GUWAHATI: Floods are par for the course in the Brahmaputra valley, but 2017 has been the worst but one year in the past decade - 2012 being the lousiest - in Assam. This year’s floods have claimed 82 lives and affecting 25.42 lakh people in 29 of the state’s 32 districts.
Starting even before the monsoon, the Brahmaputra and 100 of its tributaries have breached their banks in the last 10 weeks, submerging 4045 villages. At one point more than 70 per cent of the state’s iconic Kaziranga National Park was submerged, forcing the animals to flee to higher land.
The situation was such that a group of Nagaland MLAs, shepherded there by the present chief minister T R Zeliang had to be evacuated from their resort in boats.
Guwahati, the fastest growing city in the Northeast, was not spared. A dozen people died here in flash floods and electrocution.
But it took a visit by the Prime Minister to swing attention to the region long after other states in ‘mainland India’ caused creases to the nation’s forehead. Narendra Modi’s visit to Guwahati served as a wake-up call to New Delhi to address the recurring natural disasters endemic in this strategic remote.
Given that the floods in Assam are an annual feature, political parties here have long been demanding that it be declared as a national problem.
Underlining the gravity of the problem, the state’s three-party ruling alliance of BJP, Asom Gana Parishad and Bodoland People’s Front wrote in a joint memorandum to the PM: “Every year, thousands of villages get flooded, lakhs of people are marooned and lakhs of hectares of agricultural land is submerged. Physical infrastructure like roads, bridges, schools, hospitals and dwelling houses are affected. Around 8000 hectares of land is lost in erosion every year and (since 1954), more than 4.27 lakh hectares of land, which is 7 per cent of the total land area of the state, has been lost to erosion.”
According to the National Flood Commission of India, about 40 per cent of Assam’s area - close to 32 lakh hectares - is flood-prone. Of this, around 10 lakh hectares are directly affected. Erosion has reduced the sweet-water island of Majuli to half of what it was 100 years ago.
The 2,906 km Brahmaputra is formed at the confluence of Dibang, Lohit and Siang rivers at a place in eastern Assam bordering Arunachal. While the Siang originates in the Tibetan plateau where it is called the Yarlung Tsangpo, the Dibang and Lohit originate in Arunachal. The Brahmaputra, 640 km of which flows through Assam, is the reason for recurrent floods. The depth of the river has reduced significantly over the years and the monsoon months easily bring it to spate.
Floods are an annual feature in Assam and the waters are receding at the moment but a resurgence of the Brahmaputra is never more than a torrent away. Even during this respite, hundreds or homes and hearths are still under water, hundreds of people still in relief camps. In one relief camp at Kaziranga, just one toilet caters to more than 250 inmates, almost half of them female.
As the stoic people of lower Assam say, this is only the first wave of the floods. Last year, there were three.