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Why Have Floods in Assam Become an Annual Scourge?

The unrelenting flood situation has now affected more than 24.9 lakh people across the state.

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Opinion
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Why Have Floods in Assam Become an Annual Scourge?
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As the local news in Assam continues to present a grim situation of the floods in the state, the death toll as of 30 June has risen to 151. The unrelenting floods have now affected more than 24.9 lakh people in the state.

In some parts of Assam, the Brahmaputra, Beki, Kopili, Barak, and Kushiyara rivers have been flowing above the danger level. The floodwaters have damaged 155 roads, five bridges, and seven embankments across the state. Over 85,673 hectares of land are inundated and over 50,000 animals have been washed away.

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The town of Silchar in the Cachar district is currently the worst affected, as it remains severely inundated by heavy floods for over 10 days now.

According to the Assam State Disaster Management Authority (ASDMA), three districts of the Barak Valley – Cachar, Hailakandi, and Karimganj – are severely affected, while other districts facing major floods are Barpeta, Nagaon, Kamrup (Rural and Metro), and Dhubri.

Visuals have emerged of people across the Nagaon and Morigaon districts of Assam camping near embankments and highways, not to mention massive relief camps numbering over 700 across the districts.

But this is the second time this year that the people of Assam are facing the floods, the first deluge having wreaked havoc in the month of May.

For the people of Assam, however, the homelessness caused by the floods seems like an annual affair.
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The people of the 'flood-plains' are historically used to the southwest monsoon and the floods in the low-lying areas; the minerals in the water would enrich the fertility of the land. However, in recent years, the extent of the devastation caused by floods has grown exponentially.

Some reasons for this include the sedimented river water from the Himalayas combining with rain-fed water bodies in northeast India, resulting in water spilling over land in the narrow valleys, and leading to floods. The region is also prone to frequent landslides and earthquakes that deposit debris into the rivers and raise the river beds.

These heavily sedimented rivers cause soil erosion, resulting in further flooding.

Compounding these issues are several man-made factors, such as construction on high seismic zones, rampant deforestation, cutting down of hills, clearing of forest land for agriculture, unplanned urbanisation, destruction of biodiverse wetlands, and the pressures of a booming population on a fragile ecology that have made the floods much worse than before.
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An Agrarian Economy & Nature-Dependent Region

In Assam, over one-third of the population living below the poverty line are vulnerable to natural disasters like floods. Its rural population is overwhelmingly employed in agriculture.

A 2019 report by the Department of Science & Technology on key climate risks facing each state points to low forest cover per capita and high dependence on rainfed agriculture as the biggest risks facing the state of Assam.

These forests play a critical role in regulating the hydrogeography of the region, allowing watersheds to be replenished and maintaining the network of streams that feed rivers across the region.

As forests disappear, greater erosion leads to the silting of these rivers and simultaneously, the drying up of seasonal streams that feed agricultural land across the region, creating a water paradox – too much during the monsoon, not enough during the dry season.

"With the rains, our situation is like gambling. It's unpredictable. Sometimes it rains and sometimes it doesn't."
A villager in Kartik Chapori, Jorhat district.

Sand mining and unplanned development are also changing the courses of rivers, compounding floods. Villagers from the Jorhat district, along the banks of the Brahamaputra and in the island district of Majuli, observe, "If someone tampers with the hills or the sand, the whole river will change course."

For communities in the region, these risks translate into an annual upending of their lives with every monsoon season. The river island of Majuli loses, on average, 8.76 sq km of land every year.

For farmers, between unusual heat and unusual floods, planting seasonal crops and paddy is becoming an increasing challenge, even as harvests continue to decline.
"Majuli is shrinking rapidly every year due to soil erosion and it is made much worse by the increasing amount of flood water every year. This year, a school near one of our habitat restoration sites has been destroyed by the floods."
Bijit Dutta, a member of the local community at Majuli, currently employed as an agro-forester at the Balipara Foundation.

"The state's response and preparedness are always too late. People lose so many hectares of crops and livestock, which they solely depend on for their living. Rs 500 or 1,000 can only help so much in this situation," says Bijit.

Upstream in Sonitpur district, a young man from the Mising community at Baligaon Miri Green village on the banks of the Jia Bharali river, where floods have eroded 30 acres of land in the past 2 years, says:

"At this point we, the Mising people, who live by the river and with the river, are scared of the river. So can you imagine what state we are in right now? I don't know how the people in the city aren't scared."
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Approaching the Future

As the issue grows more dangerous every year, the impact of climate change is likely to have further adverse effects on the vulnerable population.

In order to mitigate the effect of these disasters, comprehensive long-term plans must include environmental safeguards as well as technologically advanced systems that can improve the preparedness and crisis management capacity of the state.

"People need a self-sustaining model of livelihood so that they can overcome the floods every year instead of depending on relief," says Bijit Dutta.

He further adds:

"We need to do this by introducing different methods of crop resilience that are immune to flood, such as indigenous varieties of rice and food grains that have proved to be unaffected by the flood water, experimenting with a seed-saving method and agro-forestry, layering the height of crops and more so that people can still earn and get by on their produce all year round and not fall victim to the onslaught of the floods."

Rewilding and restoring forests across Assam, but also upstream in Arunachal Pradesh can play a role in better managing these floods. On river islands like Majuli, or on the banks of the river in districts like Jorhat, when restored forests have 4-5 years to mature, at least 60% of the land currently being eroded will be protected.

The IPCC states in its Special Report on Extremes that it is increasingly clear that climate change has influenced several water-related variables that contribute to floods, such as rainfall and snow-melt.

Though preventing floods is not entirely possible, flood preparedness can help lessen the enormous socio-economic consequences for the communities.

In order to find sustainable solutions, there is a need for a region-wide water management joint effort that can withstand the might of the annual floods and provide safety and security to the communities, wildlife, as well as protection to the biodiversity of the region.

This can only be done with effective preparedness, management strategy, and analysis that is empowered by political will.

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(Ranjit Barthakur is a social entrepreneur and the creator of Naturenomics™ and Rural Futures in the Eastern Himalayas. He is the founder and president of Balipara Foundation. He is also a member of the governing body of the Northeast Initiative Development Agency.)

The views expressed are the author's own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.

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