Assam Floods: Need to Focus on Resolution

Tuesday, 01 December 2020


Assam Floods: Need to Focus on Resolution

Barun Barpujari | October 03, 2020 20:43 hrs

Every year floods wreak havoc to the lives of a large section of the populace. Several waves of floods destroy crops, the source of their livelihood, often permanently lost to the river through erosion; resultant permanent or temporary displacement from their inundated homes to live in community shelters; children missing out on their education and their sufferings compounded by health and hygiene issues and outbreak of diseases. 

Assam’s economy is also left ravaged in the end. Very importantly, precious lives are lost in the floods, both human and livestock. Do we want such a situation to continuity in perpetuity?  

This begs a serious question on Assam’s annual flooding problem. Have we really made a determined and sustained effort to find a lasting solution? Each year, there is an effort to repair the breached embankments before the onset of monsoon. The outcome has generally not been very encouraging. This appears as piece-meal response. Clearly, the problem of such magnitude is beyond the capacity of the state to resolve. 

If we consider the annual occurrence of floods as one of the most disruptive events that adversely impacts the economy of the state, then the elected Government should leave no stone unturned to get the issue recognized and given a national calamity/disaster status under the Disaster Management Act, 2005 or through any other statute with the sole objective of resolving this annual disaster. 

With that, the problem will perhaps be seen through a different lens and action taken at appropriate scale and urgency. Perhaps, with the state assembly election around the corner, the people of Assam need to push the issue of the annual floods of Assam to be acknowledged and given the status of national calamity/ disaster before the election. This may be difficult considering what has been reported in Sanjoy Hazarika’s column “NDRF and floods: No money for Assam” (Ref. The Assam Tribune of August 11, 2020). It has been reported therein that 23 states have received funds from NDRF since 2013, including 5 states from northeast India (Arunachal Pradesh, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland and Sikkim). Assam does not figure even once as a beneficiary. This is how the flood problem of Assam is being perceived by the powers in Delhi. 

A committee constituted by the Prime Minister under the chairmanship of NITI Aayog vice-chairman has recommended setting up of the North East Water Management Authority for adopting a holistic approach to solve the flood and erosion problem. It is hoped that the proposed authority be approved and put in place at the earliest. The authority, in turn, should approach the problem and possible solutions with an open mind in order to solve this vexed problem.

If India has the capability to undertake the Mission to Planet Mars, she will certainly have the capacity to bring together the necessary resources to find an appropriate lasting solution, if not from within the country, from any country that has the requisite expertise. Recall the adage “the crying baby gets the milk”. Demand it, continue to press for it and success is bound to come.

In this context, let us look at The Netherlands. Let me quote from the publication, Dutch Masters: The Netherlands exports flood-control expertise by Chris Lovenko:

“In early 2017, scientists from NOAA and other U.S. research institutions announced that new data had led them to raise the upper estimate of projected global sea-level rise by the end of this century to 2.5 meters……

The 17 tropical storms of the 2017 Atlantic hurricane season, including 10 hurricanes, caused an estimated $282 billion in damage in the U.S., ranking as the country’s most destructive and expensive hurricane season to date; again, larger storm surges caused by higher seas was part of the reason the damage was so great. Rising oceans are no longer just a future threat; the problem is here and will only get worse over time. So, what to do? Where to turn? Enter the Dutch.

Dutch expertise in water management is as old as the Netherlands itself, and as global seas rise, the Dutch are still on the front lines in dealing with flooding and sea-level rise. This prowess is not only helping them in their own efforts, but now they ‘are going all around the world consulting and selling their engineering expertise,’ says journalist Jeff Goodell, author of the 2017 book ‘The Water Will Come: Rising Seas, Sinking Cities, and the Remaking of the Civilized World.’ They are ‘trying to export that expertise; it’s their growth industry. … It’s their Silicon Valley.’ And coastal cities in the U.S. and elsewhere are hoping Dutch ingenuity will work for them as well in fighting back the encroaching seas.

“The Netherlands is situated in a low-lying delta formed by the outflow of three major rivers: the Rhine, the Meuse and the Scheldt. In accordance with the Dutch saying that ‘God created the world and the Dutch created Holland,’ the country is in large part an engineered landscape reclaimed from swamps and marshes. One-third of the Netherlands is below sea level, and two-thirds is vulnerable to flooding. Dutch identity and society arose from the common need to push back against the sea.”

One of the outcomes of global warming induced climate change is short duration but high intensity bursts of rainfall and this is expected to progressively cause waves of floods with greater severity in future. Assam’s flooding woes is expected to increase. Finding a solution is, therefore, inevitable and imperative. The sooner those in powers in Dispur and Delhi recognize this, the better. The solution may need to include Bhutan and other neighbouring countries and Indian states of Arunachal Pradesh, Meghalaya etc. So be it and it would need to be dealt accordingly. But a solution is needed and executed properly so that the flood problem is resolved. 

Perhaps, the flood control experts of The Netherlands could offer a solution to our flooding problem. USA has greatly benefitted from the Dutch expertise. Why do we not approach the Dutch experts to examine the problem and get their response on whether or not they could offer a durable solution?

In the near term, however, Assam’s economy would need to be protected. The economy of Assam is mainly agrarian and agriculture and allied activities contributing about 20 per cent to the state’s net domestic product and providing livelihood support to about 75 per cent of the population of the region. While a more permanent solution is worked out, one of the immediate tasks that needs to be focused upon is to reduce crop loss and livelihood of farmers on account of annual floods. 

It is reported that The Regional Agricultural Research Station (RARS) of Assam Agricultural University at Titabor developed a submergence resistant gene in rice variety of Ranjit recently which brings good harvest to flood-hit farmers offering great relief to them. The Ranjit and Bahadur (SS-1) varieties can endure underwater conditions for two weeks without losing their potential yield. Enriched with the ‘submergence’ (sub in short) gene, the two varieties can reportedly yield up to five tonnes per hectare on the average.

The agricultural scientists are confident that Ranjit and Bahadur varieties would transform the state’s agricultural scenario for the better. Given that many crop-yielding areas stay under water for several days during floods, these two rice varieties can reduce flood-caused crop loss substantially. Field trials in various flood affected parts of the state have led to this confidence in outcome. 

If this be the case, the government needs to work on mission mode to arrange for adequate quantity of these seeds and other inputs, including creating awareness among and requisite training to the target farmers so that their flood induced crop losses reduced and the state’s economy is thus positively impacted. During the last Assembly session, it was reported (AT of September2, 2020) that the house was informed that the floods affected 280,000 hectares of agricultural land in the state and the crop loss is estimated at Rs. 1,000 crores. Clearly, we have much work to do if crop loss is to be reduced during the floods next year.

On July, 12, 2016 the present government came out with a wonderful Vision & Strategic Architecture Document. It would be pertinent to briefly quote from the section Individual Sustainable Development Goals, Related Targets & Strategies” and under Goal No.1: No Poverty

“….and also building resilience of the poor and those in vulnerable situations, by reducing their exposure to climate related extreme events and disasters.” If those affected by the recurring annual floods do not come under this ambit, who would? And resolving the floods problem would be the definitive recourse.

If intent is on the outcome, then possibilities are immense and development/progress is inevitable.

(With 38 years of rich and diverse experience in Energy & Sustainability areas, the author retired as Executive Director of IOCL. The views expressed in the article are his own.)

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