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Alternative methods to mitigate flood effects

August 11, 2022
topics: Natural disaster
by: Rishabh Jain
located in: India
tags: climate change, floods, India, indigenous people, palmate action

For the people of Assam in northern India, dealing with floods is nothing new. But as floods increase in frequency and strength, it becomes necessary to develop new methods that would minimise their impact on humans and wildlife.

The last few months have wreaked havoc on Rajeshwari Pegu, a middle-aged woman who belongs to a local riverine community in Assam called Mising. She lost her crops, cattle and house to floods that tore through the northern Indian state.

Forced to live on the embankment - the only plot of land not submerged in water - Pegu believes that the government will come to her rescue.

"There was a time when our ancestors used to welcome floods because the floodwater would make the soil nutrient-rich," Pegu told FairPlanet.

"Now, the situation has completely changed. Not only has the frequency of floods increased but they have become more devastating than ever before. I have lost all my agricultural produce and I don’t even know whether I will be able to harvest this year.”

Pegu's circumstances, however, are shared by many in her state. As the monsoon season brought heavy rains in June, people across several cities in Assam were forced to relocate to shelter camps. Close to 700,000 people from 26 districts were affected by the floods. 

According to data provided by the Assam State Disaster Management Authority (ASDMA), 197 people have lost their lives due to the floods or the landslides caused by it.

"About seven lakh people across 1,618 villages remain affected. Out of these, 2.78 lakh people are in 413 relief camps," an ASDMA spokesperson reported.

So far, around 1.38 lakh houses have been totally or partially destroyed, and property damage estimated at a minimum of Rs. 10,000 crores (close to USD $1,260,000) has been registered so far; the number is predicted to rise.

The extent of the damage is not limited to humans, however. According to a report by ASDMA, an estimated 60,000 animals have been washed away and 360,000 are affected by the floods.

"Not only has the frequency of floods increased but they have become more devastating than ever before."

Why Does Assam Flood Every Year?

Floods are not a new phenomenon is Assam. Its low-lying areas typically experience water surges following the southwest monsoon, which is why they are known as "floodplains." 

The particular geography and course of Brahmaputra River play an important role here. By the time the Brahmaputra, which originates in the Himalayas, enters Assam it becomes heavily sedimented by rocks and hilly terrains on its path, and thereby raises the level of water. 

Furthermore, due to the melting of glaciers and intense rains during the monsoon season in the north-eastern part of the country, the river flows above its normal levels, which leads to more substantial floods. 

Another reason for the annual flooding of the area has been the failed policy of building dams and embankments to control water surges. The construction of embankments commenced in Assam roughly six decades ago and thus far cost close to Rs. 30,000 crores (USD $3,779,979), according to experts. However, now most embankments are either in bad condition or have been washed away. 

Floods have also been exacerbated by other human activities, such as deforestation, hill-cutting, encroachments and damage of wetlands. All the while, embankments caused the banks of rivers to further encroach on land, and more people built homes and established themselves in its vicinity.

According to the 2011 census, population density in Brahmaputra Valley has seen a sharp rise from 9-29 people per sq. km. between 1940-41 to 398 people per sq. km in 2011.

The growing population has resulted in more people settling in low-lying areas and in the vicinity of the Brahmaputra River, which lead to an increase in loss of capital and life during floods. 

The Path Ahead

As floods in Assam bring increasing devastation to the area, it has become necessary to develop new policy measures that would mitigate their effects. 

But in addition to policymaking, some traditional methods can also be used at the community level to effectively tackle floods.

The Mising community has been traditionally building houses that stand on bamboo poles and are raised about ten feet off the ground. Such houses are also known as Chang Ghar in the local language. 

Most families raise their cattle, chicken and pigs between the stilts underneath the house and can check on the animals through tiny slits in the bamboo floors.

Partha J. Das, who heads the Water, Climate & Hazard Division of the Guwahati-based Aaranyak organisation, believes that in order to reduce the loss of life and property in during floods it is necessary is to set up modern weather stations in the upstream catchments of all dams and install sirens on river banks near dams.

He said such a step would ensure that in the event of floods or heavy rain an early warning would be given to people living downstream so that they have sufficient time to evacuate. 

He further added that the government should take immediate steps to strengthen all the embankments across the Brahmaputra and other rovers. 

"Embankments, if they are working, they are fine. However, if they are breached, they actually really contribute to more loss and damage than protecting people in case of floods," Das told FairPlanet.

In late June, heavy flooding in the city of Silchar was caused by an embankment breach; five people have been arrested by the police in connection to the case. The police alleged that the arrested people were running a land mafia racket that is responsible for the Bethukandi dyke breach that caused the inundation of almost the entire town.

In another report submitted by the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Water Resources, a recommendation was made in favour of increasing the water holding capacity of the Brahmaputra and its tributaries by the process of dredging. 

The panel also recommended planting new trees and revitalising wetlands as flood mitigation strategies.

However, apart from these measures, many point out that it is necessary to investigate long-term strategies and increase invest in research so that scientifically-proven solutions could be derived to mitigate the effects of floods. 

A research paper on flood management in Assam also proposed methods like the development of construction materials and home designs that can endure annual flooding, and highlighted that researchers and professionals from local universities should be involved in the process

Dr. Mirza Zulfiqur Rahman, an Independent Researcher based in Guwahati, Assam, believes that involving local populations in the flood governance processes is equally as important. He said that despite the communities having extensive local expertise regarding flood adaptation and governance, they are nevertheless currently excluded from the discussion. 

He further added that in terms of environmental governance, localised, small-scale solutions are significantly more effective than global, top-down ones.

"To put it simply, there are more than just technological engineering solutions involved in flood management," Dr Mirza told FairPlanet.

"The environment as a whole must be taken into consideration, and regional democratic governance and resource management systems must be strengthened."

Image by Jubin Deka

Article written by:
Screenshot_20210902-004609
Rishabh Jain
Author
India
Close to 700,000 people from 26 districts were affected by floods in Assam this year.
© Biju Boro
"About seven lakh people across 1,618 villages remain affected. Out of these, 2.78 lakh people are in 413 relief camps."
© Biju Boro
"There are more than just technological engineering solutions involved in flood management."
© Biju Boro
An estimated 60,000 animals have been washed away and 360,000 are affected by the floods.
© Kulendu Kalita
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