Assam’s Bihugeet songs celebrate the many colours of the Brahmaputra and its life-sustaining character, with stirring renditions by Bhupen Hazarika in praise of the grit of its people in their most challenging moment — when the river turns furious during the monsoon and floods the plains. That season is once again upon the State, and the death toll has crossed 40. Lakhs have been put off their normal stride, with tens of thousands displaced from their homes. The deluge has circled vast parts of the Kaziranga National Park, dispersing its wildlife into towns. There are dramatic images of a rhinoceros walking through the streets. A return to normality must now await abatement of the rising waters, and the drafting of a comprehensive relief plan by the Assam government with help from the Centre and the specialised units of the disaster response forces. Yet, short-term measures can have no lasting impact on the Brahmaputra’s course each year, as several factors influence its tendency to overrun its banks in the June-July season. Studies done after the 2012 floods, which affected some 2.3 million people, show that the river’s course from the Himalayan ranges has been bringing lots of sediment, raising its bed above the level of the plains. The Brahmaputra has the second highest sediment transport per unit of drainage area in the world. With aberrant climate and intensive monsoonal flows, flooding poses a major challenge.
Assam receives a massive amount of rain every year, and an estimated average of 230 cm is recorded in the Brahmaputra basin. Combined with the characteristics of the river — it enters the State as a single channel but has a wide, braided course later and shrinks near Guwahati before expanding again — such high precipitation produces aggressive floodwaters. Its course has been studied extensively after the 2012 floods, providing insights into how remote sensing can help identify the most vulnerable areas and where remedial measures could work most effectively. Considering that the Assam elections in 2016 were strongly centred on environmental concerns, and the BJP-led government in the State has earlier spoken against big dams, getting a scientific understanding of the flooding phenomenon to inform policy is vital. On the ground, previous attempts at finding solutions appear to suffer from lack of attention to longer-term measures, such as better river management. The focus of civil society has been confined to immediate relief and rehabilitation. The government, on its part, must go beyond the necessary restoration of infrastructure such as embankments, bridges, buildings and communications structures. Relief measures will have to sensitively handle the tensions around identity conflicts between those claiming ethnicity vis-à-vis settled Bengalis. Also, Kaziranga needs better protection . Several wild animals have died in the floods, bringing back memories of the dreadful losses of 2012, when over 500 hog deer, 19 rhinos and 22 sambar perished.