When floods hit Assam in July 2019, Haren Narah, a resident of Majuli, started distributing relief materials in the island’s Jogibari village. The wave of floods that year were particularly devastating, affecting all 33 districts, with close to 100 people losing their lives.
The materials being distributed included tents, packets of Surf Excel detergent and sanitary napkins. Potable water, in the form of Bisleri water bottles, was also part of the package — till residents said the pet bottles were of no real use.
“Clean, drinking water is probably the biggest challenge during the floods every year. And the small water bottles were not making much of a difference. I wondered how we could solve the problem,” says Narah, who has been a social activist for 15 years and was at one point the president of Takam Mising Porin Kebang, or the Mising tribe student union.
Months later, the answer can be found in a patch of land 46-year-old Narah donated to his community. On it now is being built a community water tank of thousand-litre capacity. “The aim is to provide clean drinking water during floods to the 236 families of the five sapori (island) villages in Majuli and North Lakhimpur,” says Narah.
The tank is being built with the money raised from the crowdfunded Living Art Festival organised in Majuli by a Guwahati-based NGO, Maati Community. It is near completion and will be inaugurated this month.
The tank, Narah hopes, will prove most useful during the annual flood season in July and August. A reinforced cement concrete (RCC) structure has the tank placed at 1.8 metres above ground level. It comes with a staircase and safety railing.
“We did some research on the traditional Mising houses of Majuli —1.8 meters is the safety mark, and most families store their belongings at that height.” says Ankur Choudhury, an architect and faculty member at the North East Hill University, who helped design the tank.
Choudhry and his partner Sneha Doijad were also involved in Maati Community’s Living Art Festival 2020 — an art festival which promotes community engagement in Majuli.
The architects, who have worked on a number of rural community projects, refer to the tank as an “indigenous knowledge-based water tank”, which uses traditional water purification methods practised by the villagers — a three layered water filter consisting of coal from burnt timber or bamboo, small pieces of stone, and river sand.
“Usually two small earthen matkas (pots) are used atop the other. The three layers act as purification filters for the water which is thrown from the top. The purified water filters into the second matka,” says Choudhury. The same technique has been replicated on a larger scale for the project.
“This method is very common in the villages here — the sand layer acts like a sieve, all the impurities are collected in layer which has the bed of stones, and finally the charcoal is another purifying level,” says Choudhry.
The team is also testing the tank to see if the water is arsenic-free. “In Majuli, most areas have a high level of arsenic,” says Narah. Fluoride, too, is found in above-prescribed limits in groundwater. A report from October 2018 says that 6,881 areas in 24 out of 33 districts in Assam have arsenic contamination. Long-term consumption of contaminated water can have grave results and lead to cardiovascular diseases, cancer, bronchitis and diabetes, among others.
While most houses have been sticking to traditional purification methods, some, says Choudhuri, have moved to modern Aquaguard filters as well. “But we decided to go with this because we wanted to build a bridge between the traditional and the modern,” says Choudhry, adding that the use of RCC and the water tank were the modern features.
With the work about 80 per cent complete, the tank remains to be waterproofed. At the height of 1.8 metres, there is a wooden plank — so it can be accessed by boat during the floods. “But the good part is that it can be used all-year around,” says Narah.
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