Tuesday 18 August 2015

Assam Flood: How ‘Development’ is leading the march towards catastrophe

Abdul Kalam Azad

Assam is one of the most flood prone states in North-Eastern states of India. Flood has almost become an annual event in Assam creating mayhem among the masses. Except two the hill districts of Karbi Anglong and North Cachar Hills, all the plain districts of both Brahmaputra and Barak Valley of Assam are vulnerable to floods in every monsoon starting from May/June to September/October. The flood water causes huge damage to crops, lives and properties (Mandal, 2010). As far as scale is concerned, the annual flood water from river Brahmaputra and its 28 northern and 18 southern tributaries and river Barak affects three-fourth of the total number of districts in the state (Phukan, 2005).  In 2012, Indian Space Research Organization carried out a study through satellite and remote sensing for extraction of flood disaster food print and assessing the disaster impact in Assam. The study shows that about 4.65 lakh ha area was submerged, 23 of the 27 districts in Assam had more than 5% of the total geographical area submerged, about 3829 villages marooned and 23.08 lakh people were affected (C. M. Bhatt, G. Srinivasa Rao, Asiya Begum, P. Manjusree, S. V. S. P. Sharma,L. Prasanna and V. Bhanumurthy, 2013)

Flood: What History says?
However, history says that flood was not so cruel in Assam just half a century ago. Prior to the great earthquake of Assam in 1950, the magnitude of flood was much lesser and people used to welcome the flood (Phukan, 2005). Furthermore, travellers and soldiers who visited Assam in the medieval period wrote about the amazing rivers and awe-inspiring seasonal rains. Assam's native people used these factors to their advantage in their battles against other armies” (Barbora, 2015).

Causes behind the increasing number of flood
But the things didn’t go well as the time passed. Prof. Sanjay Barbora argues that the advent of British colonial role and tea plantation as well as other cash crops changed the landscape of Assam in 19th century. The colonial government built railway track and embankment to protect the tea gardens from water-logging. Independent government also followed much of the British path and built embankments and dykes with very short-term economic logic in mind, which radically changed the social structure of the place. Thus, construction of embankment for one village creates waterlogged condition in the fields of another (Barbora, 2015).

Prof. Phukan says flood occurs in Assam as a result of multiple factors like a) natural, b) ecological, and c) anthropomorphic. These factors combined with other climatic factors like depression of Bay of Bengal, high sediment transport, deforestation, shifting cultivation, earthquake, landslide etc are influencing the flood situation in Assam (Phukan, 2005).  Apart from short-sighted flood control and development policies, destruction of wetlands is another factor which worsening the flood situation in Assam; the ‘Bils’ in Brahmaputra Valley and ‘Haors’ in Barak Valley, which work as natural reservoirs are shrinking drastically.  In 1988, total wetland covered area was 49000 ha which has shrunken to here 35630 ha in 2005 (ibid). Within a period of just 17 years, more than 27% of wetland has been destructed. There is no doubt that the rate of this destruction has been increasing.

There were large number of natural water reservoirs in and around Guwahati city; the human greed has destroyed almost all of them. At one hand wetlands and natural water reservoir are being destroyed and high rise buildings are being constructed, including international chain of hotels. One the other, the hills and forest are also not spared. Experts say that one of the most important factors behind the flash flood in Guwahati is the mindless human encroachment in the hills, wetlands and water canals (Deka, 2018). Off late administration is working on to evict the illegal encroachment in those natural resources and so far the result is quite encouraging. 

Is Development Responsible?
The instances of flash flood have been increasing in Assam. Last year’s flash flood due to cloud burst in Meghalaya’s Garo Hills district caused devastation in Goalpara and Kamrup (Rural) districts of Assam. The affected community thinks that the magnitude of devastation has increased manifolds due to the construction of railway track which blocks the natural flow of rain water from uplands of Garo Hills. The newly constructed railway track to Mendipathar from Goalpara has added more hazard to the existing vulnerability[i]. During monsoon, NEEPCO releases excess water and that creates flood situation in North Lakhimpur district of upper Assam almost every year. Local media reported that, at least one person lost his life while trying to rescue his two brothers in flood water caused by the NEEPCO’s water during last June flood[ii]. 

Another significant matter is the growing number of flash flood due to excess water released by dams. There are instances of flood in lower Assam caused by the excess water released by Kurichu dam of Bhutan[iii]. It is a matter of great grief our Prime Minister Narendra Modi inaugurated another dam in Bhutan which has potentiality to cause devastating flood in western Assam. 

What next – Catastrophe?
Despite all these risks and vulnerabilities, our government is adamant to establish 167 dams including mega structures in upper Assam and Arunachal Pradesh which may cause catastrophe to entire downstream civilization. There has been a strong movement in Assam against these dams. The protesters and the experts believe that these dams will affect the flow of water of river Brahmaputra, which will impact irrigation downstream, and increase the danger of sudden floods in an area that is already highly flood-prone (Rehman, undated). If these sorts of unabated and short-sighted development interventions are continued, no doubt it will definitely lead us towards a deadly future.

[Abdul Kalam Azad is a grass-root community worker and runs a not for profit organization called Jhai Foundation (jhaifoundation.org). He tweets @abdulkazad] 

Pictures from: http://thenortheasttoday.com/2015-assam-floods-in-pictures/

[i] Interview with Biren Rabha, journalist and community worker based in Krishnai, Goalapra
[ii] NEEPCO dam water floods North Lakhimpur, Assam Tribune, 30th June, 2015
[iii] The Case of Kurichu in the Indo-Bhutan Context Transboundary Hydropower Projects and Downstream Flooding by Anjana Mahanta. Accessed from http://www.indiawaterportal.org/sites/indiawaterportal.org/files/kurichu.pdf on 10th July, 2015

Barbora, S. (2015, June 22). Where a state drowns each year: Assam floods and what needs to be done. Retrieved July 10, 2015, from Catch News: http://www.catchnews.com/environment-news/where-a-state-drowns-each-year-assam-floods-and-what-needs-to-be-done-1434943767.html
C. M. Bhatt, G. Srinivasa Rao, Asiya Begum, P. Manjusree, S. V. S. P. Sharma,L. Prasanna and V. Bhanumurthy. (2013). Satellite images for extraction of flood disaster footprints and assessing the disaster impact: Brahmaputra floods of JuneJuly 2012, Assam, India. Current Science , 104 (12), 1692-1700.
Chakraborty, G. (2014). The Demographic Question in the Char Areas of Assam. Social Change and Development , 113-117.
Deka, D. P. (2018, 07 28). Geographical Perspective of Artificial Flood in Guwahati. Retrieved 07 10, 2015, from The Sentinel: http://www.sentinelassam.com/op_ed/story.php?sec=33&subsec=0&id=199066&dtP=2014-07-28&ppr=1
Mandal, R. (2010). Cropping Patterns and Risk Management in the Flood Plains of Assam. Economic and Political Weekly , XLV (33), 78-81.
Phukan, S. D. (2005). Flood - The Annual Mayhem in Assam A Technocrat's Viewpoint. Ishani , 1 (6).
Rehman, T. (undated). Dialogue of the deaf. In Brahmaputra: Towards unity. thethirdpole.net.


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