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Governing the Flood

Dealing with annual floods in prone areas needs more than just a disaster response.

Although floods are an annual natural occurrence, there is nothing natural about the official response to flooding of the Brahmaputra River in Assam. This year, the official death toll has risen to 77 and around 12 lakh people have been displaced. The 10 July report of the Assam State Disaster Management Authority reported that 20 districts, over 2,053 villages and around one lakh hectares of agricultural land have been inundated. Given the extent of the devastation caused by a natural disaster that is exacerbated by human interventions, it is time we accept that the focus must shift from flood protection to flood governance.

The floods in Assam, or for that matter Bihar, are distinct from those currently underway in Gujarat and Rajasthan where ­extreme weather events caused the flooding. While the latter need prompt rescue and relief, the former must be tackled by a combination of structural interventions, institutional reforms, and comprehensive initiatives to build resilience in the riverine population. The vast stretch of alluvial plains from Maharajganj in eastern Uttar Pradesh to Karimganj in Assam’s Barak Valley has been frequently affected by multiple water hazards. This is a densely populated area stretching across Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, West Bengal, and Assam. These four states account for 17% of India’s geographical area, but disproportionately account for 43%–52% of all flood-prone areas of the country.

Although the recurrent floods are a natural phenomenon, they are also an outcome of anthropocentric interventions. It is natural that the high precipitation in the Himalayas—the catchment of most of the tributaries of the Ganga and Brahmaputra—coupled with the sudden fall in altitude results in a large volume of water gushing down river channels from the Eastern Himalayas into the floodplains. This water exceeds the carrying capacity of the river channels resulting in a spillover into adjoining areas. But with increased deforestation in the Eastern Himalayas, the surface run-off has increased at the cost of infiltration leading to tons of sediment being deposited on the riverbed as the river reaches the plains. This further reduces the carrying capacity of the river and enhances the risk of flooding. The plan to build large dams in upstream areas, largely in Arunachal Pradesh, is likely to exacerbate this process.

Historically, embankments have been the gold standard for flood protection. They are akin to what canals are to the irrigation bureaucracy: both are cost-intensive structural interventions, one to direct water to the command area, the other to constrict floodwater. Both have failed to achieve their full potential.Extensive literature exists in understanding canal management, while the governance of embankments has remained largely on the periphery of scholarly discourse. Embankments were constructed to create a “safe” area for habitation andthey provide these in areas where the embankments are new. But in areas like North Bihar and Assam, where there hasbeen a fairly long history of embankments, the situation is complicated. Large populations continue to stay inside theembankment, that is, outside the “safe” areas, at the mercyof the imminent flood. Unfortunately, people located in the “safe” area also live in constant fear of embankment breach. Their fear is not completely unfounded—the floods in Assam this year and the Kosi River flood of 2008 were outcomesof embankment breach. Furthermore, people living insidethe embankment face the risk of flash floods and sailaabfloods. The latter is due to a gradual increase in water level, while the former, as was seen in Uttarakhand in 2013, occurs when there is sudden high discharge from a reservoir into the river channel.

The government’s response to floods has been focused on massive structural interventions like dams, dredging of rivers, and porcupine structures to combat erosion. But empiricalexperience shows that dams often get silted quickly, more soin the Eastern Himalayas. To save the dam, water has to bereleased downstream, tending to cause flooding. This pheno­menon has happened year after year, in various districts in lower and upper Assam. Bamboo porcupines, structural interventions that arrest riverbank erosion, have often been found to be of substandard quality and tend to get washed away.

What is required is an important normative shift that sees floods as a natural phenomenon, and a change in the discourse from flood protection to flood governance. Flood protection necessarily starts and ends with structural intervention and provision of relief. Flood governance would require the innovative combination of initiatives undertaken at various levels. At one level, it is important to conduct “strategic environment assessment” of all development activities in the ecologically pristine locations of the Eastern Himalayas and aim for river basin management. This might include some structural interventions. At the institutional level, strengthening the moribund Brahmaputra Board in Assam, and staffing it with scientists from a broad range of disciplines is essential. But the most important shift would be to plan a comprehensive initiative to build resilience within the riverine population through an integrated set of interventions which should be based on three pillars: reducing vulnerability, enhancing access to developmental services that flood-prone populations are deprived of, and creating conditions that enable the optimal use of people’s resources.

Updated On : 31st Jul, 2017

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