Building a flood resilient Assam
“The last time water entered my house was during 2008 floods. Now, a 50-meter breach in the river embankment has flooded several houses in Lakhimpur, including mine,” said Sujata Hatibaruah, a resident of Lakhimpur town.
The severe damage in Lakhimpur was triggered by increased water in the river following a preemptive release of water from Ranganadi Dam in Arunachal Pradesh. Assam, located in the foothills of eastern Himalayas and flood plains of river Brahmaputra and Barak, is prone to both these natural and man made ones caused by dam release. The physiography, climate and the location vis-à-vis Himalayas, have subjected the state to such recurring disasters and left the state crippled with loss of life and economy.
This year’s monsoon floods have affected 17 lakh people across 26 districts and inundated 80% of the state’s flagship Kaziranga National Park where 107 animals have died. With 93% of the cultivable land falling in the flood prone region in the state, 1.06 lakh hectares of standing crop has been accounted as damaged. According to the reports published by Assam State Disaster Management Authority (ASDMA), 1795 villages are under water and people have been accommodated in 279 relief camps and distribution centres, operationalised by state authorities. While estimates of loss and damage have come from preliminary evaluation, the total economic loss for the state will certainly be much higher.
Challenges in flood management
Annual floods during monsoon is a natural phenomenon for Assam, however, climate change-induced extreme rainfall events, coupled with unplanned development, is challenging existing flood protection and erosion control mechanisms of the State. This has intensified the impact of flood and increased the resulting loss and damage. Assam has lost 4000 sq km area at a rate of 80 sq km every year to the Brahmaputra. More than five million people have lost their crop land, homes and have been displaced for years.
The state government has identified vulnerable sites and placed necessary structures for flood protection and erosion control. However, despite the efforts, there is an existing gap in the capacity of these measures to protect people. Maintenance of the structures, for instance, has been struggle for the government and breach in river embankments continue to be one of the underlying factors causing devastation.
The funds for maintenance of flood and erosion protection structures have been difficult to secure. Interaction with the district level departments during a Shared Learning Dialogue organised by Action on Climate Today, a Department for International Development initiative, in Silchar, highlighted the problem of fund-crunch within the departments.
An official from Water Resources Department said, “All built embankments and sluice gates have crossed their expiry dates. We have no funding to carry out repair work to prevent breach in an event of heavy rainfall.”
A recent report by Comptroller and Auditor General, Government of India, has highlighted a 60% deficit in funds released from the centre for flood management programme in the state.
Preparing for floods
Managing a mighty river like Brahmaputra is a herculean task and hence efforts to manage floods require translation of traditional flood and erosion coping practices into innovative planned initiatives, especially in the case of structural changes.
Taking up a segment of the flood problem in the state, ACT in collaboration with Assam State Disaster Management Authority is developing climate resilient action plans for managing floods in cities along the rivers Brahmaputra and Barak. The initiative has engaged a team of experts to assess the hazard and risk vulnerability, both qualitatively through community interaction and quantitatively using software tools, to inform recommendations that will form the action plan being developed on a pilot basis for the state. The action plan has prioritised cities of Jorhat, Dibrugarh, Silchar; and is considering Guwahati and Majuli as special cases.
Through this action plan, ACT aims to provide the Revenue and Disaster Management Department of Government of Assam with a list of short and long-term interventions spread across the subject areas of infrastructure, solid waste management, and health. Besides being aligned with the development objectives of the state, the action plan will outline tailor made solutions that can be directly included in Detailed Project Reports developed for flood and erosion management in the state.
Further, to facilitate inter-departmental coordination for implementation of these cross cutting projects, the team has critically looked into the existing implementation structures of similar projects in the cities. The action plan will highlight the gaps in existing structures and provide recommendations to build synergy in actions taken for building flood resilience of the cities. While substantial attention has been paid to including the concerns of city level authorities to sustain implementation of the action plan, ACT has also connected with prominent community groups like Retired Citizen’s group in Jorhat and Silchar to mobilise them to take up community level actions in support of government initiatives to manage floods.
With a number of projects planned for developing the cities of Assam, this action plan will provide the necessary technical knowhow for the State to ensure its growth and development is protected from the vagaries of a changing climate.
This article is written by Rashmi Dutta Dey. She is the Technical Expert in Assam for Action on Climate Today initiative. Contact her at Rashmi.Dey@actiononclimate.today.
 The Time of India (2017, July 26) Kaziranga loses 107 animals to floods. pp 5
 Assam State Action Plan on Climate Change, 2015
 The Telegraph (2017, July 16) Deluge Toll up in Assam – Nearly 12 lakh affected in 24 districts, over 24000 in relief camps. Retrieved from https://www.telegraphindia.com/1170716/jsp/frontpage/story_162194.jsp
 Deccan Herald (2017, Jan 4) Brahmaputra erosion destroys nearly 4,000 sq km of land in Assam. Retrieved from http://www.deccanherald.com/content/50714/brahmaputra-erosion-destroys-nearly-4000.html
 The Hindu (2017, July 14) 60% shortfall of central funds to Assam for flood management. Retrieved from http://www.thehindu.com/news/national/60-shortfall-of-central-funds-to-assam-for-flood-management-cag-report/article19325709.ece