In the last week of April, Assam Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal took stock of the state’s flood preparedness. Less than a month later, the river Brahmaputra swelled up and has been in spate ever since. In spite of the CM’s directives, the state administration seems to have been caught unawares. At least 65 people have lost their lives. More than 35 lakh people in 26 districts of the state have been affected. Nearly 90 per cent of the Kaziranga National Park is reportedly submerged.
Floods are a recurrent feature during the monsoons in Assam. In fact, ecologists point out that flood waters have historically rejuvenated croplands and fertilised soil in the state’s alluvial areas. But it’s also a fact that for more than 60 years, the Centre and state governments have not found ways to contain the toll taken by the raging waters. The state has primarily relied on embankments to control floods. This flood control measure was introduced in Assam in the early 1950s when the hydrology of most Indian rivers, including the Brahmaputra, was poorly understood.
There is, today, a substantial amount of scholarly work that has highlighted the problems of using large walls to check the Brahmaputra’s flow. The river changes course frequently and it’s virtually impossible to contain it within embankments. Moreover, the pressure of the surging water takes a toll on these walls and they need constant reinforcement — by all accounts, that hasn’t happened in Assam. Several of the state’s embankments were reportedly breached by the floods this year.
Large parts of Guwahati are under water. The city has been getting flooded during the monsoons since the past seven years. Its problems have less to do with the vagaries of nature. Guwahati’s topography — it’s shaped like a bowl — does make it susceptible to water logging. But, as a document of “Mission Flood Control Guwahati” — a programme of the Assam government and the city’s Metropolitan Development Authority — correctly points out, “the unplanned expansion of the city… has led to severe encroachments in the wetlands, low lying areas, hills and shrinkage of forest cover. The denuded hills and loss of wetlands lead to artificial floods”. The document also notes that rainwater from Meghalaya and the surrounding hills often causes flash floods in Guwahati. However, recognition of the problem has not led to any meaningful conversation between the two states on flood control. In fact, authorities in all the states that share the Brahmaputra basin need to urgently put their heads together to resolve the perennial problem of floods in Assam.
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