Where Flood Is a Way of Life

Where Flood Is a Way of Life

Over 35 lakh people have been affected, more than five lakh people moved into over 500 relief camps. This is the story of the floods in Assam. And it repeats, year after year.

The Numbers that Numb

Subhajit SenguptaSubhajit Sengupta | CNN-NEWS18 SubhajitSG

Published: August 11, 2016

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IN JOURNALISM schools and writing seminars across the world they coach you to bring out the human element in a tragedy, to go beyond mere numbers. But what do you do when the numbers are so overwhelming? 34 persons have died in floods that have hit Assam in 29 of its 32 districts.

Over 35 lakh people have been affected, more than five lakh people moved into over 500 relief camps. The damage is not limited to just humans. 80 per cent of the Kaziranga National Park was inundated with water, leading to the death of at least 310 wild animals, including 25 rhinos and 221 hog deer.

  • Assam and its neighbours

    Map of Assam and its neighbours

The human story is even darker. Abdul Kalam Azad, a social worker, who works for sustainability in the river islands, narrates this conversation with a Char (river island) dweller Atowar Rahman.

Azad: How is the flood situation in your area?
Rahman: Oh flood? It's medium, not much.
Azad: Has water from Brahmaputra inundated your Char?
Rahman: Yes.
Azad: Your house?
Rahman: Water has just reached the floor of our new house.
Azad: Oh! And others?
Rahman: Most of the cattle are shifted to the platform. A few families have also moved to the camps.
Azad: And what about the southern platform?
Rahman: A few houses have been recently washed away by flood and erosion. They are taking shelter there.
Azad: Is the water level increasing?
Rahman: Yes, slowly it is rising.

Rahman lives on a river island in Barpeta district in lower Assam. His nonchalance comes from endurance. Last year the flood had washed away his house. This year it has only been submerged. They get food grain as immediate relief, but no compensation or long term rehabilitation programme.



In Barpeta I met a 65 year-old-man who had to rebuild his house 17 times after it was washed away by the mighty Brahmaputra. Over the last 10 years more than 30 revenue villages were lost to the river. In Dibrugarh district, four square kilometers of agricultural land has been gobbled in this year's flood. In the last couple of decades this district has lost over 38 revenue villages, schools and tea gardens to the river.

34 persons have died in floods that have hit Assam in 29 of its 32 districts. Over 35 lakh people have been affected, more than five lakh people moved into over 500 relief camps.

According to an interim report submitted to the Home Minister, Brahmaputra valley is one of the most hazard-prone regions of the country. More than 40 per cent of its land is susceptible to flood damage. In the last 50 years, Assam has already lost 7% land to soil erosion in the state's 17 riverine districts. Despite knowing that Brahmaputra is chipping away at the land, response by successive governments, has been tardy at best. Over Rs 30,000 crore has been spent on making embankments, but most of it turns out to be either insufficient or, at times, even counterproductive.

Floods 2016



This time, the floods came in three phases. It started early between April 22 and May 5, when Upper Assam's six districts including Jorhat, Shivasagar, Dibrugarh and Tinsukia were affected. Over 363 villages were hit and a lakh people had to move to relief camps. This period also saw massive landslides which led to the disruption of rail link in the Barak Valley.

The second wave was from May 18 to May 29. Over 225 villages in Barak Valley was badly hit. Three districts, Cachar, Hailakandi and Karimganj were reeling under flood when many other parts of the country was facing a drought-like situation.

  • Assam and its neighbours

    Areas inundated in the Assam floods of 2016

Oh flood? It's medium, not much. Water has just reached the floor of our new house.

— Atowar Rahman, a river island dweller

The third, and the most damaging wave, started from mid June and its impact is still on. More than 3800 villages in 28 districts are hit. More than 35 lakh people have been affected, over 5 lakh have been moved to relief camps. In both upper and lower Assam, many villages have been completely swept away.

The third, and the most damaging wave, started from mid June and its impact is still on. More than 3800 villages in 28 districts are hit. More than 35 lakh people have been affected, over 5 lakh have been moved to relief camps. In both upper and lower Assam, many villages have been completely swept away.

Majuli

Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal's constituency, and world's largest river island, Majuli has been cut off from the mainland for the better part of July and August. The island is the happy hunting ground of the Brahmaputra. It has chipped away at almost two-third of its land since Independence.

Over Rs 30,000 crore has been spent over the years on building embankments.

This is the first flood Majuli has faced after the state elections. Given the fact the government came to power in the month of May, it cannot be blamed for lack of preparedness, not this year at least.

Sonowal did jump into action, suspending four officials for dereliction of duty when the floods hit Majuli. But by then the river had already breached several embankments. For those living on this island, the question always is the extent of the flood, for occurrence is a given.



Chirang

But the story in Chirang district is different this time. Unlike the 17 riverine districts of Assam, people in Chirang don't have a boat ready for the monsoon deluge. But with excessive rainfall in Bhutan, both Makra and Aei began flowing above the danger mark. Soon enough, the embankments were breached and water gushed in. As the water level grew on the night of July 22, the worst fears came true. Makra and Aei changed course, and the swirling waters swallowed everything that came along its new path. Acres of farm land, a designated state highway, and houses, all went under water. But worse is the impact it has on livelihoods.

Agriculture is the primary source of income for residents of the area, both these rivers carry silt and sand. Unlike in the Ganga basin, where flood brings fertility, here the soil gets wasted due to the residue. Villagers don't know what to do next. Administration, as usual, remains absent.

Kaziranga



Kaziranga National Park is battling its worst floods in 15 years. At least 310 animals have died - this includes 25 rhinos and 221 hog deer. At its peak, the water from the river inundated 80 per cent of the park. Floods are the lifeblood of the Kaziranga National Park, they maintain the grasslands and wetlands and constitute a natural drainage system. But the extent of the Brahmaputra's fury this year has left its scars.

Both humans and animals were forced to take shleter along the national highway and, naturally, man-animal conflict became a factor. A number of animals were were crushed by passing vehicles, a story, much like the floods, repeats year after year.

Cause of the Flood



Mother Earth knows no geographical boundaries. There could be floods in Assam if Arunachal Pradesh and Bhutan receive higher than normal rainfall. Over 30 per cent more rainfall in these areas, according to a report of the Home Ministry, was what casued the Brahmaputra to swell and cause floods in Assam.

  • Rivers of Assam

    Rivers of Assam

In some areas of lower Assam and in Bodo Territorial Area Districts, the impact was due to massive rainfall in Bhutan. The moutain kingdom opened its sluice gates which resulted in sudden increase in water levels of Makra and Aei rivers. Unable to manage the volume and the pressure of water coming in from the highlands, the river changed its course and with it washed away roads, bridges, acres of farmland and whole villages.

What Is the Solution?

A state which has 17 riverine districts would see floods every year but the challenge lies in minimising the impact and stopping large-scale destruction. The chosen method of fighting the flood is by building embankments. Over Rs 30,000 crore has been spent over the years on building embankments.



The government has to evolve a long-term approach with all the stake holders to map this annual crisis. If the water is primarily coming from Arunachal, Bhutan, and to an extent China, then all of them need to be brought on the table. Even if China is not practically feasible, at least an action plan involving Bhutan and Arunachal Pradesh can be prepared.

There is a new government in the state, and it has the golden opportunity to seize the initiative. A favourable government in the Centre means bilateral issues could also be proactively handled. But the question remains, would the government prepare a long term vision? Or would myopia continue to haunt the state?

(Produced by Soumyadip Choudhury. Photographs and videos by Subhajit Sengupta.)

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