Dealing with the Assam Deluge: Now or Never

Source: Diganta Talukdar

With over 26 lakh affected across 1716 villages and over 90 dead as in early August, 2019, this year’s floods in Assam have been devastating. At least 70 percent of the Kaziranga National Park was submerged due to massive floods in July and the one-horned rhinos, along with other wild animals across the state, had to face the brunt of swelling waters. 

Assam’s annual tryst with floods has led the state into misery and sustained economic backwardness. To give a perspective, the flood-prone area in the state nearly doubled to 49.16 million hectares between 1950 and 2018. 

Now one may ask, why exactly is this state prone to such extreme floods? According to the Brahmaputra Board, rainfall of over 70mm per hour is not uncommon and occasions with over 500mm of rainfall/day have been often recorded in the state. The Brahmaputra, which flows through a narrow valley of 6-10 kms width, has forest covers on both sides with steep slopes which further forces the river to gush down the plains. Furthermore, the problem of bank erosion has increased the width of the Brahmaputra River up to 15 km at the cost of 8000 hectares of land. 

However, this persisting phenomenon (accompanied by frequent earthquakes and resultant landslides), leading to mass destruction and evacuation, has not remained natural anymore; there are several man-made factors causing this annual deluge and worsening the flood situation every year. 

Due to the rapidly increasing population density of the Brahmaputra valley (from 9-29 people per sq. km in 1940-41 to over 200 people per sq km now) the state suffers heavy encroachment problems. Drainage congestion due to rapid urbanisation including the construction of railway bridges, roads and culverts has restricted the natural flow of waters, forcing it to back flow and break embankments in vulnerable areas. Brahmaputra’s catchment areas are experiencing huge population growth, which poses additional problems while controlling the flow of the river during floods. Accompanying attempts of deforestation significantly add to the environmental problems currently faced by Assam.

Assam is also known as the ‘sleeping agricultural giant’ in Eastern India. It has largely been dependent on agriculture which contributes to about 2/5ths of its Net State Domestic Product (NSDP) and supports over 70% of its population. Furthermore, with all the other North Eastern Region (NER) states having hilly and mountainous terrains and therefore only shifting cultivation, only Assam has the potential to host sustainable agriculture with almost 80% of its geographical area as plan area. 

However, supply of agricultural land is fixed, and demand for agricultural commodities has been on the rise. Hence, achieving agricultural productivity has been possible only with intensive agricultural activities and crop specialisation, but at the cost of soil degradation, increased land salinity, waterlogging and loss of life and stock. 

Assam experiences a subtropical climate and the severity of its annual floods and frequent droughts has risen with the changing climatic conditions. Projections of the State Action Plan for Climate Change (SAPCC) estimate that the annual mean temperature in the state has increased by 0.59 degrees C over the last 60 years (1951 to 2010) and is likely to increase by 1.7-2.2 degree C by 2050. 

Climate projections in the SAPCC also predict that extreme rainfall events will increase by 38%. Climate change is endangering the abundant tea plantations that are synonymous with Assam, as several modelling results have pointed towards decreasing tea yields in the region.

In such a situation, the poor are more vulnerable to extreme climate events and the drastic changes projected in climatic conditions are particularly worrisome for Assam as almost 32% of its population lives below the poverty line. 

Climate change not only causes apparent economic loss, but also affects the health and wellbeing of the population. The NDA-led government is often quoted to have overlooked the social wellbeing of the residents of the state, further weakening the region’s human resource base. Though the SAPCC has included agricultural sustainability and impact of climate change on human health, there needs to be a more robust, holistic and transformative approach with wider socio-economic implications. 

Both mapping of climate change trends and economic forecasting will help in planning and implementing measures of adaptation and mitigation, helping Assam to cope with climate change. Effectivity of early warning systems can be enhanced with Artificial Intelligence and related technology, which must be institutionalised based on scientific approach. 

Until now, the only major attempt of the State government to tackle Assam’s floods was by building embankments on the Brahmaputra as an interim and ad hoc measure for short-term mitigation. Till date, close to 5,000 km of embankments have been built at various points along the Brahmaputra and its tributaries. This has restricted the flow of the river during peak monsoon and increased pressure on the embankments in vulnerable areas, leading to breaches at several places. It is time for the government and related agencies to review the existing policy of building embankments without considering natural outlets for excess water to flow. 

Non-implementation of key projects, procrastination in decision making, and rising corruption in the cabinet have affected concrete policy making and implementation in the state. Very less resources have been invested in addressing the problem of perennial flooding in Assam. During the 10th Five-year plan, only Rs 22 crores had been allocated for 10 flood management programs i.e. an average of just Rs 2.2 crores were allotted to each program. This is for a state which has lost 4.2 lakh hectares of land to erosion and continues to suffer damages of over Rs 160 crore each year on account of floods. 

Although international funding and financial investments from the centre have increased, the need for long term solutions persists. The special course of the river, its widely varying size at different places and the high rate of siltation increases the possibility of floods. It is for this reason that afforestation and growth of vegetation are recommended solutions to tackle excessive sedimentation. 

Sustainable solutions need a “basin-wide approach” as addressing these issues locally and only when floods occur isn’t effective. Efficient ‘flood-plan’ zoning depending on the vulnerability of the area will certainly help control the damage caused by floods. The government must also devise and undertake specific measures in terms of policy and project implementation targeting infrastructure development, weather forecasting, evacuation drives and relief campaigns, and financial stability and security of the impoverished. These are crucial for minimising damages and restoring life to normalcy at the earliest; in their absence, an agrarian state like Assam which suffers extreme climatic conditions will suffer from falling agricultural outputs and resultant decline in growth and economic backwardness.

Utsav Shah

The views and opinions expressed in the article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of The Tilak Chronicle and TTC Media Pvt Ltd.

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