During his recent visit to Assam, Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced a Rs 2,000 crore package for relief, reconstruction and rehabilitation in the flood-affected states in the Northeast. A corpus fund of Rs 100 crore will be used to set up a high-powered committee that will work on finding permanent solutions to the flood problem. There is, however, a need to shift the focus from flood protection to flood governance. Hopefully, the high-powered committee, whenever it is constituted, will make this paradigm shift.
This would require a shift in the understanding of floods from being an extreme weather event, to a hazard that is partly natural and partly anthropogenic. Flooding is natural because the rivers in the Northeast, mostly originating in the Eastern Himalayas, experience a sharp fall in gradient as they move from Arunachal Pradesh and Bhutan to reach Assam’s floodplains. This fall in altitude causes a large volume of water to gush to the floodplains.
Most of these rivers carry large amounts of sediments, which then get deposited on the floodplains, reducing the storage capacity of the river channels and resulting in inundation of the adjoining floodplains. Flooding is partly anthropogenic as the sediment load carried by the rivers is accentuated through “developmental” interventions in the Eastern Himalayas that result in deforestation.
The dominant narrative of flood protection includes measures such as embankments, dredging rivers and bank strengthening. In a study spread over 96 villages in Assam, Bihar, UP, and Bengal, we found embankments are cost-intensive options. The focus here has been more on construction and less on maintenance. The scope of storage dams in Arunachal Pradesh is limited, given the region’s geology and the ecology. Proposals for dams have been a matter of serious debate in Assam and Arunachal Pradesh.
Shifting the focus of action towards flood affected people will require building resilience of these communities. Access to schools during the flood months is restricted, because the schools are either inundated or are make-shift relief centres. Water and sanitation issues require attention during the flood months. Floods are accompanied by outbreaks of diseases such as diarrhea. Access to veterinary services is limited resulting in high cattle mortality and morbidity. People in the flood-prone areas in the Northeast, by and large, practice subsistence agriculture. While the land remains inundated for an extended period in the monsoons, limited irrigation coverage (less than 10 per cent in Assam, compared to 49 per cent as an average for the country) constrains intensification of agriculture in the dry months.
Flood governance through resilience building could bring about sustainable change in this situation. This could be an outcome of three broad sets of action: Reducing vulnerability, increasing access to services, and maximising productivity through optimal use of available resources. Community-based advance flood warning systems, for example, have been successfully piloted in parts of Assam. Providing adequate number of boats — the most important, yet scarce resource in the villages — will enhance access to developmental activities during floods and also facilitate safe commute for schoolchildren.
Usual toilets are of limited use in flood-prone areas. Elevated toilets, ecosanitation units — promoted in the flood-prone areas of North Bihar — and elevated dugwells or tubewells with iron filter need to be installed in the Northeast. These are more expensive than the Swachh Bharat toilets and wells or handpumps. But if promoted on a large-scale, they will reduce the public health challenges in the flood-prone areas.
Productivity can be maximised by giving people access to cheaper sources of irrigation, research on short duration boro paddy, and innovative agriculture techniques like floating vegetable gardens. Scientific fish farming on the waterbodies and the inundated land can ensure that inundation, when it cannot be avoided, is put to optimal use.
Flood governance would require innovative combination of these initiatives. Strategic environment assessment of development activities, a practice followed in several countries, needs to be undertaken in the Brahmaputra basin. Strengthening planning authorities like the Brahmaputra Board and flood control departments by staffing them with scientists from a wide range of disciplines is essential. The flood-prone regions of the country require a focused approach from the Centre and state governments.