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We Live by the River


Kamal Baruah

(The writer is a former air-warrior and currently working for SBI Dispur. He can be reached at [email protected])

Over the centuries people have learned to live with rivers. Once upon a time, Huang-he was China’s sorrow. The river killed millions of people since 2nd century BCE from catastrophic floods. In 1955, China has successfully controlled the Huang-he by building overflow channels and increasingly taller dikes from its ambitious 50-year construction plan and flood-control programme. This included extensive dike construction, repair and reinforcement, reforestation and the construction of a series of dams to control the river’s flow, produce electricity and supply water for irrigation. However, the river has not burst its banks since 1945.

On the other hand, Assam’s flooding woes continue from the mighty Brahmaputra. The river is part of our lives since childhood. It’s a playmate after playing hard day’s football. We dived into the river with a mighty splash. We saw flood when huge water swept away our village. There are no embankments to protect us. We have to take shelter on the high ground. We saw the river up-close. We boat on a raft made of banana plantain and fish for food. The sheer joy of fishing goes beyond catching fish. Drinking water is a scarcity during flood. Villagers learnt to live in their stride even it wreaked havoc to their crops. The riparian people are always under threat.

My father narrated the affects of great earthquake of 1950 when innumerable timber logs clogged the Brahmaputra. The river changed colour and carried sulphurous material. The fish died. The river beds have raised as sediments blocked that caused tremendous changes of riverine topography. Also landslides blocked rivers in the mountainous region. The channels start shifting due to changes in river configuration and erosion took place. The river is shifting laterally from Pasighat to Goalpara.

The Brahmaputra isn’t just a river. It’s a huge sea. It has vastness of water landscape nearly 15 km wide at some places. Assam flood is singularly different in terms of duration and magnitude of erosion. It can’t be controlled merely by strengthening embankment and anti-erosion measures. Let the Brahmaputra flows, people have to live with water and explore new avenues for growing crops in water. Besides sorrows we can raise the economic potential of the river. My landlord at Bangalore Mr SM Huq, a retired Chairman of Central Water Commission, spoke to me. He visited Palasbari to find a study on erosion. What he saw, that was history and beyond imagination?

The nature of flood in Assam takes a quantum leap every year. Breaches of embankment due to bank erosion have become a common phenomenon. The rural economy has gone negative for reducing fertile agricultural lands. The Brahmaputra has age-old tendency towards southward shifting its channels and traverse its valley that emerged Majuli as a river island during first half of the 18th century.

The heavy silt charge and flash floods of the north bank tributaries are pushing the bank of the Brahmaputra southward.  Lakhs of hectares of land was eroded away by the river and its tributaries. Highly erosion-prone landmass Majuli thereby got reduced to half from its origin. In lower Assam, the new channels have deteriorated Gumi, Phulbari and Goalpara. Palasbari experienced the threat of severe bank erosion of about 22 km upstream of Guwahati in 1954. Today its history is unknown. It was the beginning of a town that government initiated town and country planning of a township along with Guwahati and Tinsukia during 1955. It is sad that the Government could do little to save the industrial town Palasbari that was gobbled up by the river.

Assam is geographically situated on the foothills of the north-eastern states. The hills in the surroundings carry huge water to plain.  The most of its large tributaries bring huge quantity of sediments to its beds. The Brahmaputra and the Barak can’t contain excessive rain water from its tributaries of Arunachal and Meghalaya. The rivers are seen dangerous for erosion and channel shifting.  With the onset of monsoon, flood woes have now begun. Flooding is bound to happen, when it rains. It comes every year, but the devastation reminds us during flood only. The CWC gives hollow promises to protect us. But the reason of flood has remained unresolved. The survival of its people alongside the river is under threat.

Should India go Chinese way to protect the Brahmaputra? The traditional sand embankment just can’t protect Assam. It needs long-term planning. The cost of such a venture would be enormous but it has significance when compared with the loss of human life, damage to property, destruction of crops, loss of livestock and deterioration of health conditions from waterborne diseases. However, the administration got involved by distributing flood relief. Some keep demanding national-problem tag for floods.

We need a solution as Assamese live by the river Brahmaputra. Mr Huq was right, who predicted long back. There is no way to stop this abundant water. Yes, erosion can be controlled, once we stop doing embankment. Rainfall in Assam causes the Brahmaputra to flood its banks. When flood recedes, the silt carried by the river remains and fertilizes the soil, besides creating arable land. It brings changes to pond fisheries too. Let water spills over the plains. Flooding could turn a harbinger of life to its farmers. And Assam learns to live with water. Rather we will follow what we found our forefather practicing.