Assam Floods - Annual tragedy washes away chance at normalcy

It’s an annual disaster. The scale varies. The people are accustomed to the annual loss. Yet are there long-term solutions we are not exploring?

“We will soon have to move out of this school which has given us shelter since the floods. It was the only pucca (permanent) structure so we had to come here,” says Geeta Das, 35, whose child studies in Shantipur Lower Primary school in Morigaon District of Assam which gave shelter to 15 families of the Shantipur village, including hers.  “Schools will open next week and we don’t want our children to miss the opportunity of having a better and safer future than ours,” she adds.  

Raised platforms are an immediate need

It has been over a month since the flood waters crept up in the middle of the night and took people unawares in large parts of Assam. The floods that hit Assam late night on 27th June left over a 100 dead and hundreds of thousands homeless. The water levels continue to fluctuate throughout the 3-4 months of Monsoon season and people remain alert to the need of rushing to the raised platforms. 

For almost 6-10 days people were stranded on any raised platform they managed to find; government schools built on higher ground or raised platforms like the ones built by ActionAid India and its partners, even highways and other roads still above water. They returned only to see a crumbled wall or even their entire homes and belongings completely washed away.  

Some were lucky enough to quickly build a raised platform inside their sturdier homes to store food stocks and other important material. Nevertheless, many lost what little food they had to the flood waters and livestock to water-borne diseases. 

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Annual phenomenon  

The Monsoon season in India begins in the first week of June, when it first hits the southern tip of the peninsula and by mid July it usually engulfs the entire sub-continent. Different parts of the country receive varying amounts of rainfall, but the north eastern region of India receives a bulk of this rainfall, thus Cherrapunji until a few years back and more recently Mawsynram (both in Meghalaya) have been known to receive the most rainfall in the world. 

Assam, a close neighbouring state to Meghalaya is cut across horizontally by the largest river on the subcontinent, the Brahmaputra. When the monsoons flush over the north-eastern region, the Brahmaputra swells manifold as do its various tributaries.

Long-term impact on agriculture

The Brahmaputra is a boon for the communities that depend on agriculture in this region, but it is also often dubbed the ‘river of sorrow’ for the massive destruction it is capable of, when in spate; as it was this July.  

The Brahmaputra swells several times each year, the banks see a rise in the water levels each year. But over the years the communities living along the river have witnessed dramatic change in the pattern of the monsoons. 

Opening of flood gates of innumerable dams further upstream without warning and removal of river-bed rocks (that hold the river bed soil down) for increased construction work, have also contributed to the mounting scale of devastation the communities face each year. 

Such frequency and scale of destruction being witnessed has made many weary of depending on agriculture on these flood plains. “People in our village are losing hope and trust on agriculture. They are increasingly shunning agriculture as their main livelihood and demanding industrial training,” says Bhadrakanta Deka, 35, himself a farmer in Aatigaon village, Morigaon District. He is also a member of the agriculture committee organized by ActionAid partner NGO sSTEP. 

Aatigaon, though not new to floods, has not seen this scale of devastation before. While there is migration among the households in this village since before, this year since the floods hit in such scale, the numbers have amplified. “More than half the households in this village have at least one or more members of it out looking for daily wage labour work in Kerala and Karnataka,” shared Bhadrakanta Deka.

Options ahead of us 

The cause for the scale of destruction is manifold. It includes climate change as well as the large numbers of dams and mining of sand and bedrock further upstream, lack of sluice gates near low-lying areas to check ‘back flow’ from the Brahmaputra, faulty/ temporary embankments or non maintenance of embankments in the winter season – the ‘no flood’ time. 

However, there are some steps that can be taken on a larger scale to keep in check the number of people being affected by such floods.  

“ActionAid India and Gram Vikas Mancha (GVM) had started a Disaster Risk Reduction project in 2007 with support from UK Aid. We had built about 50 raised tube wells, 5 raised community toilets and raised platforms/shelters and in Nalbari district” says Prithibhushan Deka of GVM an ActionAid partner NGO. 

“These were accessed by hundreds of families in and around the areas at the time of floods. And still more could benefit from more such facilities,” he adds. 

“Over 75 per cent of the population in Nalbari district is dependent on agriculture, much like in other parts of flood-hit Assam. There is no major industry or alternative livelihood that can provide a steady source of income,” says Seemanta of sSTEP, an NGO partner in Morigaon District. 

“Now with the shrinkage of government jobs and agriculture not faring too well, we must increase focus on protection and promotion of agriculture,” he adds.

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