Hungry Rivers

An autumn sonata has evaded Assam, grappling as it is with a fourth wave of floods this year. The third wave, termed the worst since 2004, had barely receded when the Brahmaputra began flowing above the danger level in Jorhat, the Dhansiri river in Golaghat, the Jia Bharali in Sonitpur and Kushiyara in Karimganj.

By Sudipta Bhattacharjee
  • Published 14.09.16
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An autumn sonata has evaded Assam, grappling as it is with a fourth wave of floods this year. The third wave, termed the worst since 2004, had barely receded when the Brahmaputra began flowing above the danger level in Jorhat, the Dhansiri river in Golaghat, the Jia Bharali in Sonitpur and Kushiyara in Karimganj.

Today, over a thousand people are taking shelter at relief camps in the Dhemaji district as their houses were washed away. Over 25,000 people in three districts - Dhemaji, Udalguri (20,000 people were left homeless after the Golondi river flowing downhill from Bhutan triggered floods) and Lakhimpur - were impacted.

It is remarkable that in spite of the floods being a recurrent feature in Assam, the dry winter months are not utilized to minimize the damage. And not for any lack of innovative ideas either.

For example, the National Remote Sensing Centre, Hyderabad, in association with Assam State Disaster Management Authority, has prepared district-wise flood hazard maps using satellite remote sensing data collected from 1998 to 2007.

Flood layers for 10 years were integrated into a hazard layer representing inundated areas with different frequencies. If implemented, this could augur timely interventions.

Besides, scientists at the CSIR-North East Institute of Science and Technology in Jorhat have designed bricks made of Brahmaputra silt, thereby reducing the use of agricultural soil, carbon emission and containing the possibility of flooding by the river. "Using silt as building material will decrease flooding and spreading of the river with the river basin gaining more depth," the NEIST director, D. Ramaiah, said. "For Assam especially, making of bricks from the Brahmaputra sandbed will be a boon as it has been reported that due to heavy siltation the riverbed has increased and the depth has decreased, resulting in heavy flooding every year. There are demands for dredging of the riverbed. Unemployed youths, if they set up brick industries which use up this silt, will not only help themselves, but the riverine people as well," he added.

In national parks like Kaziranga, creating hillocks in the sanctuary area can help animals survive the floods, instead of forcing them onto the highway to inevitably get run over. The state forest minister, Pramila Rani Brahma, told the assembly recently that her department would create "highlands" at Kaziranga, since the floods this year killed 32 rhinos, 320 hog deer, 14 swamp deer, five wild buffaloes, 17 wild boar, six sambar and five porcupines. Yet not everyone considers the floods to be a bane. Smugglers are taking advantage of floodwaters to transport wood, bamboo and even coal. On September 10, 40 sal logs were recovered from the Gongia river in Kokrajhar. In neighbouring Meghalaya, personnel of the border security force seized 142.84 cubic feet of logs, over 3,500 pieces of bamboo and nearly 10 tonnes of coal from the Simsang and Chillai rivers.

Besides, the islands and sandbars on rivers like the Brahmaputra make an ideal destination not only in the time of floods but thereafter too. For example, during the 1988 floods, nearly 50 families from nearby Gasgari and Kotabari took refuge on Hatimuriya char in Assam. The floods abated, but they refused to leave. Now their number has swelled to 250 families. There are myriad such tales in the chars and chaporis of this riverine state. Last week, when the chief minister, Sarbananda Sonowal, made his constituency, the flood-and-erosion-ravaged Majuli, the state's 35th district, the celebrations were tinged with disquiet. The concern that creased the foreheads of its residents was whether India's first river island district would survive the Brahmaputra's ever-hungry tide. If only, goes the wishful thinking, the red river could swallow government apathy instead!