Understanding inundation in the Brahmaputra Valley

Watered out Experts say nobody understands the river holistically. Scenes from this year’s floods in Assam.   | Photo Credit: AP

Authorities in Assam are struggling to respond to massive floods which have affected more than 1.5 million people and forced more than 200,000 people to seek refuge in relief camps, senior government officials said on Monday.”

Last Monday’s news? No, a Reuters report from 2015.

“The Brahmaputra river overflowed during monsoon rains over the past week, flooding more than 2,000 villages and destroying homes in the Northeast of the country, officials said.”

Last week? A CNN report in 2012.

“The Prime Minister announced the constitution of a task force to look into the problem of recurring floods in Assam and its neighbouring States. The task force will suggest short-term and long-term measures, sources of funding, and institutional arrangements to tackle the problem.”

Prime Minister Narendra Modi earlier this month? No, former PM Manmohan Singh in 2004.

Every monsoon, for millennia, Assam’s plains have seen floods — that is why these riverine plains are called floodplains in the first place. The principal river that flows through these plains is the Brahmaputra, after which the valley is named. The river is easily the most significant geographical feature of the valley, and the region. There are at least 21 large rivers that are its tributaries.

Watered out Experts say nobody understands the river holistically.
Scenes from this year’s floods in Assam.

Watered out Experts say nobody understands the river holistically. Scenes from this year’s floods in Assam.   | Photo Credit: Reuters


Taken together, this network of rivers extends like arteries from the stark Himalayan heights of Tibet, across the green hills and valleys of the Northeast and north Bengal, into the plains of Bangladesh down to the Bay of Bengal. In summer, the Himalayan snows start to melt. Come monsoon, when heavy rains lash the region, the rivers swell.

In recent years, this has been accompanied by a sequence of events as predictable as the seasons. First, there are reports of waterlogging in cities and towns after the initial heavy rains. At least one or two people die of electrocution because of cables coming in contact with floodwaters. Then, stories of floods from rural areas start to come in. There are photos of scrawny men and women struggling through waist-high water. Reports talk of farmers who have lost their crops and families that have lost their houses. The death toll mounts.

Same old, same old

At this point, the allegation of “Delhi’s neglect towards the Northeast” generally crops up. A Union Minister duly arrives. He or she may be followed by the prime minister of the day. They announce a few thousand crore rupees for flood relief. The flood victims get some rations of rice, dal and salt. In a few days or weeks, the waters recede. Life goes back to normal. Until the next flood.

The only things that change from year to year are the numbers — of casualties, people affected, crores given in relief — and the names of the main characters in the recurring tragedy.

This year, the numbers are higher than usual. The rains have been unusually heavy, and the Brahmaputra has reached close to or exceeded its highest recorded water level in several places. So far, 154 people have died and the toll is still rising. More than 14 lakh people are affected.

The damage is not limited to humans alone. At least 225 animals from the Kaziranga National Park have died in the floods.

Watered out Experts say nobody understands the river holistically.
Scenes from this year’s floods in Assam.

Watered out Experts say nobody understands the river holistically. Scenes from this year’s floods in Assam.   | Photo Credit: Reuters


The waters had receded from the villages at the edge of Kaziranga when I visited earlier this month, soon after the first wave of floods had submerged around 70% of the park. The fields around the park’s Kohora range stretched lush and green with freshly-planted paddy. A few patches of dead brown paddy were the only signs of flood damage.

An Adivasi farmer, Ramu, who was in the process of shifting paddy saplings from a handcart to his field, said the floods had killed the roots of his earlier crop. He was replanting his field with saplings he had bought for ₹ 20 a kilo. To cultivate a bigha of land would need around five kilos of saplings. Ramu lamented the loss of his earlier plantation, but said the floods left his lands more fertile.

A necessary evil

“If there are no floods there will be no crops, and no Kaziranga National Park either,” said Shanti Nath, a farmer from Lokrakharia Dohgaon village, which was hit by floods.

There was waterlogging for two to three days in the higher areas, but the waters stayed for as long as 12 days in the low-lying areas. “Without floods, we will need urea,” he said. “There should be some flooding, but it is damaging when it is too much.”

Wildlife veterinarian Dr. Panjit Basumatary, who works at the Centre for Wildlife Rehabilitation and Conservation near Kaziranga, agrees that the park needs the floods to survive. “Kaziranga is around 70% wetlands,” he says. “The species here are entirely dependent on water and wetlands.” Without the annual floods, the wetlands would give way to woodlands, and those are not suitable habitats for the rhino, hog deer, swamp deer and other species found in Kaziranga.

“The Kaziranga wetlands are breeding ground for all major fish species in the Northeast. They disperse through the Brahmaputra to the whole region during floods,” Basumatary adds. Fish cannot breed in the river’s fast-flowing currents; and blocking their free movement in and out of the wetlands would hamper breeding.

The damage to animal life during floods is mostly manmade, Basumatary says. “It is natural for animals to seek higher ground during floods, and the high ground is right here, adjacent to the park. We are sitting in the path of the animals,” he points out.

Kaziranga is bound by the Brahmaputra on one side and the Karbi Hills on the other. Between the park and the hills is a major state highway, the Assam Trunk Road, which cuts off animal corridors. The road is flanked by paddy fields and a number of tea estates.

According to Rohini Saikia, Divisional Forest Officer under whose administrative area the Kaziranga park falls, the annual floods are a “necessary evil”. The survival of the fittest is a law of nature, Saikia points out, and therefore weak and old animals dying of natural causes in the wild should not be considered unnatural. “Kaziranga and its animals have been surviving floods for centuries… the only real cause of concern is animals dying because of vehicles.”

The forest department put in a Herculean effort this season to prevent park animals from becoming roadkill, according to environmental activist Rohit Choudhury, who is from the Bokakhat area near Kaziranga. They also kept track of the movements of every rhino that migrated outside the park to prevent poaching. The rhinos were provided security. “We sent teams to monitor them 24x7, with help from the local police,” Saikia said. Not all animals, however, can be given this treatment, and locals admit smaller animals such as deer end up as bushmeat when they stray near villages outside the park.

Banking on failure

The government is looking at a number of solutions to help the animals and humans of Kaziranga. These include flyovers, so that animal corridors can be restored on the ground, and sensors to monitor animal movements. And the construction of an embankment, 30 km long, for which ₹ 100 crore has been approved.

This is despite the fact that embankments have not been particularly effective, even in places other than wetlands, and are likely to harm Kaziranga’s ecosystem. The worst flood damages year after year have occurred either due to embankments breaking or dams releasing water without warning.

This year, the area around North Lakhimpur on the north bank of the Brahmaputra in upper Assam was the worst hit in the first round of flooding. Locals including the district administration officials blamed the sudden release of water from the Ranganadi dam, a charge denied by the North Eastern Electric Power Corporation which runs it. In the second, current, phase of flooding, 26 embankments have been breached. In one case, in Nagaon district, an embankment inspected and declared safe by the Water Resources Department on August 12 failed that very night. Senior Assam minister Himanta Biswa Sarma has hinted at a Chinese hand in the latest flooding, and demanded that China share hydrological data with India.

Himanshu Thakkar, coordinator of the South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People, and an IIT graduate, says dams can moderate floods immediately downstream if operated correctly, but there are numerous examples where dams have also led to avoidable disasters in the downstream areas. This has also been highlighted by a recent CAG report, he says. The Ranganadi dam is known to have created such situations, according to him.

Embankments, he says, “are essentially flood transfer mechanisms.” They transfer the floods downstream. “No embankment is breach-proof nor can they flood-proof the area outside of it. Embankments will breach sooner or later. The older the embankment, the greater its chances of breaching.”

These structures also cut off rivers from their flood plains, Thakkar points out, and the fertile silt that they used to deposit during floods instead gets accumulated in the riverbeds, thus reducing the carrying capacity of the river.

Watered out Experts say nobody understands the river holistically.
Scenes from this year’s floods in Assam.

Watered out Experts say nobody understands the river holistically. Scenes from this year’s floods in Assam.   | Photo Credit: PTI


That’s where dredging comes in. The government plans to dredge the entire 891 km stretch of the Brahmaputra in Assam, from Sadiya to Dhubri, at an estimated cost of ₹40,000 crore to increase the river’s carrying capacity. Work is expected to begin this winter.

It is likely that the only lasting positive effect this will have will be in enriching contractors, bureaucrats and politicians. The Brahmaputra has one of the highest sediment loads in the world: it deposits hundreds of millions of tonnes of earth each year. Whatever the government dredges will be filled up by the river in short order.

Not a synonym for disaster

“What is the economic viability, environmental impact, and social acceptability of such a project,” asks Thakkar. “Have we done any credible scientific, environmental and social impact assessment, and held public consultations? We have no answers to any of these basic questions.”

Thakkar insists dredging won’t help flood management. “The impact of the dredging on the river, environment and people will be severe.” Flooding need not be a synonym for disaster, Thakkar says, and in any case, it is not possible to flood-proof the entire Brahmaputra basin. “What we must do is try and reduce the damage from floods,” he says.

Dams, dredging and embankments are all piecemeal strategies, agrees Sanjoy Hazarika, director, Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative. He is also the founder of the Centre for North East Studies and Policy Research that, in collaboration with the Assam government, runs a number of boat clinics on the Brahmaputra. The clinics have been active in rescue and relief in upper Assam.

Hazarika laments that “nobody understands the river.” People, he says, study it in bits and pieces with no holistic understanding. “Someone looks at hydrology, someone else looks at environment, someone else at culture, or people, and so on. Everyone has an idea, but no one consults the local people and communities who have lived there for centuries… you’re trying to bring intervention to an entity you don’t even know.”

Mitul Baruah has long experience of living with the river. A native of the river island of Majuli in Assam, he teaches sociology and anthropology at Ashoka University in Delhi.

According to Baruah, given the area’s rainfall, the specific geomorphological characteristics of the Brahmaputra, soil types on the banks, and so on, there is a “natural” aspect to the hazards of floods and erosion. “These natural processes are far worsened and deepened by our environmental governance processes,” he says.

We need to look at the role of the specific infrastructure interventions — and at times the lack thereof — and the overall question of power politics behind the governance of the Brahmaputra, or for that matter of any river in the country. “We must stop treating rivers like pipes,” says Baruah.

The bottom line is possibly this: we need a radical rethinking of the entire flood-control system we have. One that keeps in mind local socio-environmental features, as well as draws on some of the sound sciences now globally available.

“The business-as-usual attitude won’t work,” says Baruah. “I think it comes down to the violation of basic human rights. It’s as if some lives are just disposable.”

The profitable and lucrative cycle of floods and contracts, of useless or downright harmful relief measures, and gravy from relief must come to an end.

After editing newspapers around India, @mrsamratx chucked up the rat race for more pleasant activities such as writing books.

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Printable version | Jul 22, 2021 10:23:57 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/sci-tech/energy-and-environment/understanding-inundation/article19566027.ece

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