News of China’s Tsang Po reaching its highest levels have put the Northeastern states of Assam and Arunachal Pradesh on alert. The Siang in Arunachal Pradesh and the Brahmaputra in Assam is already flowing above the danger mark. While the country is recuperating from the recent devastating Kerala floods, there is a worry that the Northeast region might face another bout of floods. Last year the state of Assam faced Level 3 floods. 2400 villages were affected and more than 1.7 million people have been displaced.
Yearly floods, large scale displacement and devastation have become a regularity in the state. If one looks at the causes, the immediate one is always heavy rain. But apart from the natural causes, flood in the region and the devastation that follows is accentuated and aggravated by human interventions. Encroachment of river banks and wetlands, lack of proper drainage, unplanned urban growth, hill cutting and deforestation etc worsen the flood situation in the state.
The river Brahmaputra is rendered instable because of high sedimentation and steep slopes. Moreover the entire area falls in an earthquake prone zone. The way we deal with the river cause problems. Last year one of the immediate causes of flood in Assam was the release of water from the Ranganadi Hydro-electrical Power Plant by NEEPCO. This year also the districts of Upper Assam were submerged because NEEPCO released water without proper precaution.
The causes of flood across the country are not very different. In fact while devastating yearly floods have become destiny for many, the Kerala floods and the resilience shown by the people will teach us a few things about what to do. The immediate cause of the Kerala floods which left around 400 people dead and ruined property worth rupees 20,000 crores was rain and lots of rain. The last instance of such flood in Kerala was in 1924 which again left around 1000 people dead. This year the state received 30% more rain than the normal and the state had to throw open 35 of its 39 dams.
In case of Kerala also the causes of floods move beyond the immediate heavy rains. Large scale mining, quarrying in ecologically fragile areas, illegal repurposing of forests, high rise building constructions etc. were also responsible. The wrong decision of opening all gates of a dam at one go also didn’t give much time to the people to try for safety. High intensity of rainfall within a short period of time coupled with poor drainage facility, unplanned reservoir regulation and the failure of flood control structures aggravated the problems.
Successive governments have conveniently overlooked the caution of environmental experts regarding the dangers of unbalancing the ecological make up. Around 8 years back, the UPA government formed a 14 member Western Ghats Ecology Expert Panel under the leadership of environmental expert Madhav Gadgil. The Gadgil report clearly stated that the risk of landslides was very high in Western Ghats.
The report further mentioned the need to protect the fragile eco-system of the Western Ghats – the 1600 km of mountain range known for its bio-diversity. However the report was shelved because most states didn’t want to change their priorities – from full scale development to conservation of the ecology.
Like every other case of flood, silt trapped in dams and later leading to quick overflow of rivers also caused havoc. Kerala floods devastation was mitigated by the concerted efforts of the government, civil society and volunteers from all walks of life including Kerala fishermen who emerged as real life heroes. But nonetheless it requires that the government takes a stock of the situation and makes policy decisions to reduce chances of such floods in future.
If we look back to the devastating floods in Bihar in 2016, the immediate cause was again the release of large volume of water released into the Ganga from the Bansagar reservoir in Madhya Pradesh. But main reason is again heavy siltation of the Ganga as the Farakka barrage doesn’t allow silt to pass. The situation was worsened by the lack of flood management policy and absolute absence of silt management policy.
If we go further back to the 2013 Uttarakhand flood, it brings to mind a gloomy scenario which saw 1000 dead and around 70,000 people stranded under water for days. While the immediate cause was again heavy rainfall, the runaway growth of tourism, unchecked proliferation of roads, hotels, buildings etc along with mushrooming of hydroelectricity dams that disrupt water balances led to the large scale devastation that followed. While Uttarakhand have had heavy rainfall earlier also, what changed this time was the absence of outlet for the excess water. While building roads, the tectonic faultlines are often overlooked in the state.
Why these examples become important is that even in Assam the cause of floods is often not just heavy rainfall. Poorly planned urbanisation often leads to artificial floods in cities like Guwahati. People are left to their fate under neck deep water when dams like Ranganadi Hydro electrical power plant is thrown open without much planning.
In Assam, dam projects like Ranganadi and proposed projects like Lower Subansiri dam will lead to devastating floods in the districts of Upper Assam while Lower Assam is often flooded by water released from Bhutan’s Kurishu dam. A large number of dams proposed to come up in different states of Northeast as well as in Bhutan without much impact assessment will cause havoc in the state.
While heavy rains, unprecedented long monsoons cannot be controlled, what can be done is mitigating the impact of such rainfall and flood by channelizing excess water, putting in place a proper silt management policy in consultation with experts and ensuring that the impact is reduced.
Every year floods also cause a loss of agricultural animals because of absence of high ground and grazing lands. There should be adequate planning and steps taken accordingly. It is high time that floods are no more thought of as just nature’s fury, rather the human hand in worsening the situation is accounted for. It has been a long term demand that Assam floods should be declared a national disaster. This demand should be taken seriously so that the yearly plight of a large number of people in the state is mitigated and they are not left to suffer.