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Musings on the power of water

Sentinel Digital DeskBy : Sentinel Digital Desk

  |  19 Jun 2016 12:00 AM GMT

WITH EYES WIDE OPEN

D. N. Bezboruah

Water has been so crucial for human survival that our ancestors learnt centuries ago how important it was to locate important and thriving human habitations on river banks. And that is how civilizations grew and developed next to rivers, lakes and seashores. If cities could be located beside both rivers and seashores, things were even better for development. There was the bonus of a harbour for marine transportation in addition to a source of water for survival of living beings and for industry. I can think of scores of cities all over the world located near both a river and a sea that have developed very well.

The realization that life is not sustaible without water must have dawned on human beings ever since there was life on the planet. The realization that there can be no agriculture or industrial activity (however primitive) without water must have also dawned on human beings thousands of years ago. At the same time, there was the fear of the destructive power of water either in the form of floods and tsumis or in the ability of rivers to erode banks and gobble up land. One of the unforgettable examples of what an angry river could do was seen immediately after the earthquake of 1950 when the Brahmaputra gobbled up about half of the old town of Dibrugarh. For as long as we can remember, Huang He (yellow river) was regarded as Chi’s river of sorrow for its destructive potential. Huang He, which is 5,464 km long, is the third longest river in Asia following the Yangtze and the Yenisei rivers, and is the sixth longest in the world. Even so, the discharge rate of the Huang He is just 2,571 m³ per second, whereas the discharge rate of the Brahmaputra river (2,900 km long) is 19,300 m³ per second—equal to seven-and-a-half times the discharge rate of the Huang He. This should give us a very clear idea of the destructive potential of the Brahmaputra when compared even to rivers that are almost twice as long. And yet, the people of Assam have never referred to their beloved Luit as a river of sorrow regardless of the havoc it creates every year during the monsoon months. During the days of floods that the river creates every year, there are saddening reports every day of the number of lives lost, the number of homesteads demolished and the number of families that have had to take refuge on highways and embankments. And yet there are no references to the destructive power of the Brahmaputra in our songs and poems.

It is not as though successive State governments have given no thought to the need for controlling our own river of sorrow. A few decades ago, the State government had toyed with the idea of dredging the mighty Brahmaputra. If I remember correctly, a couple of dredgers had been procured on rent and a small insignificant part of the river was dredged. However, the plan to dredge the river was soon given up and no one talked about any altertive plans to control the might of the river and its potential for unleashing terrible floods during every rainy season. As such, it is heartening to read about the plan mooted by the newly elected State government of Assam to tame the mighty Brahmaputra. Sarbanda Sonowal’s government has decided to constitute an expert committee that will be sent to Chi to study the Yellow River (Huang He) magement strategies to replicate them in Assam for taming the river Brahmaputra and to use such strategies as deterrents for flood and erosion. Chairing a high-level review meeting of the Water Resource Department a few days ago, Chief Minister Sarbanda Sonowal said, “If the Yellow River, which was once considered ‘the sorrow of Chi’ can be tamed, the Brahmaputra, which is the lifeline of the people of Assam, can also be used productively to serve the riparian rights of the people of the State.” He added that the ‘knowledge-driven’ study in association with the World Bank would also prepare a roadmap for taming the Brahmaputra and its tributaries to control flooding and erosion. This study is expected to encompass basin characteristics, river engineering, hydrology, channel morphology and floodplain evolution in producing its report. The chief Minister emphasised the need of a well-coordited document for the rivers of Assam and directed the Water Resource Department to do the needful for preparing a river atlas. The department was asked to use the expertise of the North Eastern Space Applications Centre for preparing the river atlas. Considering the importance of the rivers of Assam for its people, culture and economy, Chief Minister Sonowal underscored the need of transforming the Assam Water Resources Magement Institute into an institute of excellence which would be capable of undertaking extensive studies of rivers for their most gainful utilization. Since the plan to tame the Brahmaputra is likely to have the support of the World Bank, it is possible that the initiative would be carried on and not abandoned midway like the earlier attempt at dredging the river.

There are two important facts of life that must not be lost sight of while initiating measures to tame the Brahmaputra. One is that as I said earlier, the discharge rate of the Brahmaputra is about 7.5 times the discharge rate of the Huang He. The other is a more optimistic fact of life. It is that the Huang He also had a much higher discharge rate when it was Chi’s ‘River of Sorrow’. Now that it has been tamed considerably, it has ceased to be the River of Sorrow. If we succeed in taming the Brahmaputra also, its discharge rate too might come down drastically so that it no longer remains our River of Sorrow. No expense for the taming process should be deemed as too high if we always keep in mind the extent of damage that the flooded Brahmaputra and its tributaries cause every year—in hundreds of crores of rupees. But if we have to think in terms of the cuts that contractors and corruption will take away, the government will probably regard this as an impossibly expensive project that no government could afford to embark on. A project that would have the effect of saving hundreds of lives every year, a project that will save property worth crores of rupees every time the floods strike, should have all the investment that it needs, and contractors and middlemen should be enthused to regard this project as the greatest bit of altruism that they will have the honour and opportunity to undertake. We are not aware whether greedy contractors and corrupt middlemen are already beyond the pale of such altruistic human considerations, but one must never give up trying. At the same time, it will not do to forget that the fil cost estimate of taming the Brahmaputra could turn out to be an astronomical sum.

What is astonishing, to say the least, is that we should be so disinclined to make the most of the Brahmaputra’s bounty when we have it flowing right along our towns and cities. Why should Guwahati have more defunct water purification plants and supply systems than active ones? Why should the inhabitants of the city suffer any shortage of potable water with such a huge river at our doorstep. One reason could be lack of efficient planning and execution for efficient water supply systems including water purification plants. The other could be a myopic disinclition to invest available assets on creating an efficient water supply system for the city so that suppliers of water with small tanks at Rs 250 or Rs 300 for 750 litres can thrive. Such motivations spare no thoughts for the woes of water-starved households or for housewives who have to spend hours to collect two bucketfuls of water every day from a public outlet. Such motivations thrive only where planners are incapable of thinking big or anticipating huge increases in the population of ordiry citizens who cannot afford the ‘luxury’ of running water when it is really no luxury at all. Among such poor planners are those who can create monstrosities like the huge steel overbridge in front of the Sukreswar temple that no one uses. But this is the kind of redundant construction that makes contractors very happy for what they earn at one shot. What saddens me every time I think of Guwahati is what our planners, engineers and contractors have turned the city into. Guwahati had every potential to be one of the most beautiful cities of India with one of the prettiest river fronts. But just look at what a bunch of clumsy and incompetent planners and builders have turned the city into. If there were any awards going for destructive planning and building, these planners and builders would have won hands down.

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