Here’s How Human Miseries Caused By Assam’s Unavoidable Floods Can Be Mitigated

by Jaideep Mazumdar - Aug 7, 2020 01:02 PM +05:30 IST
Here’s How Human Miseries Caused By Assam’s Unavoidable Floods Can Be Mitigated

Flooded fields in Assam (Source: @Twitter)
  • Both the Union and State governments need to plan and act beyond immediate relief measures.

    Focus should be extended to long-term, integrated efforts involving water management, physical planning, land use, agriculture, transport and urban development as well as nature conservation.

The flood situation in Assam has started improving with the water levels of the swollen Brahmaputra and other rivers in the state slowly receding.

And as the affected start returning to their wrecked and damaged houses to rebuild their lives, it is time to take a hard look at the floods that devastate Assam not once, but two or three times, every year.

This has been the first spell of floods in the State, and going by experience of the recent past, it wouldn’t have been the last.

While it is only natural for the Brahmaputra and its many tributaries to swell during the monsoons and inundate the vast Brahmaputra valley that is essentially a floodplain, the intensity and frequency of such flooding has increased sharply over the past two decades.

Flooding Factors

The reasons, say river experts and environmentalists, are many. Some are listed below:

  1. Climate change that has triggered more intense precipitation in the catchment areas;

  2. Denudation of forest cover that has led to soil erosion and deposit of silt downstream, thus reducing the capacity of the rivers to carry water;

  3. Building dams that disrupt the natural flow of the rivers downstream;

  4. Human interventions like building embankments and dredging that also trigger changes in river flow;

  5. Fallacious ‘flood control’ measures based on the mistaken notion than man can ‘tame’ a river like the Brahmaputra;

  6. Lack of cooperation and coordination between countries and even states in sharing hydrological and other data that can create a robust early warning system for floods;

  7. Settlement of lakhs of people in the chars (islands formed by silt deposited by rivers) and low-lying areas.

These major factors that trigger floods in the Brahmaputra and also the Barak Valleys of Assam and cause such terrible devastation will need long-term solutions and cannot be addressed in the short term.

Knee-jerk Reaction

However, the reaction of successive governments both at the Centre and in the State have been, at best, knee-jerk and limited to providing relief and rehabilitation to the lakhs whose lives get disrupted by the floods.

It is this approach that needs to change, and change immediately. Soon after flood waters inundate vast swathes of the State, the government starts rescue operations to shift people marooned in their homes and villages to the hundreds of relief camps that are set up.

That is followed by massive operations, often uncoordinated, to distribute relief--food, clothes and other materials--to the affected people by not only the government, but also NGOs and many other organisations as well as citizens’ groups.

Once the waters recede, district officials make an estimate of the damage caused to dwellings and croplands and the government then compensates the affected.

There is also the ‘lucrative’ post-flood ritual of assessing damage caused to embankments, roads, culverts, bridges and other public infrastructure. Huge sums are then allocated for their repairs or reconstruction of the damaged infrastructure.

That a lot of the money sanctioned for relief, compensation, repair and reconstruction is siphoned off by the army of venal government officials is too well-known to bear repetition here. And that is not the subject here anyway.

The point here is that with careful and intelligent advance planning, a lot of the sufferings of the flood-affected can be mitigated. The government of Assam, with support from the Union government, needs to immediately draw up a comprehensive plan which preempts the acute misery that floods inflict on lakhs of people every year.

Mitigating Sufferings

Given the fact that floods have become an annual feature and there is nothing that man can do to keep the rivers from inundating the vast floodplains, it is imperative to focus attention on reducing the sufferings of the people.

Putting in place an early flood warning system is very important. It is a crying shame that even after so many decades, floods every year catch lakhs of people living in the floodplains of Assam by surprise and the State government ill-prepared. This clearly proves the shameful absence of an early warning system and advance planning.

The Union government has to put in place a permanent coordination mechanism involving China, Bhutan, Bangladesh and the states of Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Meghalaya, Nagaland, Manipur and Mizoram where rivers of the Barak and Brahmaputra Valleys originate or flow through.

This permanent mechanism has to generate timely hydrological data that will be shared by all countries and States so that the lower riparian States can then put in place an effective early warning system.

Assam has to then undertake a massive exercise to upgrade, and prepare where they don’t exist, topographical maps of the state so that low-lying areas that are prone to flooding can be identified. Records of inundation of the past few decades can reveal the pattern of flooding.

Based on this data, a detailed plan to evacuate people and livestock from low-lying areas needs to be drawn up. Incidentally, all this is the job of domain experts and should not be left to the State’s infamously slothful and corrupt bureaucracy.

The State, with generous support from the Union government, then has to construct a vast network of flood shelters in relatively higher ground amidst the low-lying and flood-prone areas.

Each such shelter, standing on sturdy concrete pillars at least ten feet in height, should be able to accommodate a few hundred people and livestock. In normal times, these shelters should function as schools, community centres, anganwadi centres and even public health centres.

These shelters can also function as fair price shops under the PDS (public distribution system) so that they have enough stocks of foodgrains and provisions to meet the immediate needs of the flood-affected till more relief arrives.

These flood shelters should also operate as local rescue and relief centres and should thus have lifeboats and other equipment, as well as stocks of medicines to treat water-borne gastroenteric diseases, fever, colds and malaria.

A crucial component of such a comprehensive plan is to train local people in the low-lying and flood-prone areas to operate early warning systems and carry out relief and rescue operations. The flood shelters should be equipped with VHF sets and even satellite phones if necessary.

Thus, even before the waters of a swollen river start overflowing the banks and flooding a village, all the residents of the village along with their livestock should be evacuated to the local flood shelter.

Assam can learn from the experiences and action taken by States like Odisha (read this) to mitigate sufferings of people when natural disasters strike. Odisha, which is often struck by devastating cyclones, quickly learnt from the 1999 super cyclone that laid waste to the State.

It built a network of such shelters all along its coastline and equipped them with food and all other provisions. The State quickly set up a disaster mitigation authority manned by dedicated officers and experts who drew up a comprehensive plan. Since then, Odisha has barely reported any deaths due to cyclones.

This year itself, floods have claimed the lives of 90 people in Assam. These deaths, and the miseries suffered by lakhs, could have been easily avoided had the State set in place an effective early warning system and taken all these measures that shouldn’t have required much imagination.

As for the damage caused to dwellings, the state government needs to get experts to devise low-cost houses that can withstand damage caused by floods. The Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) at Guwahati and other technical institutions in the State that have a wealth of expertise should be harnessed for this.

Also, agriculture research institutes should be asked to develop flood-resistant crops that can withstand days or a couple of weeks of inundation. A comprehensive crop and livestock insurance policy has to be put in place.

What Experts Say

Author Sanjoy Hazarika, who is the Director of the Centre For Northeast Studies & Policy Research at Jamia Milia, emphasises the need for setting up a mechanism between upper and lower riparian states to Share data on rivers.

“Declare the floods as a national calamity and get the Assam and Union governments to frame a long term plan, set up early warning systems and junk the practice of building embankments or dredging the river,” Hazarika prescribes.

Embankments, point out river experts, transfer floods from one area to another area downstream (read this). Dredging a river like the Brahmaputra is also a largely ineffective exercise, they add.

Renowned river expert Arun Roy deplores the knee-jerk reactions of successive governments in the State and the Centre to floods. “A number of long-term measures like afforestation and top soil protection to prevent siltation and intelligent mechanisms to ‘train’ (not ‘tame’) the secondary channels of rivers need to be taken,” he said.

Eminent geologist and environmental scientist Dulal Chandra Goswami, who is also called the ‘river man of Assam’ (read this) says that embankments and dredging are outmoded and counter-productive.

Goswami recommends an integrated approach to managing floods that encompass water management, physical planning, land use, agriculture, transport and urban development as well as nature conservation. He also underlines the need to get China and Bhutan on board.

But successive State and Union governments have not seen beyond rescue, relief and rehabilitation that have, often, been lacking and mired in corruption.

There is, after all, a lot of money to be made from floods. Long-term planning involves a lot of hard work and tenacity. And that does not yield quick returns for the venal politician-bureaucrat-contractor nexus. This nexus, and not so much the flood waters of the Brahmaputra or the Barak, is Assam’s bane.

Jaideep Mazumdar is an associate editor at Swarajya.

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