Assam along with the entire Northeast is a region of abundant water resources, but one–third of it is going waste. In the few months when the monsoons act over the region, its rivers and tributaries erode and undercut their banks furiously, breach dykes and embankments to inundate vast areas. The loss due to floods in Assam alone in a single year is in the range of Rs 600 crore or more; as for erosion, it is estimated that the State loses nearly 8,000 hectares of land every year to raging floodwaters, the total loss adding up to an astounding 2,358 sq kms by 2012. Meanwhile half the population cry out for clean drinking water and proper sanitation. There has been a long–standing demand that the Centre declare floods and erosion in this region as a tiol problem. The time has clearly come for harnessing the region’s huge water resources in a scientific and sustaible manner. The Centre now seems to be seized of this problem, given its decision to restructure and reshape the Brahmaputra Board. A crucial meeting on 11 February will take this decision forward, as announced in Guwahati recently by Union Water Resources minister Uma Bharati. She was speaking at the third Assam Water Resource Conference, which brainstormed about upgrading the region’s water resources infrastructure and taking a holistic perspective to maging floods and preventing erosion.
It transpires from the observations of this meet that water experts are fed up with the piecemeal approach to this perennial problem. They have long favoured an integrated approach to developing the entire Brahmaputra and Barak basins. The meet highlighted the importance of involving the riverine community whenever the government has to take structural and non–structural measures for flood control. The new line of thinking is that the economic and social opportunities in the Brahmaputra basin must be realized, and so Assam is seeking the World Bank’s technical help for understanding the Brahmaputra basin. Its irrigation potential can be fully developed to eble farmers to sow 2 to 4 crops in a year. Proper river water magement can also provide opportunities to local entrepreneurs in areas like high–value agriculture, fisheries, inland water transport, small hydel projects and eco–tourism. When the government speaks about river development, it should be clear what it wants to develop the rivers for; when it wants to go about reclaiming land swallowed up by a river, it should also consider who will own that land. The repair and reinforcement of embankments should be taken up only after proper evaluation and with life cycle approach. With an eye to using the latest technology for flood warning, the meet deliberated upon adopting some powerful softwares as well as space technology–based Doppler radar systems that can provide meteorological data in real time.
The gravity of the flood problem of Assam can be properly understood only in terms of its location vis–a–vis the Tibetan Plateau, the Himalayan axis and the highlands of the Northeast. Calling for closer regiol cooperation in water resources magement among all the Northeast stakeholder states, the meet also recommended that the benefits of sharing relevant knowledge and technology with neighbouring Bangladesh ‘should be clearly identified and pursued at all levels’. In this context, Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi put forward the suggestion that the Centre should pursue a water–sharing mechanism for trans–boundary rivers like the Brahmaputra by involving Chi, Bangladesh and Bhutan. This is important, considering that India had last year expressed misgivings about Chi planning four hydropower projects on the Brahmaputra. Despite the suspicion that has clouded India’s relations with Chi and Bangladesh over Brahmaputra waters, a comprehensive understanding is a must if flashpoints are to be prevented over fresh water and flood magement. The example of how 19 European states are maging the waters of the Danube river and preserving its quality, can be instructive here. In a continent that has witnessed two World wars, these riparian states are scrupulously following a convention signed in 1994, considered a model for ‘conflict preclusion’.