Assam floods started two weeks ago amid heavy rainfall. The human toll became more glaring last week. As many as 96 revenue circles are affected now, which means 2,930 villages have been impacted by flood incidents, including approximately 1.9 million people, over 100,000 of which are taking shelter in 373 relief camps. Around 700 families in the area are affected by the flooding and a severe lack of supplies of drinking water and dry rations. More than 80 people have lost their lives due to flooding and landslides across the state since the monsoon season began on 6 April.
As of 17 June, eight rivers are flowing above high flood level and three rivers are flowing above the danger level, says a bulletin from the Central Water Commission. Additionally, landslides have been reported in Dima-Hasao, Goalpara, Morigaon, Kamrup & Kamrup (M) in the last few days.
Why is Assam flooded so frequently?
Everybody knows about the rivers Brahmaputra and Barak, which are massive water bodies, but the problem of floods is caused by the more than 50 tributaries feeding them. While about 10.2 % of the total area of the country is prone to floods, as much as 39.58 % of the area of Assam witnesses floods regularly. In absolute terms, 31.05 lakh hectares of Assam’s 78.523 lakh hectares get flooded almost every year. Before the current year, the most devastating floods were witnessed in the state in 1954, 1962, 1972, 1977, 1984, 1988, 1998, 2002, 2004 and 2012.
Floods will trouble Assam more and more now because most flood protection structures in the state are 50 to 60 years old. These were constructed on the main stem of the Brahmaputra and its tributaries way back in the 1960s and 1970s and have become weak now.
Then, due to persistent silt accumulation, the highest flood level of rivers in the floodplain is rising because of the extremely shallow bed of the river and the heavy sediment brought in the monsoon by the river. This is why the rivers should be regularly dredged.
There are also proposals for setting up modern weather stations for better and more accurate warning systems.
Then there should be planned afforestation programmes because trees anchor the soil and prevent erosion.
Man-made factors causing floods in Assam
Deforestation, thoughtless urbanisation — that is concretisation of jungles — and unplanned and corrupt development of the area for decades on end.
The greatest man-made reason for floods in Assam is releasing of water from dams situated uphill. The unregulated release of water floods the Assam plains, leaving thousands of people homeless every year.
Encroachment in forest lands and water bodies is another big reason that causes floods in the state.
While the union government sanctioned a project of Brahmaputra dredging during Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s first term, the project, which involves dredging a stretch of 891 km of Brahmaputra from Sadiya in the north to Dhubri in the south of the state, is yet to begin. The project, which includes the construction of the Brahmaputra Expressway on both sides of the river, would cost Rs 40,000 crore. This project is still in the planning stage.
Speaking about the project, Assam Minister of Irrigation Department, Revenue & Disaster Management, Bhabesh Kalita says, “The project was announced by the union government and the implementation process has been started.” At the initial stage, the Assam government finalised the tenders for the project and tenders will be called within a short period, the minister said.
Challenges a flood imposes on human and animal life
First of all, they lose most means of communication followed by resources like clean water and regular electricity supply. Schools and offices are forced to shut down. This means both education and the economy come to a standstill.
As for the wild, activists alarmed at this year’s pre-monsoon floods urged immediate action to secure and protect all the nine identified animal corridors. “The consequences of choking corridors will prevent the movement of animals between Kaziranga and the forests of Karbi Anglong, which are critical feeding grounds for the herbivores,” said activist Rohit Choudhury. He urged the Supreme Court-appointed Central Empowered Committee to direct the state government to urgently notify 44.205 km of the identified wildlife corridors.
The state government and the forest department received flak from the CEC earlier this year for failing to make the nine animal corridors in Kaziranga free of alleged encroachment.
But forest staff at the Kaziranga National Park and Tiger Reserve (KNPTR) have been put on high alert and boats are ready to launch a rescue operation as floodwaters have reportedly started seeping into the park through the central Assam zone. Activists have demanded urgent intervention by the government to free all animal corridors from construction activities.
Assam Forest Minister Parimal Suklabaidya, who is closely monitoring the flood situation in the parks and sanctuaries, on said in May that the department was fully geared up to deal with any eventuality. The state forest department has created around 40 highlands for providing shelter to animals to escape from the rising waters.
“The highlands have been designed scientifically with provisions for adequate grass, and plants yielding fruits such as elephant apple and Indian gooseberry,” said Suklabaidya. He said further that more than 25 boats were ready for the rescue of animals in Kaziranga. The Unesco world heritage site bears the brunt of the floods every year.
KNPTR director, Jatin Sharma, said the park now has a total of 144 man-made highlands, including 33 large shelters for housing animals. “We have built an 8.5 km long road-cum-highland for providing shelter to animals during floods and for patrolling,” he said.
During the monsoon when the entire Kaziranga park is flooded, the animals move to the higher ground of neighbouring Karbi Anglong hills in the southern direction to save themselves from drowning.
Can it be stopped? How?
The impact of floods in Assam can be mitigated, if not the floods are stopped. The Parliamentary Standing Committee on Water Resources in its report released in August last year advised Assam to do things like strengthen embankments, dredge rivers, address river erosion and take wise policy decisions to manage floods like the one that struck the state this past week.
Assam should also benefit from better weather forecasts, for which the union government must pitch in, adding facilities of the Indian Meteorological Department to the state’s disaster management infrastructure. This will make Assam as efficient in taking precautionary and preventive measures against floods as Odisha has been doing to save itself from the devastation of frequent cyclones for more than 20 years.