Why Does Assam
Flood Every Year?
Assam has been hit by floods that has displaced millions and claimed 71 lives (at the time of writing). It has also severely affected wildlife and loss of animals.
Assam has been hit by floods that has displaced millions and claimed 71 lives (at the time of writing). It has also severely affected wildlife and loss of animals. All of this comes close on the heels of a succession of disasters that Assam is dealing with, like the COVID-19 pandemic, the Japanese encephalitis outbreak, water-borne diseases like cholera, Oil India’s Baghjan oil field which caught fire in early June (and it’s still burning), and the destruction caused by Cyclone Amphan.
Over 20,000 people have taken shelter in hundreds of relief camps across the state, according to the Assam State Disaster Management Authority (ASDMA). Around 90% of Kaziranga National Park and Pobitora Wildlife Sanctuary (It has India’s highest concentration of rhinoceroses) is reportedly submerged.
Originating from Tibet, the Brahmaputra river runs through multiple countries and states of India. It is one of the largest rivers in the world with respect to the amount of discharge and sediment it brings. A combination of the high rainfall during the monsoon season and melting of glaciers during the summer initiates the flooding. Historically, flooding has been welcomed in Assam because it replenishes the fertility of the plains. However, in recent years, due to a combination of natural and man-made factors, the flooding has been mismanaged and affected millions of lives.
Assam has always been prone to floods, but natural disasters like the 1950 earthquake significantly altered the topology of the land, and the course of the river. As the Brahmaputra river descends into the plains, it’s velocity significantly decreases, it deposits all the sediments, causing bank erosion and floods. Embankments have been made, but even they haven’t been maintained over the years to contain the floods. In a study conducted in 2000 by Dr Dulal Chandra Goswami, an environmentalist acknowledged as an authority on the Brahmaputra, found that “regular heavy monsoon rains, high erosion, silting of river channels, massive deforestation, intense pressure land due to high population growth in the floodplains have led to frequent floods in the state. Flood control measures have been shoddy,” the report adds.
Besides natural causes, the construction of dams (which displace the local populace and unchecked water release contributes to flooding), deforestation, encroaching of wetlands and hills, increased population along the banks of the river (without sufficent flood-risk management) and industries have contributed to the severe impact Assam faces annually due to the floods.
According to the Assam State Action Plan on Climate Change (2015-2020) report, climate change is also a factor in the increased severity of Assam’s floods. Due to the unpredictable nature of the river, embankments have been built to contain the flood. This was introduced in Assam in the early 1950s when the hydrology of most Indian rivers, including the Brahmaputra, was poorly understood.
The pressure from the vast river weakens the embankments, and they haven’t been actively reinforced. As a result, several have given away, flooding villages and cities. Irregular embankments have protected some areas, but flooded others downstream. Last year, Assam had sanctioned almost Rs 1,100 crores for 271 embankment repair projects but according to government sources, majority of them missed the April deadline. The lockdown also halted any repair work that was scheduled to happen on these embankments. Over the years, people have settled near these structures, and when an embankment breached, the flood is intense and leads to disaster. Loss of forest cover and deforestation has increased the severity of the issue.
What is the way forward?
Some solutions like dredging — digging the silt out and making the river ‘deeper’ — have been proposed, but experts believe owing to Brahmaputra’s extremely high sediment discharge, the dug up silt will be filled back in, making the entire exercise futile.
According to Dr. Goswami, for a long-term solution, a “basin-wide approach” is required. Merely reacting when the flood strikes is not enough, but a sustained dialogue between surrounding states, political cooperation and role of the government is important. Dhrubajyoti Borgohain, a retired chief engineer of the Brahmaputra Board, suggests that Assam include “flood-plain zoning” like the USA, where areas are demarcated according to the risk of flooding and banning construction and encroachments in those areas.
Besides these solutions, more decentralised forecasts of rains can help in preparing for the the floods, according to Mr. Thakkar of the South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People (SANDRP). The Assam floods impacts millions every year, yet the national media coverage of this has been dismal, year after year. Even now, most news channels only focus on trivial issues and debates, while it ignores the disaster that is ravaging across the state. The State and Central governments must enact a sustained effort to find a long-term solution to this.
“Information should be available in local languages. With the forecast in, one can calculate how much more water will flow downstream, thereby alerting people in advance to evacuate.”
—Mr. Thakkar, South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People (SANDRP)