Woes of flooding

It was another evening on August 15, 1950, while Assam was jolted by a massive earthquake of 8.7 magnitudes on the Richter scale.
Woes of flooding

Kamal Baruah


It was another evening on August 15, 1950, while Assam was jolted by a massive earthquake of 8.7 magnitudes on the Richter scale. Residents got frightened, which lasted eight long minutes. Our parents said the Brahmaputra River was swollen the next morning, with floating fallen trees all over that claimed a thousand lives. The aftermath of the earthquake was devastating. The riverbed rose, and what had been a stable course of Brahmaputra became a constantly shifting one, eroding the banks.

As a result, the erstwhile town of Palasbari was eroded by the ferocious river Brahmaputra in 1954. The construction of a long DTP (Dibrugarh Town Planning) dyke in the early 1950s somehow protected Dibrugarh town from flooding and erosion. Interestingly, the water level of the river often crosses the danger level of 105 metres during the monsoon, against the minimum topographic elevation of 94 metres in the town. Subsequently, the maintenance work of raising and strengthening the dyke is being carried out from time to time to save the town as well as the Assam Medical College, Dibrugarh.

Majuli, once the largest river island, is now fast disappearing. The mighty Brahmaputra flows from melting glaciers, accumulating sediment of sands and silts naturally by erosion on its upstream riverbanks, and finally deposits on the downstream. Thus, they create sars—island-like silt depositions in the lower parts of river basins. Sars have demographic issues with geographical barriers and regular flooding and erosion. The people of Assam have lived with floods for centuries, and their fights for rehabilitation are still ongoing.

Severe weather is an unfortunate fact of life during the monsoon. We remember many occasions from our childhood when we were caught up by floodwater at our village in the midnight hours. We placed concrete blocks under sofas and other furniture to raise them off the floor away from rising floodwaters and stayed on the bed until the flood level subsided in a couple of days. Our ancestors believed that flooding came and went. We were accustomed to flooding, and there was no embankment then.

When it comes to water activities on flood days, we set out by banana tree boat for day-long fishing. Fish are available in abundance on those days. While villagers learned to live with nature, low-lying neighbourhoods had to evacuate their homes for safety on the roadside. Floods affect their agricultural crops, and muddy water from flash floods has made farmland unusable. Farmers faced a grim battle for their livelihood.

Mr. SM Huq, a former Director of the Central Water Commission, New Delhi, quoted him once while visiting Assam after Palasbari erosion. The Brahmaputra isn’t just a river; it’s a huge sea. Its vast water landscape is amazingly 15 km wide. The Assam flood is singularly different in terms of duration and magnitude of erosion. It cannot be controlled merely by strengthening embankment and anti-erosion measures. Let Brahmaputra flow, and people have to live with water and explore new avenues. Besides sorrows, they can raise the economic potential by growing crops in water.

The years rolled by, and there was no respite. When the monsoon arrives, there is incessant rain in the hills, and the valleys flood when the river bursts its banks. Geographically, Assam lies beneath the foothills of the Eastern Himalayas and is bounded on the north by Bhutan and on the east by Arunachal Pradesh. We can’t get away from the plight of flooding as it enters upper Assam from Arunachal, where it receives huge quantities of water from China. Besides, lower Assam was affected by the release of water from Bhutan’s Kurichhu dam.

Assam kept suffering, making it impossible for its people to stay safe, let alone plan ahead. The low-lying Bangladesh is hardest hit due to floods in Brahmaputra, and its Sylhet is most vulnerable to the impacts of the human-caused climate crisis. Millions of people in Bangladesh have become climate migrants to Assam and Bengal. And north-east India, especially Assam, is facing an influx of several lakhs of refugees and illegal immigrants through its porous maritime boundary.

While China’s plan to build a hydropower dam on the Brahmaputra has raised concern among downstream countries, India and Bangladesh, The annual discharge of the Ganga-Brahmaputra-Meghna river system is the third largest river system in the world after the Amazon and Congo. China has attempted to control the Huang-He River by building overflow channels and increasingly taller dikes. Also constructed a series of dams to control the river’s flow, produce electricity, and supply water for irrigation.

Extreme flooding and droughts may be the new norm for the Brahmaputra valley, challenging its people and ecosystem. Dams and hydroelectric projects on rivers damage the riverine ecology and exacerbate damage due to floods. The approach of government policies to mitigate the impact of floods has been mainly focused on building embankments. These are largely ineffective with the increasing intensity of floods. The ongoing project at Subansiri Dam has been criticised by environmentalists.

Then, the British had abandoned the idea of embankments to control the flooding of Indian rivers. Unfortunately, large populations continue to stay inside the embankment at the mercy of the imminent flood. The buildup of silt, sand, gravel, and landstone in the riverbeds increased the height of the mean water level of the rivers, leading to the scouring of embankments and catastrophic breaches.

Environmentalists have argued that an approach that integrates water management with land use planning, agriculture, and ecology is needed to manage floods. For a long-term sustainable solution, a “basin-wide approach” has been advocated to address the problem at the source, and for that, all the basin-sharing countries—China, Bhutan, India, and Bangladesh—must join together.

Throughout most of its history, India has attempted to control the Brahmaputra by embankment, while the main river receives a huge amount of water from many tributaries. An ambitious long-term construction plan and flood control programme are needed to stop the Brahmaputra from bursting its banks. Is it really possible that the mere presence of a few embankments at tributaries can stop flooding across Assam? The Assam’s tale of woe continues.

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