Brittle embankments add to flood woes in Assam

This is the major reason why Assam suffers every monsoon, say water resources experts.

Updated - July 18, 2020 12:22 am IST

Published - July 17, 2020 10:08 pm IST - GUWAHATI:

Escape route: People affected by a second wave of floods and landslips during the monsoon move to safer places in Dhubri district of Assam on Friday.

Escape route: People affected by a second wave of floods and landslips during the monsoon move to safer places in Dhubri district of Assam on Friday.

Ill-maintained or poorly constructed river embankments have added to Assam’s flood woes this year .

The daily flood summary provided by the Assam State Disaster Management Authority (ASDMA) is a profusion of numbers — of rivers flowing above the danger mark, of districts, villages and people hit, of relief camps and inmates, of people killed and so on.

Some 5.35 million people of 5,004 villages and localities across 30 of Assam’s 33 districts have been affected and 76 have died — five on Friday — in two waves of floods since May 22. Another 26 have died in landslips during this period.

Assam floods affect around 15 lakh people in 23 districts

Toward the bottom of this chart is the update on infrastructure damage. So far, 1,606 roads and 164 bridges or culverts have been damaged.

The column also says 197 earthen embankments have been damaged or breached. This is the major reason why Assam suffers every monsoon, water resources experts say.

“One major feature of flood management in Assam is total dependence on embankments. If the approach to a very complicated problem is on a mono strategy that is technically unsound, then you are in great danger and that is what’s happening,” said Partha Jyoti Das, who heads the water, climate and hazard programme of Assam-based conservation NGO Aaranyak.

Last-moment schemes

ASDMA officials admit that the brittle embankments have often compounded flood management plans. A factor is the last-moment schemes submitted by the Water Resources Department that is tasked with maintaining and constructing the embankments.

Assam floods: Number of displaced people almost doubles to 9.26 lakh in less than 24 hours

“Embankments are repaired or constructed from the State Disaster Response Fund, but the schemes for release of money were submitted in May, when the flood season in Assam starts. The quality of work suffers obviously,” an official said, declining to be quoted.

Water Resources officials blamed the delay on coronavirus ( COVID-19 ) and the associated lockdown .

Assam began constructing embankments in the 1960s and most of them have outlived their utility. Many of these started breaching or collapsing from the 1990s, more seriously from the 2000s.

“In two decades of study, we have found that human casualty, farm and infrastructure damage have been proportionate to the breaching of embankments. In the absence of long-term alternatives, the government has to invest in sturdier, durable embankments to ensure that the situation does not deteriorate every year,” Mr. Das said.

Task force

The worst flood struck Assam in 2004 when 497 people were killed. This made the Centre set up a task force that came up with flood mitigation ideas involving States and countries in the upstream and downstream of the Brahmaputra and Barak rivers and their tributaries.

The suggestions were put in the cold storage.

Chief Executive Officer of ASDMA, M.S. Manivannan, said the breaching of embankments had complicated matters as much as periodic high-volume discharge of water from the adjoining hills of Bhutan, Arunachal Pradesh and Nagaland.

“But our planning based on the mapping of vulnerable areas has succeeded in rescuing many people. Personnel of the National Disaster Response Force and the State Disaster Response Force were placed ahead of the rainy season in these areas for prompt action,” he told The Hindu .

Fewer people would have died had they not indulged in fishing or crossing dangerous stretches despite being advised not to, he said.

Elevated shelters

Other plans that the ASDMA began working on in 2019 — more than 90 people were killed in floods that year — was the elevated relief shelter, inspired by the traditional chang-ghar (house on stilts) of the Mising people who live in flood-prone areas. Three have been built and four, each to accommodate 1,000 people, are planned in 2021.

The ASDMA came up with a standard operating procedure that warranted setting up thrice the number of relief camps than previous years to ensure social distancing for eliminating chances of COVID-19 infection.

“The displaced people have been spaced out for old people, lactating mothers, children to be housed in separate rooms. As of now, there are 51,421 people across 711 relief camps,” said Pankaj Chakravarty, ASDMA’s State Project Director.

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