According to the World Resources Institute approximately 5 million of the 21 million people affected by floods live in India. Even within India this flooding is unevenly distributed. The Indian National Remote Sensing Centre of the Indian Space Research Organisation states that, “the most flood-prone areas in India are the Brahmaputra, Ganga and Meghana River basins in the Indo-Gangetic-Brahmaputra plains in North and Northeast India, which carry 60% of the nation’s total river flow.”
Assam, the most populous north-eastern state experiences the brunt of this flooding. Almost 75% of the total Indian rainfall is concentrated over a short monsoon season of four months from June to September. Rivers swell enormously during this period, overflowing their banks.
Apart from monsoon rains, Assam is also fed by perennial rivers originating from the Himalayan ranges in in China and Bhutan and India’s Arunachal Pradesh state. Since the glacial melts coincide with the summer monsoon season, any intensification of the monsoon contributes to flood disasters downstream. Scientists from the Indian Institutes of Technology in Delhi and Guwahati have been part of government projects looking at the impact of climate change and flooding in Assam. Nevertheless the floods of 2015 were particularly devastating.
On 15 August 2011 when the rest of India was celebrating Independence Day, people in the Dhemaji district fled the floodwaters of the Gainadi river. A helpless administration could only watch as two women and a man clung to a tree in Tokobari village in a desperate attempt to save their lives. The SOS response came in late and more than 50 people were swept away by the flash flood including one on the tree. Tunu Duarah, a flood victim living in a make-shift shelter said, “We prepare for the floods even before the advent of spring. The three winter months bring a little respite”.
This September the Flood Forecast Monitoring Directorate of the Central Water Commission (CWC) warned that high to unprecedented flood were expected in the Brahmaputra basin in Dibrugarh, Dhemaji, Tinsukia and Lakhimpur districts of Assam, due to high water levels in rivers. This second bout of floods proved disastrous. Humans, farm animals and wildlife were washed away, millions of people were displaced and thousands of hectares of standing crops were destroyed.
According to the flood report released by the Assam Disaster Management Agency on 1 September 2015, about 144,000 hectares of land in almost 2,000 villages had been affected, with 875,000 people affected. Dhemaji District, which was most severely affected, with almost 350,000 people feeling the fury of the floods and more than 90,000 hectares of cropland flooded. Speaking to thethirdpole.net Robinson Kaman, the Dhemaji District Agriculture Officer estimated that as much as 3,700 hectares would have sandy silt deposited on them, affecting over 50,000 farm families. Having lost their agricultural land, house, cattle, kitchen gardens, woods and bamboo groves, some families have moved from Dhemaji some kilometres away and set up new habitation on higher ground, and are trying to eke out a livelihood through weaving on their looms.
The village of Digheri Mishing has embraced living on water. The village lies on both sides of the Jiadhol embankment. The houses are built on raised platforms held up by bamboo poles on both sides of the embankment. It is customary for the Mishing community to live in such houses locally known as chang ghars. The Mishings are basically river people. The river is their mother and they have grown up in her lap. Rather than leaving their traditional homes a handful of them are now fighting all odds. They have been living in a water world bereft of any basic amenities since 1983, dependent on their fishing nets for a livelihood. The embankment is the only ground that serves multiple purposes. From providing space to their pigs and a few poultry, it also serves as a burial ground at times.
Chang ghar, houses on bamboo poles, in Assam [image by Mubina Akhtar]
The June 2012 flood in Assam was recorded as the worst since 2004. The Assam Disaster Management Authority put the figure of the total number of people evacuated during that time as 383,421 and the actual number of people found in government relief camps as 484,555. Oxfam India reports put the number of flood-affected in June-July, 2012 at 2.4 million while the number of displaced was half a million. Like the inhabitants of Digheri- Mishing village of Dhemaji who have no option but to live in water-logged conditions, many such affected families throughout the state are not recognised in official figures. Documentation of displacement is very important for policy formulation.
The floods this September affected 1.7 million people in Assam. Twenty districts of the state were severely affected and as many as 226,280 flood-hit people took shelter in 294 relief camps set up by the authorities, according to the official flood bulletin of the Assam State Disaster Management Authority in early September.
After the floods, displaced people end up in make-shift camps that are always inadequate to cater to the needs of such a large number of flood-affected families. This is the usual story during floods. The large number of people, including children, women and elderly who endure a nightmarish existence in the ill-equipped shelters every year, shows the lack of disaster preparedness and response in the state. Some people move on to city slums or to become encroachers on forest lands taking up illegal activities like logging. Families that try to settle on government lands face eviction again and again.
With the number of displaced people growing there is a drop in the percentage children going to school. The social life of people is disrupted due to their displacement. Bijon Sarma, office bearer of the Dhemaji Press Club lamented that thousands of young people from the flood-affected families of the district abandoned their studies to find a job in hotels, spas, or work as security guards in the metros of cities like Mumbai, Pune, Delhi, Hyderabad, Tiruvanathapuram or Bangalore.
More tragically children and young women fall victim to the scourge of human trafficking. Assam’s perennial flood problem has made the state a source state for child trafficking. Nobel laureate and child rights crusader Kailash Satyarthi pointed out that Assam has been a major source for child trafficking owing to the state’s huge flood displaced population. These children, the Nobel laureate lamented, finally disappear in big cities as workers in small-scale garment industries or hired as domestic workers. The crime investigation branch of Assam police records list Lakhimpur and Dhemaji districts among the most vulnerable districts to the growing menace of trafficking. With no adaptive mechanisms in place, the impact of climate change compounds disaster upon disaster for the people of Assam.
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Why India Can’t Afford to Ignore Assam Flood Situation
August 4, 2016
by Debu C
Assam is once again submerged in floods, an annual feature that people of the state have been living with ever since time immemorial. Year after year, it’s a repeat of loss of life, damage to crop and property, and loss of cattle and wildlife, but does it have to be this way?
We take great pride in claiming how far India has come since independence and yet, when it comes to Assam, the nation simply seems to take the damages as a fact of life and everything carries on as usual, once the flood recedes.
Despite investments by successive central or state governments, it is time to review the long term cost-benefit analysis of measures undertaken and see whether the solutions attempted so far have addressed the problem at its root.
The damage this year
The ‘Flood Report’ released by Assam State Disaster Management Authority as on 28 July 2016 states:
- Districts affected: 22
- People affected: 17.94 lakh
- Total Crop area affected: 2,13,251.52 hectares
- Most affected districts: Morigaon, Jorhat, Dhubri, Barpeta, Lakhimpur, Golaghat, Sonitpur, Goalpara, Bongaigaon, Dhemaji and Darrang
- No. of Relief Camps opened: 517
- Relief Distribution Centres: 186 – sheltering 2,29,544 inmates
The situation began to turn critical ever since the state experienced pre-monsoon showers in April and May this year. The breach in embankments along the Brahmaputra river and its various tributaries has caused flooding in 23 out of 35 districts in the state and has submerged crops in over 2 lakh hectares.
Consequently, 1.1 million people have been affected, with 28 persons losing their lives and over 1.5 lakh persons seeking shelter in over 460 relief camps.
In many parts, people have remained marooned with little food or drinking water and await relief and rescue. NDRF teams have been deployed and are trying their best to reach out to maximum people.
With 80% of the famous Kaziranga National Park submerged, Assam’s pride – the one-horned Rhinos and other wildlife across the state, have had to face the brunt of swelling waters. The Wildlife Trust of India, along with various Forest department officials, have been under pressure rescuing animals but many have drowned while others continue to remain marooned.
Morigaon in lower Assam has been most affected, where over 3.6 lakh people have had to face flood waters. The entire Majuli riverine island, that forms a large part of Jorhat district, lies submerged, affecting over 1.71 million people.
Every year, over 31.6 lakh hectares of land in Assam is flood prone. Of this, around 9.5 lakh hectares gets directly affected by floods each year. The total damage caused exceeds Rs 160 crore annually.
The state has paid a heavy price through land erosion caused by floods. Since 1954, over 4.2 lakh hectares of land has been lost to erosion, that’s over 7.1% of the state.
Over the years, maximum erosion has taken place in South Assam region, with Makalmua in Nalbari (80,000 hectares), Majuli island (42,000 hectares), Goalpara area (40,000 hectares) and Morigaon (15,000 hectares) being most affected.
The Mighty Brahmaputra
This is the world’s 6th largest river in terms of water resources carrying 629.05 km3/ year. The total length of the river is 2,906 km, with 918 km flowing through India, which includes 640 km flowing through Assam.
Brahmaputra has 41 tributaries, with 26 flowing in the North bank and 15 in the South bank.
Immediate cause of floods
Heavy rains this year in Arunachal Pradesh, Bhutan and Upper Assam have resulted in the Brahmaputra and its tributaries to flow above the danger mark. The excess water has broken embankments in many places causing severe floods along the route, especially in regions of Lower Assam.
Major causes of flood and soil erosion
- Geology and Geomorphology of the region
- Physiographic condition in the valley
- Seismic activity
- Excessive rainfall
- Drainage congestion due to man-made embankments
- Human encroachment of riverine areas
The narrow and elongated U-shaped valley opens itself wider towards the Bay of Bengal for monsoon flow. The average width of the valley is 80-90 km while the average width of the river is 6-10 km. The natural course of the river flows from high elevation to a steep falling elevation once the river enters India.
Between Brahmaputra valley and the North East Hills, the average rainfall during monsoons varies between 2,480 mm to 6,350 mm, respectively. Due to excess rainfall, water gushes towards lower parts of Assam, eating away the relatively soft edges of land.
The physiology of the region is still young and the lesser Himalaya regions are still in the process of forming. The soft rocks, in the absence of green top cover, easily gives way to gushing waters.
The problem is further compounded by human settlements along the river and its various tributaries, thereby restricting the flow to follow its natural spread in times of flood.
The building of embankments along the Brahmaputra and its tributaries has only added to flooding waters breaking embankments.
Drainage congestion due to building of railway bridges, roads and culverts have restricted the natural flow of waters, forcing it to back flow and break embankments in vulnerable areas.
Lack of countryside drainage through construction of sluices at critical points have also added to drainage congestion.
Lack of Commitment and Vision
There has been very low investment made to address the problem of perennial flooding in Assam. During the 10th Five year plan, only Rs 22 crore had been allocated for 10 flood management programs. This is an average of just Rs 2.2 crore for each program. This is for a state that has lost 4.2 lakh hectares of land to erosion and continues to suffer damages of over Rs 160 crore each year on account of floods.
Although international funding and increased financial investment from centre has improved, long term solutions still need to be addressed.
There has been excess emphasis for investing in structural solutions like building of embankments and little focus on natural flood control mechanisms based on local topography.
Till date, close to 5,000 km of embankments have been built at various points along the Brahmaputra and its tributaries. This has resulted in restricting the flow of river during peak monsoons and caused increased pressure on embankments in vulnerable areas leading to embankments being breached at several places.
While people living along the rivers have traditionally developed their own means of surviving the raging waters, those living around the safer areas next to embankments have often been caught by surprise.
It is time for the government and related agencies to review the existing policy of building embankments without considering natural outlets for excess water to flow. This will work best when local people are made stakeholders in finding localized solutions based on local topography.
During floods, lack of clean drinking water is the biggest problem. Today, thanks to innovative science, there are several low-cost water filtration and purification technologies available, which people can deploy in times of floods. The government must spend more in creating awareness and making the same available at subsidized cost to people.
Let’s hope the government gives the problem the requisite attention and investment to ensure that from 2017 onwards Assam will be better prepared to meet the monsoons.
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