About 40 years ago, then Assam chief minister Sarat Chandra Sinha, on being unable to find a lasting solution to the state’s annual date with an overflowing Brahmaputra, had appealed to the people to learn to live with the river in spate. “We have to learn to co-exist with the floods,” he had said, drawing sharp criticism from various quarters. Four decades on, the present chief minister Sarbananda Sonowal, in his second year in office, faces a similar situation, with little signs of any respite. “Yes, the flood situation has been bad. Over 17 lakh people have been hit. About 50 lives have been lost. We are putting in our best efforts to provide as much succour as possible,” Sonowal told The Indian Express.
On Thursday alone, five people lost their lives. So far, about 30,000 people have been put in 123 relief camps in 20 districts. Drinking water, sanitation, food for the elderly, pregnant and lactating mothers have remained serious issues in the camps but the government says there is no shortage of funds to tackle the situation. While Prime Minister Narendra Modi and union Home Minister Rajnath Singh have been speaking to Sonowal every alternate day, Kiren Rijiju, union minister of state for home, conducted an aerial survey of some of the worst-affected districts such as Lakhimpur, Dhemaji and Majuli on Thursday, before saying that a central team would be here in a few weeks to assess the loss.
The current floods were triggered by incessant rain in Arunachal Pradesh and Nagaland, where a sizeable number of the Brahmaputra’s major tributaries flow. The situation has been compounded by ageing embankments and other protection measures collapsing. Such is the problem, that while three such embankments gave way in Majuli island, one breached in Lakhimpur district, causing much of the damage.
Experts at the Brahmaputra Board have identified three major reasons for the floods: Inadequate capacity of the Brahmaputra river channel due to its braided nature leading to spilling of floodwater; drainage congestion at the outfall of tributaries during the high stage of the main river; and excessive silt load in the river due to soil erosion and largescale landslides in the hilly catchments.
Another reason is climate change and its impact on the Eastern Himalayas, where many of the Brahmaputra’s tributaries originate. This coupled with massive deforestation in Arunachal Pradesh have further complicated things in Assam.
The embankments built along the Brahmaputra and its 103 tributaries cover over 4,475 km. Most of these structures, constructed 25 to 30 years ago based on the 1954 recommendations of the Rashtriya Barh Ayog, show visible signs of ageing. Officials in the state water resource department admit that though embankments don’t have specific life-spans, the ones in Assam were designed on the basis of flood data of 15 to 20 years prior to their construction and were to remain fit for 25 to 30 years.
The Brahmaputra Valley on the other hand is said to be one of the most hazard-prone regions of the country. According to the National Flood Commission of India, about 40 per cent of the state’s area — close to 32 lakh hectares — is flood-prone. The present floods, unsurprisingly, have so far affected 26 of the state’s 32 districts.
While floods come and go, the biggest problem that Assam continues to face is the destruction caused to infrastructure year in and year out. As state chief secretary V K Pipersenia puts it, “If we take one step towards development in one year, floods and erosion push us two steps backward. While the government spends around Rs 12,000 crore for development every year, floods and erosion cause a loss of about Rs 10,000 crore.”
So far in 2017, the floods have damaged at least eight embankments, while numerous roads, bridges, culverts, schools and other government buildings, water supply projects, apart from several thousand private houses and granaries. The loss to the state’s cultivators has been the highest, with over 1.81 lakh hectares of crop area affected so far.