Assam has been grappling with the perennial challenge of catastrophic floods. Its abundant flora and fauna, with the Brahmaputra River coursing through its heart, have long been marred by recurring floods that constantly threaten life and property.
This year too, the flood situation in Assam is severe, affecting over four lakh individuals across nine districts. While water levels have started to recede in certain areas, the overall situation remains challenging and demands immediate attention. According to the Assam State Disaster Management Authority (ASDMA), the recent deluge has resulted in the unfortunate loss of life and has impacted over 4,07,700 people.
Assam’s unique geographical setting, encompassing the Brahmaputra and Barak River systems, exacerbates the flood problem. The region’s susceptibility to heavy rainfall during the monsoon season and its easily erodible terrain further compound the challenges. In light of the ongoing floods in the state, it is of utmost importance to delve into the reasons behind the massive floods and explore precautionary measures that can be taken to safeguard the people and environment of Assam.
Impact on life and economy
The Assam floods in 2022 severely impacted the lives of over 88 lakh people and tragically led to the loss of 181 lives in the state. This suggests that a large portion of the population in the affected areas was directly affected by the floodwaters and its tragic consequences.
The Brahmaputra and its tributaries inundate vast areas, causing widespread damage to the region’s infrastructure and agriculture. The annual occurrence of floods leads to the loss of countless lives, devastation of property, and severe disruption to the state’s economy. So far this year, the floodwaters have caused significant damage to crops and infrastructure, including embankments, roads, bridges, and other vital facilities, in several districts. The floods have also taken a toll on the well-being of domestic animals, with approximately 21,000 animals affected in Barpeta (lower Assam) district alone.
Additionally, landslides triggered by heavy rainfall and seismic activity lead to river debris accumulation, causing shallowing and subsequent flooding downstream. Bank erosion by the Brahmaputra and its tributaries has resulted in the loss of significant agricultural land and negatively affected the rural economy.
Understanding the causes of floods in Assam
Natural Factors: Intense rainfall during the monsoon season, fueled by Assam’s location at the centre of the monsoon belt, is a primary contributor to floods. Increased rainfall in the pre-monsoon and monsoon seasons, along with saturated soil, leads to greater river runoff and increased flood severity. These torrential rains cause rivers like the Brahmaputra and the Barak, along with their tributaries, such as Subansiri, Manah, Kopili, Jia Bharali, Dikrong, and Jiadhal, to overflow and submerge the catchment areas. Moreover, flash floods originating from neighbouring states, such as Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland, and Meghalaya, add to the inundation and destruction. Factors like potent monsoons, seismic activities, changes in river courses, and unique geo-environmental settings contribute to the deteriorating flood situation in Assam.
Human Factors: Anthropogenic activities play a significant role in exacerbating flood risks in Assam. Deforestation, destruction of wetlands, and encroachments on riverbanks contribute to the increased vulnerability to floods. Poor urban planning, inadequate drainage systems, and the filling of natural ponds exacerbate the flood risks, particularly in urban areas. Persistent silt accumulation has raised the highest flood levels due to shallow riverbeds and heavy sediment brought by the river during monsoons.
Additionally, floods in Assam have worsened due to population pressure, shrinkage of water bodies, unregulated construction, and skewed development strategies, impacting the natural flow of rivers.
Precautionary measures to mitigate flood damage
To mitigate the devastating impact of floods, a crucial step for Assam is to strengthen embankments along the Brahmaputra and other rivers. Most flood-protection structures in Assam were constructed in the 1960s and 1970s and may have become weak and inadequate over time to handle modern flood challenges due to changes in river patterns and outdated capacities and designs. Upgrading and reinforcing these embankments will enhance their structural integrity. Additionally, increasing the water-holding capacity of the Brahmaputra and its tributaries through dredging, in consultation with all stakeholders, can effectively reduce the magnitude of flooding. These measures not only safeguard lives and property but also offer economic benefits to the state. However, one of the major challenges lies in the limited availability of reliable data on sediment load and the extensive catchment area of the Brahmaputra River, further complicating the implementation of dredging projects.
There is an urgent need of developing a holistic plan that addresses both river management and catchment areas to effectively manage and control the impact of floods. The installation of modern weather stations in the upstream catchment areas of all dams in the Northeast, combined with the deployment of sirens along riverbanks near dams, could be crucial to provide timely alerts to downstream populations during flood events. These advanced weather monitoring and early warning systems enable accurate flood forecasting, ensuring proactive measures can be taken to mitigate potential damage.
Promoting extensive afforestation initiatives in Assam can help restore the ecological balance and enhance the water absorption capacity of the region. Planting trees strategically along riverbanks and in vulnerable areas can mitigate soil erosion and regulate water flow. Simultaneously, rejuvenating wetlands act as a natural sponge, aiding in floodwater retention and reducing downstream flood risks.
A shift towards integrated flood management
The complex nature of the flood problem in Assam necessitates an integrated approach to flood management. This approach should encompass water management, physical planning, land-use policies, agriculture, transportation, urban development, and nature conservation. By involving decision-makers at all levels and engaging with stakeholders and civil society, a comprehensive flood management plan can be developed, ensuring a resilient and sustainable future for Assam.
Rohmoria, a village severely affected in the upper reaches of the Brahmaputra by river erosion, implemented bank protection works using a nonwoven geotextile bag filled with sand. This solution suggested and designed by the Water Resource Department of Assam, proved practical and viable for erosion protection along the river banks. During major floods in June 2012, the anti-erosion works survived and protected the banks, even when submerged under water indicating the success of this method. This solution demonstrated resilience and effectiveness in mitigating erosion, as evidenced by the presence of silt deposits after the flood.
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Assam’s battle against devastating floods necessitates a shift from a relief-centric to a proactive response-centric and multi-faceted approach to minimising the devastating impacts on life and property. By strengthening embankments, upgrading early warning systems, and adopting sustainable measures like afforestation and wetland rejuvenation, the state can enhance its resilience to floods. Also, products for emergency situations should be kept in stock for temporarily raising the height of the riverbanks so that flood water does not enter the adjacent areas. These products are available in the market and can be reused. It is crucial for decision-makers at all levels to collaborate with experts and stakeholders to implement these precautionary measures effectively. Only through a holistic and integrated flood management strategy can Assam mitigate the destructive forces of nature and safeguard its people and precious ecosystems.
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