Assam Floods – Why 65 years of status quo?

It is important to note that every year during the monsoons season, the upstream glaciers melt and the northeast region of India is subject to very high rainfall and many areas are prone to cloud bursts and cyclones.

Floodwaters provide important ecological services and is necessary for the riparian ecosystem. (AP Photo)
Floodwaters provide important ecological services and is necessary for the riparian ecosystem. (AP Photo)

By Ms. Krishna Sarma

Each year, Assam suffers a staggering social and economic loss from flood and river bank erosion. Assam and the North-East has always felt that Delhi neglects it or that the latter’s approach is ad-hoc, piecemeal and often superficial. While the Namami Gange Program launched in 2015 had an allocation of Rs 20,000crores, no like funds was ever available for the Brahmaputra. The Centre has also been procrastinating about releasing funds for implementing flood management schemes.

However, it is not enough to lay all blame on the centre -successive state governments wake up only during the floods! There has also been issues of implementation and transparency.

Also Read: Assam flood situation deteriorates, over 4 lakh people affected in 17 districts

Floods are a natural and necessary phenomenon. Floodwaters provide important ecological services and is necessary for the riparian ecosystem. In Assam, together with losing our traditional ability to cope with floods, population explosion and resultant encroachment of the rivers’ paths, the intensity and erratic nature floods have indeed increased over the last decades.

The earthquakes of 1897 and 1950 raised the river-bed, significantly diminishing the carrying capacity manifold. The earliest reported floods in Assam is from 1915. After independence, the intensity of the 1953-54 floods, the Government of India announced the National Policy on Floods. Sadly, the mechanisms adopted for controlling floods without regard to the larger context of geomorphological, hydrological and ecosystem characteristics of the Brahmaputra basin made the floods and resultant erosion worse each year.

The 2900 kms long Brahmaputra is a major international river and therefore what happens in China has an impact on the lower riparian states. The river originates in Chemayundung glacier and flows as Tsangpo in Tibet Autonomous Region of China (1100 kms), as the Siang Arunachal Pradesh (294 kms), the Brahmaputra in Assam (700 kms) and Jamuna, Padma and Meghna in Bangladesh (750 kms).

Also Read: Assam floods: Death toll rises to 36

Flooding is not because of the Brahmaputra alone. The Brahmaputra receives as many as 100 tributaries, 40 large ones in Assam alone creating the most complex river systems in the world. The north-bank tributaries have very steep slopes and shallow braided channels, carry heavy silt and are prone to flash floods and therefore contribute significantly towards causing drainage congestion in the valley.

Further, the Brahmaputra is characterized by an exceedingly large flow, enormous volume of sediment load, continuous changes in channel morphology, rapid bed aggradations and bank line recessions and erosion. The river has a braided channel in most of its course in Assam that creates sandbars (chars) and islands.

It is important to note that every year during the monsoons season, the upstream glaciers melt and the northeast region of India is subject to very high rainfall and many areas are prone to cloud bursts and cyclones. Thus, this increased water level contributes to the intensity of the floods. There has to be a recognition that one cannot bind a river like Brahmaputra with embankments. Despite wide ranging recommendations for flood management over the decades since 1954, and recognizing that embankments were a short-term measure, engineering structures continue to dominate the formal flood management approach.

On assessment of the extant policies, institutional weakness and implementation history, it appears that the failure to address the issue of flood and erosion are: an absence of a comprehensive long-term policy on water management, lack of adequate fund allocation, government deficit and lack of a basin wide approach.

The Red River Series of talks held under the aegis of AssamFloods, an initiative started by a group of likeminded professionals from Assam living in Delhi and the Delhi Alumni Association of Assam, culminated in a Report with 13 key recommendations. This Report was released by the Governor of Assam in Guwahati on January 7, 2018.

Some of the international best practices like giving room to the river to flow and Flood Plain Zoning should have been implemented several decades ago and recommending them as solutions today is impractical given the population density in what is relatively a narrow valley.

The key recommendations are: (1) Develop a 20-year-old comprehensive Brahmaputra Basin Water Management Plan 2038 to address flood management and erosion. This will require reviving the initiative for setting up of a North-East Water Basin Authority, (2) Plan 2038 should be funded by the central government vide a planned outlay and soft loans from external sources. Piecemeal allocations Flood Management Programme (FMP) and so on to be subsumed under it, (3) River Bank Stabilization and River Training Plan for the Brahmaputra River System should be the first recourse that considers the effect of the structure on the hydraulics of the river and the best ways to train the river such that the structure performs satisfactorily and to ensure no significant damage to the riverine environment. Till such time as river training and other sustainable steps are in place under the Plan 2038, the identified extremely vulnerable embankments and vulnerable embankments must be fortified phase wise using geo-tube, geo-mattresses as short -term measures, (4) Refocus on drainage development work alongside embankments which were inexplicably abandoned after 1970, (5) Move away from plans to build large dams on Siang in Arunachal Pradesh and instead look to treatment of catchment areas and evaluate appropriateness of small run-of-the- river small storage reservoirs on the identified tributaries in the north-bank, (6) Dredging for de-siltation in rivers like the Brahmaputra is unviable and in respect flood management, only selective dredging may be undertaken. The construction of an Express Highway on both the banks of river Brahmaputra along the whole length for minimizing the flood and erosion is misleading, (7) Designate IIT Guwahati as a Brahmaputra Knowledge Centre, (8) Commission studies to analyse the hydraulic and morphological alterations and trends based on historical observations, field surveys/observations, satellite images complemented by hydraulic and morphological modelling, (9) Strengthen the Flood Forecasting and Early Warning system with requisite infrastructure, (10) Constitute an Assessment Commission and require use of standard scientific methods and techniques of estimation of impact of flood on different aspects of people’s lives, livelihoods such as economic, agricultural, environmental, social and psychological. Such an assessment is important for the State to get the appropriate financial assistance from the central Government as compensation package and adequately carry out the Relief, Rehabilitation and Resettlement exercise, (11) Plan 2038 must include steps to address soil conservation and enhancing vegetation cover using bio-engineering in the watershed areas of the Brahmaputra and its tributaries which has been hitherto ignored.  Use of the Vetiver System (VS), based on the use of vetiver grass (Vetiveria zizanioides L.) may be adopted for erosion and sediment control, (12) India should lead the effort to establish an informal multilateral dialogue to ease the tensions, develop trust and build confidence involving the entire Brahmaputra basin which includes China, Bhutan, Bangladesh, India and Nepal. This will enable the participants to identify joint research themes, develop understanding about the basin and identify opportunities for cooperation, and (13) Plan 2038 should include innovative scientific, technological and governance strategies to address existing and emerging issues and challenges in the realm of water induced disaster management following principles of Integrated Water Resources Management (IWRM). Inter-departmental coordination will be the key requirement for executing the Plan 2038.

It is fervently hoped that the long gestating Report being prepared by World Bank for DONER and Niti Aayog hopefully addresses all the above and is published soon.

The author is Managing Partner, Corporate Law Group and Convenor AssamFloods.

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