Drought to deluge: Nature’s fury or human folly?

Father and son being rescued from the roof of their house in western Assam. dh photo

Low-lying areas marooned, lives lost, livelihoods impacted, houses eroded, fields and forests inundated— the situation in the deluge-hit states of the country has changed from one extreme to another.

The recent phenomenon of heavy rainfall in a short spell has resulted in devastating floods in many states including Karnataka, Kerala, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh and Odisha. The deluge in Assam and Bihar, which is almost an annual event, is more pronounced. And the devastation is perennial.

In Assam, nearly 100 people lose their lives in every flood, over 3,000 schools get damaged and thousands of hectares of landmass get eroded by the mighty Brahmaputra and its tributaries. Every year, floods cause an estimated
Rs 10,000 crore loss to the state.

Assam witnessed one of the worst floods last month in which 91 people died and over 58 lakh were affected in 30 of the state’s 33 districts.

The water has receded now but 81 villages in four districts are still grappling with its impact.

“Government officials come when water flows over our houses, give ration for a few days and then forget us till the next flood. We are still waiting for a permanent solution. But nobody talks about the floods once the water recedes,” Prafulla Mandal, a flood-affected resident in Mayong in Morigaon district, told DH.

Mandal is among the 200-odd families of Murkata village in the district who have taken shelter on the nearby state highway. Young and old, along with their cattle, live under the same polythene sheet roof here. Mandal and Ekadoshi seemed to worry about the health of their pregnant daughter in this condition.

Like them, over 1,000 people are taking shelter in seven relief camps in Chirang and Jorhat districts. According to officials, a majority of them are still living in the camps as their houses are either submerged or eroded.

With heavy rains reported almost every monsoon and water flowing from the neighbouring countries of China, Bhutan and the hilly states of Arunachal Pradesh, Meghalaya and Nagaland, Assam bears the maximum brunt of flooding every year.

While the Assam government says it is helpless as the Brahmaputra’s catchment area is in the Tibet region of China and in Bhutan, local organisations and political parties blame the Centre for not taking up the matter with the two neighbouring countries for a permanent solution. While the blame game continues, the impact on lives and livelihoods continues to aggravate, year after year.

The Brahmaputra, having its origin in the upper reaches of the Himalayas, has 2,93,000 sq-km of its catchment area in the Tibet region of China and 2,40,000 sq-km in Bhutan. It reaches the flood plains in Assam through the hills of Arunachal Pradesh before joining the Bay of Bengal through Bangladesh.

“The river slope is steep until it enters India. Due to the sudden flattening of the slope, it turns braided in the Assam valley. At least 20 tributaries join the Brahmaputra on its north bank and 13 on the south during its 720-km course in the Assam valley. These tributaries bring high sediment load activating braiding,” mentions a report on Brahmaputra flooding tabled in the Assam assembly in 2018.

People in Arunachal Pradesh and Assam allege that flood has aggravated in the region as China has constructed several big dams in the upper reaches of the Brahmaputra, which is known as the Yarlung Tsangpo there. “The flow of water is more when excess water is released suddenly. The water level in the Siang (the Brahmaputra is called Siang in Arunachal) suddenly drops during winter,” said a leader of All Arunachal Pradesh Students’ Union. However, China has denied the allegations.

No joint mechanism

Similarly, water flowing down from at least 56 rivers having catchment in the Bhutan hills is said to be the reason for the growing impact of flood in the western Assam districts. “As there is no joint mechanism between Bhutan and India to manage the trans-boundary rivers, people living in the downstream suffer. Stone mining from the river beds in the upper reaches results in more sediment flow to the croplands in the downstream areas,” said Raju Kumar Narzary, executive director of North East Research and Social Work Networking, an NGO helping the flood victims in western Assam districts.

China and Bhutan share rainfall data with India but there is no proper mechanism to manage trans-boundary rivers yet.

According to Nayan Sharma, an adjunct professor at Indian Institute of Technology, Roorkee, deforestation has aggravated flood and erosion in Assam. “The Brahmaputra basin receives an average annual rainfall of about 1500 mm, whereas the rainfall is barely 400 mm in the Tibet region. Thus, the bulk of the flood flows are generated within the watershed areas of India, while the Yarlung Tsangpo mainly conveys the snowmelt streamflow mostly from the Himalayan glaciers,” Sharma said.

“The extensive loss of forest cover in the Northeast has significantly reduced the time of concentration of overland rainwater, which caused a hike in flood water accumulation in the river system at a faster pace than earlier. The loss of vegetation brings in huge sediment,” he said.

According to a report of Global Forest Watch, India lost 16,744 sq km of forest cover between 2000 and 2018 of which 12,523 sq km, a whopping 74.7%, was in the Northeastern states. Assam topped the chart with 2388.46 sq-km tree cover loss while the loss was 747.16 sq-km in Arunachal Pradesh.

National calamity tag

As the Assam government struggles to cope with the growing magnitude of the flood and the perpetual riverbank erosion, there is an increase in the demand for the Centre to declare Assam floods as a national calamity.

“The state government is not capable of finding a permanent solution. Declaring Assam floods as a national calamity will help in getting required funds and expertise,” said Ripun Bora, a Rajya Sabha member and president of Assam Pradesh Congress Committee. 

According to experts, the Centre must seek the help of foreign technical expertise for a permanent solution as the ways adopted so far have failed — be it the use of geo-bags or the construction of embankments. 

The Centre, however, has kept away from making a promise saying there is no provision to declare flood as a national calamity. BJP MLA Gurujyoti Das said declaring the flood as a national calamity would not serve the purpose without dredging the rivers to increase water retention capacity.

“The Centre must shift focus from relief approach to help Assam find a permanent solution. Also, more than 7% of our landmass is lost due to erosion every year,” All India United Democratic Front MLA Mamun Imdadul Hoque Chowdhury said.

Thousands of schools could not resume their classes even after the summer break (till July 31) as more than 5,000 government-run schools have been damaged by floods this year. A survey found that 35 primary schools had washed away, 107 were fully damaged and 4, 551 partially damaged.

More than 90% of the Kaziranga National Park was inundated by floodwater this year. The park saw deaths of more than 200 wild animals including 18 one-horned rhinos. Some of the animals, particularly the deer, died in road accidents on the National Highway-37 while running towards highlands.

“Flood is necessary for the survival of Kaziranga’s ecology but it causes deaths of many animals every flood. We are trying to save the animals by constructing more highlands within the park where the animals can take shelter. We have to ensure the smooth passage of animals in the corridor areas,” said P Sivakumar, director of the park.

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