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Assam’s Sorrow

Is There a Way Out?

Raju Mandal (rajum06@gmail.com) teaches at the Department of Economics, Assam University, Silchar.

Assam, because of its geological position and as home to a large network of rivers, faces floods frequently. The people must be enabled to enhance their adaptability so that the flood-induced damage can be minimised. This article analyses the causes of flood and the intensity of damages, and also suggests policy options to be taken to control the damages.

Like every other year, Assam has once again been ravaged by floods. From April 2017 many areas of the state are struggling (that is, till the end of August) to deal with the effects of flood. The situation is said to be the worst since 1998 (Das and Sarma 2017). The devastation can be visualised from the fact that some areas which were free from flooding for many years also got affected this time. As per the Flood Report of Assam State Disaster Management Autho­rity’s statistics, so far 31 districts have been swept by floods affecting more than 3.95 lakh hectares (ha) of total crop area and claiming more than 150 lives. It may be noted that the floods and erosion problem of Assam is distinct from other states of India so far as the extent and duration of flooding and magnitude of erosion is concerned and is probably the most acute and unique in the country (GoA 2017).1 Hence the policy options towards this problem are bound to be different.

Causes of Floods in Assam

The plains of Assam, covering 81% of total geographical area and accommodating 97% of total population of the state, are highly prone to floods because of both natural and anthropogenic factors. The unique geo-environmental setting of the north-eastern region vis-à-vis the eastern Himalayas, the highly potent monsoon regime, weak geological formation, active seismicity, accelerated erosion, rapid channel aggradations, massive deforestation and intense land use pressure are some of the dominant factors that cause and/or intensify floods in the state (Goswami 1998).

Assam is situated in a heavy rainfall zone (Table 1). The South West Monsoon usually operates for a longer spell in the state compared to the rest of the country. One of the consequences of the heavy rainfall in the state and upper catchment areas during monsoon is widespread waterlogging and several rounds of flood—sometimes four to five times in a year—in the plain districts of the state.2 In a normal year floods occur during the months of June to August, when the monsoon rains are the heaviest in the state. However, early floods in May and late floods in September and sometimes even in October do occur occasionally. Flooding in Assam is not new, but it has taken an ugly form after the “Great” earthquake of 1950 when the mighty Brahmaputra and its tributaries changed their courses and direction along with swelling of the riverbeds.

Although flooding is a regular annual phenomenon, its varying timing, intensity and frequency pose a great uncertainty and cause extensive damages to lives, livelihoods and property (both private and public) of millions of people.

Flood is a major source of risk and uncertainty in agricultural production that regularly affects the livelihood of farmers in Assam (Mandal 2014). According to the Assam State Development Report, 92.6% of the cultivated land in the state is flood-prone (Bhattacharyya and Mandal 2016). However, the extent of damage by flood to the crop growing sector varies from year-to-year depending on the timing and intensity of flood in a given year. Floods in the early phase of the monsoon mainly damage the Ahu seasonal type of paddy.3 But floods occurring late in the season are most devastating as they damage the standing Sali paddy, which happens to be the main kharif crop of the state.4 Apart from causing instability in production, occurrence of frequent floods is one of the factors responsible for low rate of adoption of modern techniques of production.

Table 2 summarises the extent of flood damage in Assam during 1953–2011. As seen from the table, on an average 0.858 million (mn) ha area and 2.769 mn populations have been affected per year by floods during this period. Likewise, the annual average damage to crop area is as high as 0.431 mn ha. The number of animal and human lives lost due to flood is 11,412 and 497 per year, respectively during the same period.

The Kaziranga National Park, a world heritage site known for its rich biological diversity, is situated on the bank of the Brahmaputra. Every year the park is inundated with flood water which causes death of a large number of animals such as rhino, hog deer, swamp deer, tiger, buffalo and many other endangered species.5 As the park gets inundated with water, the animals, in search of food and shelter, move out to the neighbouring hills and thus become an easy prey to the poachers.

Apart from the damages mentioned above, every year floods affect health, hygiene and education in the state that often go unrecorded. In the aftermath of floods people fall prey to vector- and water-borne diseases and have to spend a lot of money as medical expenditure. As far as health and hygiene are concerned, women are the worst sufferers in this regard. It is also to be noted that the poor are disproportionately affected by flood due to the fact that they live in more vulnerable areas and have very limited ex ante and ex post adaptive capacity which reinforces social inequalities. Moreover, schools would be closed and studies would be disrupted every year due to floods and even after deluge many schools cannot reopen immediately as the displaced people take shelter in the school buildings.

Where Is the Way Out?

Realising the severity of the problem, flood control measures in Assam started in 1954 with the announcement of the National Policy for Flood by the Government of India. Though there were provisions of short-and long-term measures under this policy of 1954, to get immediate relief the construction of embankments as a short-term measure had been widely adopted because it could be done quickly with local resources and manpower. Though the construction of embankments was meant to be a temporary solution to the flood problem in the state, it has since then been taken as a flood mitigation mechanism year after year. Apart from providing temporary relief from flood inundation in the riverbanks, the embankments or dykes facilitated connectivity between villages in the absence of proper roads. However, they have had many unintended consequences. The embankments prevent silt and sediments carried by rivers from getting channelised out to riverbanks.

Thus, siltation and sedimentation get accumulated and thereby the riverbeds get swollen which is a major contributor to flood. Moreover, confinement of river flow between the embankments leads to higher water levels and increased hydraulic pressure during monsoon which threatens bank erosion (Baruah 2017) and often causes breaches that ultimately prove fatal affecting a large number of people in the neighbouring areas. These fatalities, however, can be minimised through proper maintenance of the embankments and their regular inspection before the onset of monsoon.

In contrast to the claims by the proponents of big dams that they control or moderate floods, most dams do not have an explicit flood moderation component (Thakkar 2010). Because of being situated in an earthquake-prone zone, dams, although important for electricity generation, bear the risk of breaches and consequent havoc in the downstream areas. Moreover, during heavy showers in the upper catchment areas, the power generation companies often release excess water that increases the flood risk and inundation of downstream areas.6 Whenever the situation warrants release of water from the dams, warning and information has to be provided to downstream people well in advance. There must also be provisions for compensations by the dam owners to the affected people, whenever the latter suffer losses due to the former.

Interlinking of rivers may be one option, whereby the excess water from the flood-prone eastern India can be diverted to the water-scarce regions. However, for that a thorough environmental impact assessment is needed. This is because every river has its own course and direction and interference therein may result in catastrophe. Such projects may, however, be cost-intensive. But given the huge flood-induced loss to lives, property, infrastructure and agriculture every year, such projects can be con­sidered. Moreover, the water-scarce regions would get benefits from these projects for which they may be asked to pay some amount to the supplying states which would be a win-win situation for both of them.

One major contributor to floods in Assam is swelling of the riverbeds due to siltation and sedimentation. Hence, the Government of Assam is planning to dredge the Brahmaputra from Sadiya to Dhubri to increase its storage capacity and mitigate flood-induced damages. Moreover, Brahmaputra being an international river, monitoring of its run-off requires hydrological data on a real-time basis for which cooperation with other countries like China and Bhutan is essential.

A slow process of industrialisation in the state has forced the majority of its workforce to continue depending on agriculture for livelihood. Due to fertile land, a large number of people have settled down in the riverine areas and it is impossible to relocate them to other places. Hence, their adaptability is to be enhanced so that the damages to life, livelihood and property can be minimised.

There is ample evidence that excessive dependence on the structural measures has failed to control floods in the past. Therefore, Bhattacharjee and Behera (2017) suggest that the need of the hour is to shift the focus to the non-structural measures like flood resilience and adaptation, including afforestation, controlling population growth in the low-lying inundation-prone zones and increasing awareness among the people whereby the damage from floods can be reduced significantly.

Conclusions

Flood in Assam is unavoidable. The people must be enabled to enhance their adaptability so that the flood-induced damages can be minimised. It is important to monitor the run-off and hydrological data in the upper catchment areas, particularly in Tibet before the onset of the monsoon for which cooperation at the regional, national and international levels is required. On the basis of these data, warning can be issued well in advance so that people and livestock can be moved to safer places. As against the ad hoc, piecemeal, short-term structural measures adopted now, an integrated basin management approach for the rivers needs to be adopted (Goswami 2008). A comprehensive plan involving all the stakeholders (dam owners, upstream and downstream people) is needed. It should focus on ex ante and ex post measures. Moreover, timely relief to the victims of the basic necessities like food, medicine and drinking water needs to be ensured.

Notes

1 While the flood-prone areas of India stand at about 10.2% of the total area of the country, the flood-prone area of Assam is 39.58% of the total area of the state. It signifies that the flood-prone area of Assam is four times the national mark of the flood-prone areas of the country (GoA 2017).

2 Except for the two hill districts of Karbi Anglong and Dima Hasao all the plain districts of the state (covering around four-fifths of its geographical area) are susceptible to floods.

3 Paddy grown in Assam is categorised into three distinct seasonal types, namely, autumn, winter and summer on the basis of their harvesting periods, which have now been advanced to a great extent following the deployment of high-yielding variety (HYV) seeds. Autumn paddy (locally known as Ahu) is usually sown in February–March and harvested in July–August. Winter (or Sali) paddy is sown in July–August and harvested in November–December. Summer (or Boro) paddy is sown in November–December and harvested in March–April.

4 Sali paddy has traditionally been the dominant crop in the state that occupied around 64% of net sown area and 44% of total cropped area in 2009–10.

5 This year 13 rhinos, 188 hog deer, four elephants, two swamp deer, four wild boars, two buffaloes, one Royal Bengal Tiger and one porcupine of the park died due to flood (Indian Express 2017).

6 For example, the North Eastern Electric Power Corporation (NEEPCO) is reported to have released water from Ranganadi project that caused a havoc in the neighbouring Lakhimpur district.

References

Baruah, S (2017): “How We Define Assam’s Flood Problem?,” The Indian Express, 26 August, http://indianexpress.com/article/opinion/columns/assam-flood-problem-bra..., viewed on 27 August 2017.

Bhattacharjee, K and B Behera (2017): “Forest Cover Change and Flood Hazards in India,” Land Use Policy, Issue 67, pp 436–48.

Bhattacharyya, Aditi and Raju Mandal (2016): “A Generalized Stochastic Production Frontier Analysis of Technical Efficiency of Rice Farming: A Case Study from Assam, India,” Indian Growth and Development Review, Vol 9, No 2, pp: 114–28, ISSN: 1753-8254.

Das and Sarma (2017): “Worst Floods in 36 Years: Central Assam Critical, NH 37 Opened to Small Vehicles, but NH 15 Closed,” Telegraph, 15 August.

Goswami, D C (1998): “Fluvial Regime and Flood Hydrology of the Brahmaputra River, Assam,” Memoir 41, Geological Society of India, pp 53–75.

— (2008): “Managing the Wealth and Woes of the River Brahmaputra,” National Folklore Support Centre, Portal for Journals, www.indianfolklore.org/journals/index.php/lsh/article/download/449/514, viewed on 27 August 2017.

GoA (2017): “Flood and Erosion Problem,” Water Resource Department, Government of Assam, http://assam.gov.in/web/department-of-water-resource/flood-and-erosion-p..., viewed on 21 August 2017.

Indian Express (2017): “Assam Flood: 215 Animals die at Kaziranga National Park in Assam,” 21 August, http://indianexpress.com/article/india/assam-flood-215-animals-die-at-ka..., viewed on 27 August 2017.

Mandal, R (2014): “Flood, Cropping Pattern Choice and Returns in Agriculture: A Study of Assam Plains, India,” Economic Analysis and Policy, Vol 44, pp 333–44, ISSN: 0313-5926, http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.eap.2014.08.001.

Thakkar, H (2010): “Dams and Floods,” Damming the Northeast, N Vagholikar and P J Das (eds), Kalpavriksh, Aaranyak and Action Aid India, Pune/Guwahati/New Delhi.

Updated On : 14th Sep, 2017

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