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Tears of Assam

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Assam is crying! Assam has been historically flood-prone, but a combination of natural and man-made factors have made the situation direr after independence. The infamous 1950 earthquake set the stage for worse floods in the decades ahead by making the Brahmaputra river more unstable and leading to greater soil erosion on its path. The quake changed the region’s topography and made the Brahmaputra valley more susceptible to deluge thereafter. As much as 40 per cent of the state’s land is prone to damage by floods, with Brahmaputra valley accounting for nearly one-tenth of India’s total flood-prone area. Over the years, successive state governments have built hundreds of embankments on rivers, but many of these structures have weakened considerably. Ironically, for a state that sees so much flooding, Assam has also seen periods of drought in recent years. Some environmentalists link these unpredictable patterns to climate change.

In the month of May the river Brahmaputra swelled up and has been in spate ever since. More than 35 lakh people in 26 districts of the state have been affected. Nearly 90 per cent of the Kaziranga National Park is reportedly submerged. Floods are a recurrent feature during the monsoons in Assam. In fact, ecologists point out that flood waters have historically rejuvenated croplands and fertilised soil in the state’s alluvial areas. But it’s also a fact that for more than 60 years, the Centre and state governments have not found ways to contain the toll taken by the raging waters. The state has primarily relied on embankments to control floods. This flood control measure was introduced in Assam in the early 1950s when the hydrology of most Indian rivers, including the Brahmaputra, was poorly understood.

There is, today, a substantial amount of scholarly work that has highlighted the problems of using large walls to check the Brahmaputra’s flow. The river changes course frequently and it’s virtually impossible to contain it within embankments. Moreover, the pressure of the surging water takes a toll on these walls and they need constant reinforcement — by all accounts, that hasn’t happened in Assam. Several of the state’s embankments were reportedly breached by the floods this year. Large parts of Assam are under water. Entire Assam has led to severe encroachments in the wetlands, low lying areas, hills and shrinkage of forest cover. The denuded hills and loss of wetlands lead to artificial floods. In fact, authorities in all the states that share the Brahmaputra basin need to urgently put their heads together to resolve the perennial problem of floods in Assam.

The Assam State Disaster Management Authority said that over 14.95 lakh people were affected in 2,197 villages in 21 districts of the state. The six deaths were recorded from Dhubri, Nagaon, Barpeta and Nalbari. Besides this, a 50-year-old from Cachar district died as a result of a landslide. The cause of death was “electrocution due to uprooted tree falling on power line as a result of landslide”, the State Disaster Management Authority said. Crops in over 87,000 hectares have been affected due to inundation. The Brahmaputra River was flowing above danger level at Nimatighat in Jorhat, Tezpur, Guwahati, Goalpara and Dhubri. Lots of schools were also submerged and  Severe damage to infrastructure and roads was reported from several districts. 

In Kaziranga National Park and Tiger Reserve, a swamp deer and one wild boar drowned in the floodwaters. A total of 107 of the 223 camps used by forest personnel in the park area had recorded 49% inundation and six of them had to be vacated . As many as seven hog deer died after being hit by vehicles while trying to cross the national highway. Flooding was also reported at the Rajiv Gandhi Orang National Park. As per a release by the Central Water Commission on Wednesday, the reduction in rainfall has led to a decline in the level of most rivers. Some of them, however, continue to be in the “severe flood” state.

“River Brahmaputra has started falling in all the districts in Assam,” a release from the Central Water Commission stated. “Since rainfall is likely to continue with lesser intensity during the next four to five days, the ‘Above Normal’ to ‘Severe Flood’ situation is likely to continue with slow falling trend in the states of Arunachal Pradesh, Assam and Sub- Himalayan West Bengal during the next three to four days.” Assam with its vast network of rivers is prone to natural disasters like flood and erosion which has a negative impact on overall development of the state.

The Brahmaputra and Barak River with more than 50 numbers of tributaries feeding them, causes the flood devastation in the monsoon period each year. The flood and erosion problem of Assam is singularly different from other states so far as extent and duration of flooding and magnitude of erosion is concerned and is probably the most acute and unique in the country. Various Records show that average annual area affected by flood is 9.31 Lakh Hectares. The flood prone area of the country as a whole stands at about 10.2 % of the total area of the country, but flood prone area of Assam is 39.58 % of the area of the state. It signifies that the flood prone area of Assam is four times the national mark of the flood prone area of the country.

As much as 40 per cent of the state’s land is prone to damage by floods, with Brahmaputra valley accounting for nearly one-tenth of India’s total flood-prone area. Authorities have used dredgers to deepen the Brahmaputra, but environmentalists say that such engineering solutions should follow a careful environmental assessment. At least 28 of Assam’s 33 districts have been declared as flood-affected and more than 45 lakh people impacted by the rising waters of the Brahmaputra and other rivers that flow through the state. To put this in perspective, Assam is home to a little over 3 crore people – so nearly one in every six persons has been affected by the floods.

It is particularly disheartening that the death and destruction caused by the floods are entirely predictable because they are an annual affair once the monsoon rains swell the rivers. But the floods of 2020 are also a warning that combating them during an existing crisis like the COVID-19 pandemic can put enormous pressure on the state’s mitigation capacities. While the Covid-19 crisis has been accepted as a pandemic worldwide as also in the nation, the annual miseries compounded by the other two calamities are limited to the state. 

Keeping aside the previous years, even in the current year, while the pandemic has affected the lives of thousands, the annual floods have already marooned many areas without succor. Leave aside the rest of the state, the flood havoc caused in the Kaziranga National Park, home to two-thirds of the world’s one-horned rhino population and different species of birds and animals, and the gradually decreasing landmass of the world’s largest riverine island Majuli (that has reportedly been reduced to less than half of its actual size) due to erosion, has failed to acquire the sympathy of the Centre.

It is the reality of Assam that  millions being affected every year, neither flood nor erosion is called ‘National Calamity.’

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