Budget hope for alternative flood management

The allocation of funds for the repair and strengthening of flood embankments in the annual budgets of Assam signifies structurally engineered solutions dominating flood management in the state.
Budget hope for alternative flood management

The allocation of funds for the repair and strengthening of flood embankments in the annual budgets of Assam signifies structurally engineered solutions dominating flood management in the state. Integration of wetlands with the River Brahmaputra for flood water diversion proposed in the Assam budget for 2024–25 is an innovative and laudable initiative to explore sustainable solutions to the perennial problem. Equal emphasis on demarcation and notification of the state’s floodplain zones is critical to reducing budget expenditure on relief and rehabilitation of flood-affected people and freeing up substantial funds for exploring alternative solutions. Finance Minister Ajanta Neog, in her budget speech, highlighted the proposed initiative that goes beyond the traditional approach of building embankments to prevent flood water damage to infrastructure, standing crops, public and private property, and the loss of human and animal lives. A survey was conducted by the North-East Space Application Centre (NESAC) under the aegis of the state government to identify 271 wetlands and lakes (that are larger than 10 hectares) that were found to be suitable for floodwater diversions. The NESAC has further carried out a hydrological analysis of the flood-causing rivers, and it has been observed that the flood peak of some rivers may reduce from 20% to 80% after floodwater diversion. In the initial phase, a few large wetlands are identified for rejuvenation and restoration, creating an additional storage capacity of 220 lakh cubic metres for water storage, the speech adds. For a state grappling with ravaging annual floods caused by the River Brahmaputra, Barak, and their tributaries, the survey findings have triggered fresh hopes. The government claims in the budget that the proposed initiative is expected to significantly boost tourism, revive depleting groundwater aquifers, and also revive an already fragile aquatic ecosystem, supporting the livelihoods of local communities dependent upon these ecosystem services in a sustainable manner. As most of the embankments in the state have outlived their span, they have become more vulnerable to breaches despite annual repairs. The construction of new embankments to replace the old and fragile ones requires huge funds, which are easily available. In view of such ground realities, the application of the proposed solution of integrating Brahmaputra with its wetlands for water diversion needs a strong budgetary push. The allotment of Rs. 200 crore in the budget for the proposed solution for flood management speaks volumes about the commitment of the state government to the innovative solution. The amount will be in addition to the regular allotment for the construction and maintenance of embankments. Conservation of these wetlands getting priority will be crucial to the proposed solution being sustainable. Building awareness among the people, elected representatives, and government functionaries on the importance of wetland conservation in flood management will have to be undertaken in a mission mode. Construction of 204 km of new embankments and elevation and reinforcement of 1,125 km of existing embankments over the last three years point towards flood vulnerability and challenges in flood management in the state. The budget mentions that over 1000 km of embankments have been converted into road-cum-embankment, while administrative approval for an amount of Rs. 520 crore against 50 schemes for construction and improvement of embankments has been accorded. Ironically, the 423 embankments in the state provide flood protection. Only 52% of people flood plain areas, and the remaining 48% are vulnerable to inundation and submergence of farm and homestead land as they are living without any kind of structural protection. Flood waters of Brahmaputra carrying heavy loads of silt and silting the wetland and filling it in a short time and reducing water carrying capacity is a key challenge that needs to be addressed with the required technological solution. The proposed solution will not be sustainable if this problem remains unaddressed if only integration of the river with wetland is achieved. Without any mechanism to reduce the silt load in floodwater before it flows into the wetland, de-stilting the wetland will become an expensive annual affair like the repair and reinforcement of embankments before the onset of every flood season. Pilot projects on one or two wetlands on an experimental basis will be essential to identify the gaps between research findings and application to ensure the long-term sustainability of the proposed solution. Basin-level measures for reducing silt load in the Brahmaputra also need to be integrated for comparison of siltation rates in wetlands integrated with it. Demarcation and notification of floodplains, shifting of population outside the demarcated zones, and preventing encroachment of notified floodplains also need simultaneous policy push and budgetary support. The population living along floodplains being huge, shifting can be carried out only in phases, but any reduction in the size of such a vulnerable population will lead to savings in funds spent for providing them relief and for their rehabilitation after annual flood damage. Sustainable integration of wetlands with the Brahmaputra being cost-effective will be crucial for its adoption as an alternative solution.

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