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Torrent of sorrow

Print edition : Oct 19, 2007 T+T-

Assam is reeling under three waves of floods a problem that needs to be tackled with long-term measures.

in GuwahatiAn aerial view

ASSAM has been battling devastating floods since May. Three waves of floods, caused by the rivers Brahmaputra and Barak and their tributaries, have affected life in 26 of its 27 districts. Loss of life and the extent of damage to property and infrastructure have been the highest in the third wave that arrived on September 5. Lakhs of families of farmers and agricultural workers have been pushed into penury.

The floods have claimed over 100 lives and rendered nearly four lakh people homeless. They live under tarpaulin sheets in relief camps and makeshift shelters on embankments without proper food and water.

About 1,200 roads have broken up and 600 timber bridges have been either washed away or damaged. With the National Highway 52 ruptured at several places, the flood-prone Dhemaji district remained cut off throughout the three waves.

The situation has once again highlighted the need to find permanent solutions to the problems of flooding and erosion in place of ad hoc measures. The State Agriculture Department has estimated the crop damage during the first and second waves to be over Rs.700 crore.

The State has a flood-prone area of 31.60 lakh hectares (1 ha = 2.47 acres), 90 per cent of which is agricultural and urban land. The average annual loss from floods and erosion is estimated at Rs.200 crore. The Brahmaputra has 41 major tributaries, 26 on the north bank and 15 on the south bank, and the Barak has 20 tributaries, 11 of them in India and 15 in both India and Bangladesh. An official report of the State Water Resource Department states 3,88,476 ha of land was lost to erosion between 1954 and 2002, at an annual rate of 8,000 ha.

This has meant the displacement of 90,700 families living in 2,534 villages. A large number of these displaced families live in sub-human conditions in makeshift houses on dykes and river banks. In some places, people have had to move frequently because the embankments on which they lived caved in. This and the loss of crop land has forced people to migrate to Guwahati and other urban centres in search of livelihood.

Over 10 lakh landless farm labourers are living in penury as there has been no agricultural activities for months, says Khemraj Chetri, secretary, Assam State Kisan Sabha, which is affiliated to the All India Kisan Sabha. A.K. Mitra, former Secretary, Water Resources Department, attributes the floods to the physiographic condition of the valley, the geology and geomorphology, excessive rainfall, drainage congestion, seismicity, landslides and encroachments on riverine areas. The State receives excessive rainfall in the monsoon months from May to October. While mean annual rainfall over the catchment areas in India is around 2,300 mm, it varies between 2,480 mm in the Brahmaputra Valley to 6,350 mm in the north-eastern hills.

The Brahmaputra Valley is also subjected to frequent tectonic activities, which causes geomorphological changes and landslides. Excessive sediment discharge causes rivers to change course frequently and their carrying capacity is reduced; this makes the river either spill or breach its banks.

After 1950, the State government started building embankments as one of the short-term measures for flood control on an area of 16.49 lakh ha. However, most of them have deteriorated for want of maintenance. An embankment usually lasts for about 25 years, but those in the State are more than 40 years old. Unless they are strengthened and modernised, they will not serve their purpose.

After the formulation of the National Flood Policy in 1954, the State constructed embankments over a stretch of 4,463.15 kilometres and drainage for a length of 854.19 km, besides 694 anti-erosion/protection works and 86 sluices. Most of the embankments were constructed near river banks to protect as much areas as possible.

This year the big rivers and tributaries breached the embankments at 147 places causing damage to communication networks, human dwellings and crops. Erosion has reached a critical stage in Assams cultural capital Majuli, threatening the very existence of the river-island. At Khorkhori, river bank erosion poses a serious threat to the Kamalbari-Bongaon road and two satras (Vaishnavite monasteries). A breach in the Matmora embankment in Lakhimpur district in northern Assam during the third wave of floods submerged 150 villages in Majuli and displaced over 1.35 lakh islanders.

Assam Governor Lt. Gen. (retd.) Ajai Singh has written to the Prime Minister urging him to take a serious view of the situation in the river island. He pointed out that the steps taken by the Brahmaputra Board for protection of a heritage site of great significance and of national importance are inadequate and very temporary in nature.

During a stock-taking visit to Majuli, the Governor advised the Brahmaputra Board, set up in 1981, to seek technical expertise from reputed international firms to save Majuli. Thousands of people, the majority of them belonging to the Mishing tribe, have been living in congested shelters on embankments here for years. These families have been displaced several times and have had to contend with serious livelihood issues with the river eating away their cropland.

Prior to 1950, the total area of the island was 1,256 sq. km. In 1970, it was 770 sq. km and in 1990 to 514 sq. km. Surveys point to a rate of erosion of 7.4 sq. km a year. Unofficial sources claim that the landmass in the core area of the river island is less than 400 sq km.

Of the 64 satras on the river island, only 22 still remain. The Government of India has nominated Majuli for recognition as a heritage site by the United Nations Educational, Scientific, Cultural Organisation (UNESCO), but islanders fear that without quick measures the river-island may become extinct soon.

Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi has announced a Rs. 100 crore package for the development of the river-island. However, he told the displaced people of the island that there was dearth of government land in the neighbouring districts of Jorhat, Sivasagar and Golaghat and advised them to settle on the Chars and Chaporis (sandbars in the heart of the Brahmaputra).

On a visit to the State in November 2004 after a devastating flood that year, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh announced the establishment of the North East Water Resources Authority (NEWRA). In 2005, he reiterated the need to create it. But Arunachal Pradesh has expressed reservation about the formation of this body.

The creation of NEWRA was recommended by the Task Force on Flood Management and Erosion Control, which was set up to examine the causes of recurring floods and erosion in Assam and the neighbouring northeastern States as well as Bihar, West Bengal and eastern Uttar Pradesh. The task force was to suggest short-term and long-term measures for flood management and erosion control.

The Brahmaputra Board has carried out survey and investigation and prepared 36 master plans for flood and erosion management of Brahmaputra and Barak rivers and some of their tributaries through short- to long-term measures, such as flood forecasting and warning, floodplain zoning, flood proofing, and watershed management. It has prepared detailed project reports for five multipurpose projects and 11 drainage development schemes. The Board updated the Master Plan data in 1996. The Boards plans, however, remained only on paper.

It was recognised at the third sectoral summit of the North Eastern Council (NEC) held in Guwahati from March 9 to 11 that absolute flood control and protection was not feasible and that flood management measures were aimed only at providing a reasonable degree of protection from flood losses. A combination of structural and non-structural measures in a phased manner would be most suitable for flood management, it felt. The summit concluded that the Brahmaputra Board should play a more active role in taking up flood-control schemes in the northeastern States.

The Assam government is now focussing on a Rs.1,600 crore mid-term flood mitigation project the North Eastern Integrated Flood and River Bank Erosion Management project, which is to be funded by the Asian Development Bank (ADB) with the Ministry of Development of North Eastern Region (DoNER) as the nodal agency. The ADB has already sanctioned the Project Preparation Technical Assistance (PPTA) for the part relating to Assam.

Experts, however, said that solutions to flooding and erosion would remain elusive without a time-bound action plan backed by strong political will and adequate finances. The plan, they said, should concentrate on long-term measures, which have to be planned and implemented by an umbrella body for the entire northeastern region.

The long-term measures may include the creation of a reservoir in the upper reaches, the implementation of multipurpose projects to ensure flood-moderation benefits and to tame the river. Until and unless long-term measures are adopted, crores of rupees will continue to be sunk in the Brahmaputra.