Way of the river

Causes for annual floods in Assam are well-known. It’s now time to put lessons from research on the Brahmaputra into practice 

By: Editorial | Updated: July 17, 2017 12:15 am
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In April, Assam’s chief secretary reviewed the state’s preparedness to carry out relief and rescue operations during floods. Emergency management exercises were conducted at the ward and village levels. But two months later, as the Brahmaputra went into spate, the state administration was caught unawares — again. Floods in the state have claimed more than 50 lives, nearly 18 lakh have been affected by the deluge and most of the Kaziranga National Park is submerged. Nearly 2 lakh hectares of the state’s crop area is affected.

Floods in Assam are as regular as the monsoon itself. According to the National Flood Commission of India, about 40 per cent of the state’s area is flood-prone. But human-made factors have compounded this annual problem. This year, the Ranganadi, Dikting and Singra — tributaries of the Brahmaputra — swelled up after the North East Electric Power Corporation opened up its dams to release water from the Ranganadi Hydro-electric Project in Arunachal Pradesh’s Lower Subansiri district.

Floods caused by the release of water in the Brahmaputra’s upstream have become a common monsoon scourge in Assam, since the past seven years. Like most river-related problems, the solution lies in dialogue between upper and lower riparian states — Arunachal Pradesh and Assam, in this case. Assam’s policymakers are aware of the problems emanating from the Brahmaputra’s upstream. “The floods are caused by the runoff of heavy rainfall during the monsoon and high sediment loads from upper watersheds that are geologically unstable and degraded because of deforestation and changing land use,” notes a report issued last year by the Assam State Disaster Management Authority. However, authorities in Assam and Arunachal Pradesh have not put their heads together to resolve the issue.

Even within Assam, agencies which should be working together to keep the floods in check, have operated along different lines. While the state’s disaster management authority has correctly identified the geological instability caused by deforestation, Assam’s water resource department continues to harp on the discredited system of embankments.

The state’s embankments — walls to hold river water from spilling — were built according to recommendations made in 1954 by the Rashtriya Barh Ayog. Floods in the past six decades have shown that when the Brahmaputra swells up during the monsoons, it puts pressure on the embankments, causing breaches. This year, eight embankments in the state have been damaged. Moreover, academic and government studies have shown that the Brahmaputra changes course frequently and it’s virtually impossible to contain the river within the embankments. Given that the Brahmaputra is among the better studied of the country’s rivers, the annual havoc it causes should have been contained by now. It is time research is put to practice.

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