Follow us on

|

PHOTO ESSAY

Assam floods: When the river runs high

Print edition : Aug 04, 2022 T+T-

Assam floods: When the river runs high

Lunch on the boat on College Road, Silchar, on June 30. Through the last week of June, this boy and his father transported people across the flooded streets of Silchar town.

Lunch on the boat on College Road, Silchar, on June 30. Through the last week of June, this boy and his father transported people across the flooded streets of Silchar town. | Photo Credit: RITU RAJ KONWAR

After 2004, this year was the worst by all accounts.

The story of the yearly floods in Assam is also the story of its crumbling embankments and missing storage infrastructure. This year the monsoon flooding, which came in two phases (April-May and June-July), has been particularly severe in at least 13 of the 35 districts in the State. The swollen Brahmaputra and Barak rivers and their tributaries have left a trail of destruction: landslides, breached embankments, hundreds of damaged bridges, and several thousand houses fully or partially destroyed. Nearly 200 people, including 55 children and 10 women, have died so far and many are reported missing.

A couple use a tyre to retrieve some clothes from their marooned house in Silchar town on June 30.
A couple use a tyre to retrieve some clothes from their marooned house in Silchar town on June 30. | Photo Credit: RITU RAJ KONWAR

Data put out by the Assam State Disaster Management Authority (ASDMA) show that the floods have affected more than 89 lakh people—which is nearly a third of the State’s population—and destroyed 2,35,845 hectares of crop area in 9,603 villages under 151 revenue circles in 35 districts.

A damaged embankment on the banks of the Barak in the Bethukandi area of Silchar town. Data tabled in the Assam Assembly show that as many as 295 embankments have outlived their lives, as a result of which about 90 per cent of the total embankment length is prone to breaches.
A damaged embankment on the banks of the Barak in the Bethukandi area of Silchar town. Data tabled in the Assam Assembly show that as many as 295 embankments have outlived their lives, as a result of which about 90 per cent of the total embankment length is prone to breaches. | Photo Credit: RITU RAJ KONWAR

This scale of devastation is new even to Assam. Nearly seven lakh people have sought shelter in more than 3,750 relief camps and are dependent on the 5,460 relief distribution centres that have come up since July 1. In some of the worst affected districts—Cachar, Dima Hasao, Barpeta, Bajali, Nagaon, Morigaon, Nalbari, Kamrup, Kokrajhar, Udalguri, Dhubri, Karimganj, and Darang—nearly one lakh people had to be evacuated, some by helicopter.

Families at a relief camp near the railway tracks in Silchar town on June 30.
Families at a relief camp near the railway tracks in Silchar town on June 30. | Photo Credit: RITU RAJ KONWAR

The devastation compares with that of 2004, considered the worst floods Assam has recorded until now. Yet, no lessons appear to have been learnt. Dr Bibhash Sarma, Professor, Civil Engineering Department, Assam Engineering College, told Frontline: “Most embankments were constructed during the 1960s and 1970s. Due to expiry of design life, lack of maintenance, and specifications that do not meet current standards, the embankments are always vulnerable.”

Carefully transporting dry straw  as fodder for cattle in Morigaon district on June 26.
Carefully transporting dry straw as fodder for cattle in Morigaon district on June 26. | Photo Credit: RITU RAJ KONWAR

Sarma also pointed to piping failure as a major cause. He said: “Water seeps through the body of an embankment or below it. When the hydraulic gradient [ratio of water head to seepage length] at the exit point goes above a critical value, soil begins to emerge with the water. As this continues, a pipe-like cavity forms against the flow direction, leading to total failure of embankment. It happens when the water in the river is too high, or when the water level in low-lying areas is high and the water level in the river is low. Piping failure can be avoided with sufficient length of seepage line, so that the exit hydraulic gradient is lower than critical value.”

A woman ferries her dog to safety on a banana raft in Kamrup district on June 20.
A woman ferries her dog to safety on a banana raft in Kamrup district on June 20. | Photo Credit: RITU RAJ KONWAR

The Rashtriya Barh Aayog (National Commission on Floods) identified 31.05 lakh hectares in Assam (39.58 per cent of total area) as flood-prone. In 1954, the Centre announced the National Flood Control Programme to be implemented in three phases. The first phase was to build embankments and drainage channels and collect intensive data. The second phase, from 1956 until 1960, was to strengthen embankments and improve channels. Long-term measures such as construction of storage reservoirs and additional embankments were to be taken up 1961 onwards. The third phase has not started yet!

A truck with supplies struggles to cross a flooded roas in Morigaon district on June 26.
A truck with supplies struggles to cross a flooded roas in Morigaon district on June 26. | Photo Credit: RITU RAJ KONWAR

Since 1954, Assam has got 423 embankments, 1,019 town protection and anti-erosion projects, 101 major sluice gates, 545 minor sluices, and 897.61 km of drainage. According to the Assam Water Resources Department, these structures provide protection to only about 52 per cent of the total area prone to flooding. Data tabled on the floor of the Assam Assembly show that 295 embankments have outlived their lives. As a result, about 90 per cent of the total embankment length is prone to breaches.

The greater one-horned rhinoceros grazing in floodwaters in Pobitora Wildlife Sanctuary in Morigaon district on June 3.
The greater one-horned rhinoceros grazing in floodwaters in Pobitora Wildlife Sanctuary in Morigaon district on June 3. | Photo Credit: RITU RAJ KONWAR

“When the riverbed level rises or embankments lose height due to wear and tear, or an unexpected flood occurs above the considered flood level, embankments can fail,” said Sarma.

According to G.D. Tripathi, CEO of ASDMA, “Truly meaningful and lasting solutions as per the Rashtriya Barh Ayog would be storage structures largely in the foothills of Arunachal, Bhutan in the Brahmaputra Valley, and Mizoram, Tripura, and Meghalaya for the Barak valley. However, hardly any storage structures have come up. Embankments alone cannot be a permanent solution.”

Villagers arrive by boat to join the queue for medicines at the Khandahkhaity Char public health centre in Morigaon district on June 22. 
Villagers arrive by boat to join the queue for medicines at the Khandahkhaity Char public health centre in Morigaon district on June 22.  | Photo Credit: RITU RAJ KONWAR

Images of people wading through waist-deep and neck-deep water, floodwater gushing through embankments and roads, submerged houses, and paddy fields, and people trying to salvage their few belongings are not new to Assam, but every new wave batters the marginalised afresh with heavy losses that paltry rehabilitations do not compensate for.

This year has seen more than 220 breaches in embankments so far, and Assam is bracing for worse. Meanwhile, those who have returned home from relief camps are wondering how to rebuild their lives.