Assam floods: Who will pull the brakes on this cycle of devastation?
Assam, with its vast network of rivers, is prone to natural disasters like floods and erosion, which have negatively impacted the state’s development for decades. In any other developed or developing economy, such abundant water resources in a state would have been considered a boon and would have resulted in the generation of enormous revenues for the government. But it is quite the opposite in Assam. Its bounteous rivers and other natural resources are today a bane for the state. Who is to be blamed?
Let’s consider this. The state’s water resources ministry has claimed on its online platforms that with more than 50 tributaries feeding them, the Brahmaputra and Barak Rivers cause devastation every monsoon. But it is ironic that in the same vein, the ministry’s website also mentions that no long-term measures have been implemented to mitigate the state’s flood and erosion problems. The website reads: “Till date, only immediate and short-term measures are implemented by the state Water Resources Department.”
“My conscience suggests that neither the government nor the flood victims have learnt anything from previous devastations,” says Abhideep Choudhury, President, Journalist Association For Assam (JAFA). “What is heart-wrenching to me is watching the same suffering of the same people year after year, and it doesn’t cease. We have to write the same stories of death, loss and destruction year after year, but no one seems to care.”
According to the 12th report of the Standing Committee on Water Resources, of the state’s total area of over 78.44 lakh hectares, the Rashtriya Barh Ayog (National Commission on Floods) identified 31.05 lakh hectares as flood-prone. It comprises 10.2 per cent of the total flood-prone area of the country. During major floods, the area affected can be almost 50 per cent of Assam. At least 2,000 villages are exposed to extensive inundation every year. Since 1954, the total area eroded is 4,27,000 hectares, and the erosion rate has been 8,000 hectares yearly. The Brahmaputra River area has almost doubled in the last century.
On August 5, 2021, the Committee presented the report to both Houses of Parliament on flood management in the country. During its interaction, Committee members were told, “Long-term solution to the flood problem lies in the creation of storage reservoirs on rivers and their tributaries with dedicated and specific flood cushion by reducing the flood peaks and levels, integrated reservoir operation, interlinking of rivers etc. Short-term solutions in the form of embankments, anti-erosion measures, etc. to manage floods and erosion problems are necessary to safeguard the flood-prone areas, properties and population”.
According to Asish Gupta, who has been covering the North-East for close to three decades, “Assam currently has about 4,500 km of dams, which are said to be either weak or dangerous. A number of these get damaged every year and need repair. And people keep bearing the pain of subsequent disasters.”
Numerous news reports published on the Assam flood situation constantly discuss how the embankments reconstructed after getting damaged in the previous floods were breached repeatedly. Companies that the government awards contracts to rebuild embankments profit from such repeated breaches.
Most of the embankments, constructed on the main stem of the Brahmaputra and its tributaries, date back to the 1960s and 70s. The Standing Committee report states, “These embankments need raising & strengthening as well as bank protection measures in the form of a revetment or Reinforced Cement Concrete (RCC) porcupines requiring huge capital investment.”
“Lack of cooperation among States in respect of inter-state projects, lack of budgetary support by State Governments for maintenance of flood management measures, difficulty in implementation of flood plain zoning and regulations are some of the problems faced in checking the recurring floods in Assam and North East (NE),” adds the report.
“People of Assam have received nothing but assurances by the political leadership for decades. Subsequent governments at the centre and the state must be blamed for the perennial disaster,” asserts Gupta. The Congress-led UPA government faced tough questions from the opposition while in power. But when they were voted out, in a role reversal – during the Budget Session of Parliament in 2019 – Congress MPs stood up and demanded that the flood problem in Assam be declared a national calamity.
Despite former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh representing Assam in Rajya Sabha during his 10-year tenure, Congress ignored similar demands. “I remember once Dr Singh mentioning that the floods in Assam are ‘like’ a national calamity,” reminisces Gupta.
The Standing Committee, in its report, expressed “deep anguish over the damage of property worth crores of rupees and loss of lives every year by the devastating floods in Assam and North Eastern region. It renders a large population homeless, besides destruction to standing crops in several hectares of agricultural land, causing a massive setback to the economy of Assam.
“I have seen victims disassemble and shift their own houses. How painful that must be. Experts from countries like The Netherlands should be brought in. A scientific and permanent solution to the problem is the need of the hour,” says Choudury.
According to the Department of Water Resources, River Development and Ganga Rejuvenation, some of the dams located upstream of Assam in neighbouring states for hydroelectric power generation release water on account of heavy inflows in rivers due to high precipitation in the upper catchment of their rivers which results in some damages in downstream areas in Assam.
Besides, China is planning to build a massive dam on the river Brahmaputra, which they call the Yarlung Tsangpo. The proposed “world’s largest dam” has raised concerns in downstream countries like India and Bangladesh. This mighty river is one of the longest in the world; coming down from the Himalayas in Tibet, it enters India in Arunachal Pradesh, then passes through Assam, Bangladesh, before entering the Bay of Bengal. China says that this hydroelectric project is part of its initiatives at renewable energy generation. They claim that it will pave the way for development in the Tibet Autonomous Region.
However, such a huge dam could hold back massive amounts of silt carried downstream, which helps in farming. The construction is also alarming since it may reduce water ﬂow downstream in the dry season. The release of water during the monsoons could be disastrous for an already suffering Assam. This massive structure in the Himalayan region, which is vulnerable to earthquakes, may also threaten people living downstream. However, China has dismissed all fears, as expected.
Assam’s flood and erosion problems are singularly different from other states regarding the extent and duration of flooding and the magnitude of erosion, and it is probably one of the most acute and unique problems facing our country. But does the government have the intent to look for unique solutions? With the water resources ministry itself admitting that long-term measures have not been implemented so far, the question is, who will pull the brakes on this cycle of devastation?
Jayanta Bhattacharya is a journalist with over three decades of experience with many national and international media organisations. He writes on politics, conflict and agriculture. He has extensively covered Afghanistan and many Southeast Asian countries.
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