How The Assam Floods Have Become a Recurring Calamity

While it hasn’t been on the front page of national dailies or discussed on 9 PM prime time television shows, Assam has been reeling under severe floods for the past few weeks.

With every passing day, things look more grim as the river Brahmaputra continues to flow above the danger level in all the affected areas. To make matters worse, the incessant rainfall is showing no signs of stopping. 

Albeit delayed, the issue has found traction on social media. Celebrities are talking about it and are requesting people to lend a helping hand. A new chief minister relief fund post has been doing the rounds on Instagram as well.

The river Brahmaputra and how it has changed over time

The Brahmaputra is one of India’s three major rivers along with the Ganges and Indus. Originating from the Angsi glacier; it traverses through Tibet, India and Bangladesh before emptying itself into the Bay of Bengal. The river flows for 720 km in the state of Assam from the foothills of the Himalayas in the north to the Garo and Khasi Hills in the south. 

Studies have revealed that the August 15, 1950 earthquake forever altered the morphology of the Brahmaputra and its tributaries. The tributaries’ river bed increased due to the large amount of silt and debris they carried, which was eventually deposited on the banks of the Brahmaputra. Thus, a river which had a fixed course until recently had to create new paths, resulting in massive erosion of the river banks.

Damming of the tributaries is another reason.

The Ranganadi Hydel Project (a 405 MW project run by Northeastern Electric Power Corporation Limited) located in Yazali releases excess water every year during the monsoon. This wreaks havoc in the low-lying districts of Assam, especially Lakhimpur, and inundates Majuli – the largest inhabited river-island of the world and a seat of great cultural importance for the state. 

Coincidentally, Majuli is the constituency of Sarbananda Sonowal, the current chief minister of Assam, but it continues to grapple with massive erosion and annual flooding. 

Then there is the 2000 MW Subansiri Lower Hydroelectric Project being constructed by the state-run National Hydroelectric Power Corporation (NHPC). Many experts and activists have argued that the project has major structural flaws including a weak sandstone base, shallow foundation and inadequate quake resistance. Many local groups protested and managed to halt the construction work in 2011, after which a lot of review panels and committees were set up to look into the project. Nevertheless, NHPC has managed to continue construction amidst security cover and on-going protests. Almost 50% of the construction work is complete.

The present situation

Vast swathes of agricultural land are inundated every single year during the monsoon months between June and September. As of July 16, 15 people have died in the state and 31 out of 33 districts have been affected. More rains are predicted in the next 48-hours. The National Disaster Response Force and State Disaster Response Force teams have been deployed to rescue people from inundated areas. While Prime Minister Narendra Modi has “assured Sonowal of all assistance from the Union government,” the situation hasn’t been declared a national disaster. 

Four Assam Congress MPs, on July 15, held placards saying “Declare Assam Floods as National Problem” in front of the Gandhi statue in Parliament.

“The government has not released funds from the Central Calamity Relief Fund and Disaster Relief Fund. And so, through this demonstration, we have demanded the attention of the BJP government and the country,” said Ripun Borah, President of Assam Pradesh Congress Committee to ANI.

Although local news outlets have claimed the existence of as many as 62 relief camps in the state, there is hardly any news of what is happening in these camps and the kind of help people are receiving. A few citizen-led initiatives and NGOs have come forward to provide relief work as well.

According to reports by the Assam State Disaster Management Authority, 42.87 lakh people have been affected across 4,157 villages and close to 1,53,211 ha. of farmland is submerged. Kaziranga National Park, a world heritage site and home to the one-horned rhinoceros is 70% submerged. Animals are crossing NH-37, making their way towards higher terrain. So far, six animals have died due to high speed collisions while many others have perished by drowning.

Another epidemic that emerged as a by-product of the floods is the menace of Japanese Encephalitis. Stagnant waters become a breeding ground for mosquitoes and give rise to this vector-borne disease which affects the brain. As of July 15, 82 people have died because of the disease, a National Health Mission (NHM) bulletin said. The gradual rise of temperatures is also an important factor as warmer temperatures are conducive to the Culex type mosquitoes – the primary carriers of the disease. 

What’s the solution?

It is impossible to completely tame a river as massive as the Brahmaputra.

The river charts its own way, bringing in mineral-rich alluvial soil and depositing it on the river banks making it a fertile stretch of land.

The state government decided to embark on a Rs 40,000 crore river dredging project in the year 2017. River dredging is a process where sediments due to silt and debris deposits are removed from the river bed. In the context of the Brahmaputra, there are two reasons for doing this. First, to allow more water to stay in the river and prevent flooding and, the second is to clear the way for large vessels to navigate through the river, thereby easing inland water transport between India and Bangladesh. 

Dredging the river from Sadiya to Dhubri covering a distance of 891 km is no easy feat. The chief minister ensured, in an interview with the Economic Times in 2017, that work would commence in the winter. Till date, no work has been done. 

Many experts have questioned this idea, considering the fact that sediments will keep flowing into the river as it is dredged. Has the government conducted adequate research to analyse the data on both sediment input and dredging depth? Other experts have recommended less expensive solutions like “river training” which includes the building of spur (dykes made out of locally available earth) and controlling the flow of the river and eventually navigating it through a desired route. The government is yet to pay any heed to such alternative ideas.

For now, millions continue to suffer every year and an effective solution for the crisis hasn’t appeared on the horizon yet.

Udipto Phukan is a graduate student who has done his BA in English, Journalism and Psychology from St. Joseph’s College, Bangalore

Featured image credit: Pariplab Chakraborty