We belong to this river

A sunset view of River Brahmaputra

With the onset of the monsoons, Assam is also talking about floods, and the mighty River Brahmaputra and several of its tributaries, especially those flowing down from the North, have been flowing above the danger level, causing floods in several districts. Assam is a land of rivers, with the Brahmaputra alone having over 100 tributaries, many of which originate in the Himalayas in the North. There are people who consider rivers as a curse, because of the immense suffering they cause when they overtop or breach the embankments and inundate village after village, damaging property including standing crops and dwelling houses, causing death to human beings and domestic animals, and in many cases wiping out stretches of valuable because of erosion. There was however a time when rivers, and for that matter floods, were considered a boon, especially because the receding floods would leave behind rich alluvium that would lead to a bumper crop the next season.

With numerous anthropogenic factors in play, our rivers have changed their character. Massive felling of trees and destruction of forests, especially in the upstream areas like Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland, Manipur, Mizoram and Meghalaya as well as in certain pockets of Bhutan causing large-scale topsoil erosion, the sediment load of the Brahmaputra and its numerous tributaries has steadily increased. Encroachment on the natural pathways of the rivers and the numerous wetlands that work as natural flood-cushions has further complicated the situation. Granting of land patta to people who have occupied the char areas has further disturbed the natural flow of the Brahmaputra, causing it to attack the banks. (In Bangladesh however, there are strict laws that do not permit any person to occupy any space that belongs to the same Brahmaputra which we in Assam consider so sacred.)

Three decades ago, when the Brahmaputra Board had prepared its Master Plan for controlling flood and erosion in Assam, it had suggested construction of dams in the upstream of several of its major tributaries, which in turn would prevent the bed of the Brahmaputra from rising due to silt deposit. With more than 90 per cent of the Brahmaputra Board’s original Master Plan still remaining confined to the shelves, numerous anthropogenic factors have led to rapid rise of the Brahmaputra’s bed. Increasing road construction and other developmental activities in Arunachal Pradesh – which involve a lot of earth cutting – has only added to the Brahmaputra’s problems. The Brahmaputra Board had also identified nearly 35 drainage-congested areas in the Brahmaputra and Barak basins, with the condition of most of these only worsening year after year due to both non-implementation and poor implementation of the various schemes envisaged in the Master Plan.

The factors responsible for rapid deterioration of the health of the Brahmaputra and Barak and their tributaries can be divided into three geographical stages: (i) at the local level where the natural flow-path of the rivers and the numerous wetlands have been encroached upon both through illegal and legal means, (ii) at the inter-state level, where rapid destruction of forests and hills in one state has caused disturbances to the rivers at their downstream portions, and (iii) at the international level, where particularly the Brahmaputra – the Tsangpo — has come under severe stress due to certain activities of China in the Tibet region. (Bangladesh too must be facing similar problems because of what we have been doing to the Brahmaputra and the Barak and some of their tributaries that flow directly into the lower riparian country.)

Fortunately or unfortunately, our both big rivers – the Brahmaputra and the Barak – are international rivers. While the Brahmaputra flows through three countries – China (Tibet), India and Bangladesh –, the Barak flows through two countries – India and Bangladesh. We have yet another river international or trans-boundary river in the Assam-Bangladesh region, it being the Meghna, which is formed in the latter country with the joining of the Surma and the Kushiara. The Ganga, which though traverses mostly through northern India, finally joins our Brahmaputra inside Bangladesh to become the Padma. The three rivers – Ganga, Brahmaputra and Meghna – incidentally have a very big global significance, especially with the combined basin of the three rivers covering an area of 1.7 million square kilometres, which is home to more than 630 million people.

The Ganges-Brahmaputra-Meghna (GBM) river basin, as it is globally called, is not only one of the largest and most populated river basins of the world, but flowing from the mighty Himalayas to the Bay of Bengal is considered to be a single trans-boundary river basin whose rivers join just a few hundred kilometres upstream of the mouth of the Bay of Bengal. Shared by as many as five nations – Bangladesh, Bhutan, China, India and Nepal, the GBM basin is indeed truly transnational. It is also the third largest fresh-water outlet to the world’s oceans, with over 1,000 cubic km of water being discharged into the Bay of Bengal, its common outlet, every year.

Given the above backdrop, our planners and strategy-makers, whether in Dispur or Delhi, need to take a broader outlook to resolve or tackle our perennial flood problem. Moreover, it is also important to create people-to-people platforms, both at the regional and trans-boundary levels, so that the civil societies too have a say. After all, while the Brahmaputra belongs to us, we too belong to this great river.