indian Air Force has had to rescue 13 people, even as close to 8,000 people in the state have been displaced and are taking shelter in safe places, and one casuality has been reported in the last 24 hours.



Thanks to the region’s geography, the Brahmaputra is integral to the state. The Brahmaputra is both a lifeline and a threat to Assam.

Viewed from above, you will see that it is more than a river. It is a massive river system, of multiple channels and water bodies, crisscrossing large parts of Assam.

Assam receives both the monsoon rains and water from the rivers originating from the Himalayas – of which the Brahmaputra is by far the biggest. This should ideally be good news, but it isn't. The glacial melt in summer coincides with the monsoon, intensifying downstream, causing the annual flooding.

But this is a natural phenomenon for this region. There was a time when people welcomed the ‘first flooding’ of the year as it replenished the fertility of the land.

However, excessive flooding leaves the state reeling on an annual basis, now.

Faulty Embankments

What if the structures that are meant to control floods make it worse? The embankments.

Successive governments in Assam have spent Rs 30,000 crore over the last 60 years in building embankments along Brahmaputra – its 103 tributaries. Covering a staggering 4,500 km.

Famed US civil engineer Charles Ellet Junior, cautioned in 19th century:

“Embankments confined rivers and cause them to rise higher and flow faster.”

Ellet was ignored back then. But today, experts echo him.


While Embankments Protect Some, They Spell Disaster for Others

Take for example Dibrugarh village, which lies on the southern banks of Brahmaputra. It has a massive embankment which protects it from the floods.

But village Patra Gaon, not far from Dibrugarh, does not have embankments.

So when the floods come, while the embankments protect Dibrugarh, the same embankments channel the floodwater in greater volume and intensity towards Bhurbhanda. While one village is saved, the other is left to deal with a double-whammy. Double trouble. That's when the rains cause floods.

So why build embankments then? Some say it’s just politics rather than policy.

"Politicians can point to embankments as a tangible sign of their activity, and the private sector benefits from both construction and maintenance contracts," said researcher James Wasson.

Large-scale landslides and faulty drainage have weakened Assam’s ageing embankments. Eighty percent of them are also poorly maintained.

And over the years, people have built their homes near the embankments. And when an embankment is breached, the resulting flood is both sudden and intense, leading to disaster.


Human Effect & Climate Change

Here’s another simple equation: Human Factor + Climate Change = Flood Disaster

With encroachment of river banks, more and more people are living close to the river. Townships have sprung up across Assam without proper flood-risk management.

Rampant deforestation and cutting of hills have only worsened the situation.

Not to forget, the impact of climate change on Eastern Himalayas, as glaciers melt faster. The Brahmaputra brings huge volume of water, which leads to flooding every year..

And what’s the human and material cost:

  • At least 497 people were killed by floods in 2004 alone. On an average, the flood kills 50 people every year.
  • In 2012 alone, the floods cost Assam Rs 3,200 crore.
  • The state loses around 8,000 square km of land to erosion due to flooding every year.

But What About Animals?

It is said that the flooding is necessary for the survival of Kaziranga National Park, world famous for its one-horned rhinos.

The floods revitalises the grasslands. Earlier the animals could simply move to higher ground within the park.

But in 2019, as 90 percent of Kaziranga got flooded, the water inundated every inch of the park including the higher ground. Suddenly, the animals had nowhere to go. And the number of animal deaths are alarming – 350 animals killed in 2016, 503 in 2017.

Did you know floods now kill more one-horned rhinoceros at Kaziranga than poachers do.

Is There a Solution?

The Brahmaputra cannot be tamed. Flooding will become more intense in years to come. But how do we minimise the destruction?

Himanshu Thakker, Head, South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People, suggests:

  • Better Flood forecasting. Information about floods forecasts must reach the affected villages in time.
  • Strengthen only those embankments that are really needed. And, do not build more embankments. Create more room for the river, not restrict it.
  • Ban all construction on low-lying floodplains.

Perhaps it's time we stop normalising the yearly destruction and act, not react.

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