A Historical Understanding of Assam's Floods

Jyoti Bania(jyotibania01@gmail.com) is a PhD scholar at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Hyderabad, off-campus.
29 July 2022

In the case of the Assam floods, one must accept that flood is predetermined, which has always already occurred. The Indian government must acknowledge its 'failure' to understand the river's rhythm by recognising the flood as a 'national disaster'. The government's need to own such failure suggests that it is only in failing that we establish a new possibility.

Flood is not new and unprecedented but rather a mere reoccurrence of the same disaster in Assam. Devastating floods and earthquakes were some of the watershed events in the history of erstwhile undivided Assam that wreaked havoc in the region. Although Assam experienced many devastating floods in its history, the catastrophic floods became frequent phenomena after the 1950s (earthquake) as disastrous floods occurred in 1954, 1962, 1972, 1977, 1984, 1988, 1998, 2002, 2004, 2012[i] and recently, in 2019 and 2020. This year (2022), the flood has affected around 5.5 million people across 32 out of 35 districts of Assam. The death toll increased to 190 (the number of unreported deaths would be more than that) and also caused massive erosion and displacement while destroying houses, roads, railways and bridges to become one such devastating flood of Assam.

Arupjyoti Saikia (2019), in his highly acclaimed book, The Unquiet River: A Biography of the Brahmaputra, states that Assam was regarded as a “waterscape” by ancient texts. He writes, " The tributaries of the Brahmaputra are so numerous that Assam is said to contain more rivers than any equal extent of territory in the world." By the late 20th century,  40% of the valley's total land area was regularly inundated by the annual floods. With the increasing rate of global warming and climate change, there is no doubt that more than 40% of the land areas are prone to periodic floods.

What Happens When Floods Occur?

Saikia (2019) provides a detailed description of the flood situation in his book. Floods immediately cause displacement and homelessness of thousands of people across the valleys, especially people residing in low-lying (chaparis) areas. Floods cause significant loss of livestock, domestic animals, farming, and farmers' granaries would go underwater. For weeks, people would have to survive on fruits or plantain. Once houses come underwater, people move to higher lands and stay in makeshift shelters. Some people remain on the roof of their homes or in boats and improvised rafts until the flood recedes. The large villages can only be demarcated by the house roofs above the floodwater. The swollen wild river freely dissipates its waters across the floodplain. The river, through its sand and waters, along with the assistance of the vast network of tributaries, dramatically causes erosion and building of land. Extensive patches of land eroded and rebuilt elsewhere by floodwater are widespread during floods, especially in the Brahmaputra River. Thousands of people whose lands are gnawed by the river frequently moved to new places in search of grounds for shelter and cultivation. Post-flood, there is a higher chance of spreading epidemics such as water-borne diseases and skin infections.

It is important to note that although land (areas) get inundated by water in no time during floods, many low-lying areas remain waterlogged for many months. It would take more than a month for floodwater to retreat and the submerged areas to become dry. Moreover, “in many low-lying areas, receding flood waters held back to form beels (floodplain lakes)” (Saikia 2019). Furthermore, people get everyday life back after many months of the floods in the valley.

Causes of Many Waves of Floods

To delve into the causes of many waves of floods in Assam, we must go back to the historical records of Assam floods. The best credible explanation for the causes of the Assam floods was provided by a British Botanist, Francis Kingdon-Ward (1955), in his article, “Aftermath of the Great Assam Earthquake of 1950.” As a “plant hunter,” Kingdon-Ward was a regular traveller in the eastern Himalayas who, on the day of the 1950s earthquake, was very close to Rima, the epicentre.

According to Kingdon-Ward (1995), "Floods on the Brahmaputra are no new experience. There must always have been floods; before 1950, they were serious about every tenth year on average. Since the earthquake, serious floods have become an annual event, culminating in the disastrous flood of 1954." His prediction was correct to a great extent as Assam has been experiencing devastating floods yearly, and hardly any year passed when the state didn't experience flooding since the 1950s.

Kingdon-Ward indicates three primary sources: permanent glaciers, annual snowfall and rainfall that supply enormous waters to the rivers in the north-eastern frontier region. He states that the amount of water received from these sources varies according to the weather and the time of year. Kingdon-Ward maintains that a combination of factors causing heavy flooding in the region should be taken very seriously. He further says, "If a hot spring and summer follows a heavy winter snowfall, it will reach a maximum; and if this maximum snow-melt happens to coincide with maximum rainfall, the consequences may be serious." Kingdon-Ward cautioned that the consequences might be catastrophic if all these adverse situations occurred in any one year. He also indicated the timing of the annual peak rises of the water level/     flood along with its causes: "the first rise, about April, is due to snow melt; the second, about July, is due to a combination of snow-melt, increased glacier-melt, and rainfall, –and is, of course, much larger than the first..."

It seems Kingdon-Ward's realistic explanation holds for this year's 2022 flood. Although I cannot      prove his claim empirically, a similar adverse weather pattern is observed if examined carefully. Many parts of the North East region experienced snowfalls,[ii] thunderstorms and hailstorms[iii] in winter (2021) followed by spring (the month of March 2022 was recorded as the hottest in 122 years in India),[iv] coinciding with prolonged heavy excessive pre-monsoon[v] and monsoon rains in summer.

The first wave of the flood (although it took place in April) but reported widely in mid-May 2022, caused great mischief in the districts of Dima Hasao (Haflong), Cachar, Dhemaji, Hojai, Karbi Anglong (west), Nagaon and Kamrup in Assam. It severely damaged railway tracks, stations, roads, bridges and irrigation canals. A long stretch of railway track got converted into a hanging bridge due to landslides caused by massive downpours and filled the entire Haflong railway station with mudslides. At the same time, train coaches submerged under mud have been reported widely in the news.

Soon after the first spell of the devastating floods, the heavy monsoon rain in June (which coincided with the melting of glaciers in the eastern Himalayas in summer as per Kingdon-Ward's claim) supplied excess water leading to the swelling of rivers, thereby converting the whole state into an inland Sea. On 20 June, Silchar, the state's second largest city, merged under water,[vi] which remained waterlogged for many weeks. Meanwhile, Guwahati, the capital city of Assam, has been inundated multiple times due to the torrential rain in May[vii] and June.[viii] The flood condition in Assam[ix] remains grim as millions of people in more than ten districts are still affected till July. So far, as many as 30,000 to 40,000 houses have been[x] destroyed due to the floods in Assam, as announced by the state’s chief minister.

Combating the Floods

Although measures to combat floods suggested by the Kingdon-Ward are primarily focused in upper Assam, I believe it would provide a practical blueprint for the entire state. Kingdon-Ward suggested both mechanical and biological means to combating floods on the plains while pointing out that “it is impossible to deal with the origins of the floods … Not much can be done with a river the size of the Dihang."  He states that Dihang, the principal river of three (such as Dihang, Dibang and Lohit) that formed the Brahmaputra, could not be controlled because of its enormous size. However, he suggested that all artificial barriers (of sand) that could cause massive floods and diversion of the river should be flushed out on the plains. As often as possible, to keep the main channels open in the hope of deepening them and preventing the water from dissipating its force across the floodplains. He said, "The chief weapon here is the power of the river itself to keep open its channel and avoid building up barriers of sand on the plain." He also states that international cooperation would be required to blow up such barriers on the Tibetan side.

Kingdon-Ward's biological solution was reforestation as he was confident that every plant, including a fern or moss, helps to an extent in stopping erosion and, thus, mitigating floods. His suggestion was, "Sowing should begin well clear of high-water mark, and work gradually towards the river channel; and, of course, if training walls, ramps or dams were built, efforts should be made to establish vegetation on top of them. The best approach would be to sow seeds of shrubs, especially those that grow socially, on the riverside, and trees of rapid growth on the more sheltered side…"

Kingdon-Ward’s mechanical propositions such as 'dredging work near the confluence of the Lohit and Dihang in the cold weather, 'dumping sands' on the left bank, 'building of defences' at chosen spots on the left bank, 'constructing walls by placing rounded boulders in strong steel mess' and so on would involve 'machinery on a big scale, ample labour, and excellent organisation'. Apart from this physical infrastructure, he suggested that hydro-morphological knowledge of the river, such as the 'annual rhythm of the rivers, their rise and fall throughout the year', were necessary. He also maintained that the Dibang river has to be dealt with differently.


Is Mega Dam a Solution to the Flood of Assam?

The Indian Bharatiya Janata Party government at the Centre has recently announced its plans to build India’s second largest dam[xi] on the Brahmaputra River at Yingkiong in Arunachal Pradesh to produce electricity and mitigate floods.

It must be worth mentioning that many international experts like Bellport and renowned river giants like Stuff and Weller were very sceptical of the construction of dams on the Brahmaputra. BP Bellport, the United States (US) Bureau of Reclamation, who visited Assam in 1965, warned that big dams' structure was not justified if power generation was the only aim. He also cautioned that "earthquakes and the large siltation charge of the rivers could be constraints in constructing multipurpose dams here" (Saikia, 2019).

Bellport was followed by another US technocratic team led by Harvill E Weller that conducted a detailed study of the Brahmaputra in 1966. Weller recommended that 'complete stabilisation' of the Brahmaputra was the most desirable way to control it. Arupjyoti Saikia quoted Weller's suggestion in his book:

“the most desirable plan for control of the Brahmaputra River is complete stabilization. To accomplish this, sufficient reservoirs would be required on the tributaries to reduce the input of sediment and halt the aggrading trend of the river. The river would then be confined to a single channel trained into a series of easy bends, preferably along the present main channel of the river, by the use of all the methods or ‘tools’ employed in channel stabilization, Spurs, other accretion-inducing methods, and dredging would be used to close secondary channels and train the river in the selected course.”    

Later, US experts W A Stuff and H E Weller, renowned as giants in river engineering, were also "sceptical of multipurpose storage dams because Assam, as a low industrial region, did not require a massive amount of electricity" (Saikia, 2019).

They all recommended long-term futuristic flood control measures that were not appreciated by the government and those looking for immediate steps. Technological investigation of the Brahmaputra, ideologically rooted in the experiences of American river control, concluded that "embankments, storage reservoirs, and dredging were the answers to the Brahmaputra's floods" (Saikia, 2019).

Despite such ambitious measures and their partial implementation, floods continued to wreak havoc in the state. While the engineers and the government blamed the Brahmaputra river's unpredictable nature for the failure of measures, Saikia rightly pointed out, "None agreed that their measures were based on a fundamentally erroneous understanding of the river's nature."    

A succinct description of the untamed nature of the river and the condition of the soil of the region was provided by Edward Albert Gait (1906), British administrator of erstwhile Assam, in his book, A History of Assam:

“The Brahmaputra valley is an alluvial country, and the impetuous, snow-fed rivers which debouch from the Himalayas find so little resistance in its friable soil that they are constantly carving out new channels and cutting away their banks; consequently, no buildings erected in their neighbourhood can be expected to remain for more than a limited time…”

From the above description, it can be imagined why dam construction would not be feasible not only on rain-drenched and earthquake-induced slopes but also pose an excellent grave danger to the communities of this region.

Similarly, the increasing erosion on the earthquake-induced stripping of slopes at high altitudes and the consequent creation of bare screes (as mentioned by Kingdon-Ward) must be considered as signs of why dam construction will not be feasible on friable land that is prone to flood and earthquakes. Recent incidents of railway tracks turning into a hanging bridge, the train coaches getting submerged under the mud at Haflong railway station, and the landslides in Manipur and other states of the North East are the trigger warnings that must be taken note of by the government.

Disavowal of the Government towards Assam’s Floods

One must question if floods recur yearly, then why the government has not yet initiated effective mitigation and preparedness to avoid incalculable loss. The answer lies in an innovative argument (gleaned from Jack Black's article, “A hole that does not speak: Covid, Catastrophe and the Impossible”)[xii] that although the government was well aware of the devastating impacts of floods, they did not take them seriously. They were reluctant to act and engage in serious preparation. This act of repudiation posits a failure to acknowledge the fundamental inconsistency of our social and political systems as well as nature itself.


There is an urgent need for a collective response to the flood catastrophe. It is hard to deny what Saikia (2019) quoted in his book from a 1991's report, "the idea of a controlled Brahmaputra is only a chimaera.” However, it must be noted that it is not about taming the river; instead, living with the river's rhythm is necessary. The example of community resilience could be seen among the Mishing tribes of Assam, who constructed their houses on machans, i.e. raised bamboo platforms around four feet high to protect them from annual floods.

In the case of the Assam flood, one must accept that flood is predetermined, which has always already occurred. The Indian government must acknowledge its 'failure' to understand the river's rhythm by recognising the flood as a 'national disaster'. The government's need to own such failure suggests that it is only in failing that we establish a new possibility.

Jyoti Bania(jyotibania01@gmail.com) is a PhD scholar at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Hyderabad, off-campus.
29 July 2022