Nestled in the lush embrace of nature, Assam, a state from the north-eastern part of India, boasts of a rich and vibrant biodiversity. However its landscape and social fabric is threatened by the annual occurrence of violent floods, ravaging the lives of many. The torrential rains during the monsoon, the volatile nature of the Brahmaputra river owing to excessive siltation over the years and its bank erosion, the opening of dams from the neighbouring Bhutan and Arunachal Pradesh contributes to the brutal floods in the state, leaving many low lying areas inundated and waterlogged for several months. This has crippled many communities, further compounding their poverty.
DISPECS (Disaster Prepared Community Spaces), in its quest to build resilience for the most vulnerable against the wrath of natural disasters and the climate crisis, has selected the state of Assam to pilot their intervention. Therefore, the team embarked on a three week expedition in the months of July and August to understand the nature of the annual occurrence of the floods and the impact on its landscape and people. The team also met and engaged with several grassroots organisations within the state who DISPECS could potentially partner with to deploy the project within vulnerable communities who annually battle the forces of the floods. The team met with several communities from Morigaon, Majuli and Nalbari districts who bear the heaviest brunt of the floods. Several focus group discussions were conducted to explore the complex challenges and resilience factors to the recurring disaster and the dire need for sustainable solutions.
While fatalities may no longer serve as a pressing concern today, the unprecedented floods bring forth catastrophic consequences that impact myriad aspects of people’s lives. Because floods are such a frequent occurrence, communities have informal early warning systems in place, leading them to evacuate and set up camp in the highways and embankments during the period of inundation. With little to no government assistance, makeshift shelters using tin roofs of their houses become their refuge for months. With hand pumps submerged and food supply being cut off, access to basic necessities like nutritious food and clean water becomes a pressing dilemma. This leads to rationing of food by reducing their consumption to once a day and boiling the contaminated flood water for drinking purposes. The contaminated water is also used for other daily uses like bathing, washing of hands, clothes and utensils. Open defecation on the murky waters becomes the need of the hour as latrines are submerged. This leads to a host of diseases and health issues like flu, diarrhoea, cholera and rashes. Mobility is restricted in these trying times with boats being the sole mode of transportation. These boats are used to travel far and wide to hospitals for addressing their health concerns.
Being a traditionally agrarian community, the annual occurrence of floods has proven to be a bane for paddy cultivation, leaving local communities in precarity to make a living and earn scraps through wage labour and migration to metropolitan cities. With the floods jeopardising agricultural production, local farmers learnt to adapt to it by harvesting the Ahu paddy (autumn rice) by May, wherein it is traditionally harvested much later by the month of July. Similarly, there is an increase in the production of boro paddy (summer rice) which is sown in November and harvested by May. However, the erratic patterns of rainfall have prolonged the period of flooding with floods arriving as early as May. This has left people helpless, upending their lives and livelihoods.
Despite floods being a cyclical issue, the measures taken by the government to address it have remained largely insufficient. The solutions deployed are makeshift, akin to applying band aid to a wound. While infrastructural efforts like building of embankments, usage of geo bags and porcupines for preventing river bank erosion, and building raised latrines and tubewells, are notable, it is still not enough to address the gravity of the problem. These initiatives firstly, are not universally implemented throughout the state and secondly, they fall short in terms of their efficacy in providing a long term solution. Due to the inadequacy of preparedness strategies, there is an urgent demand for relief with the most vulnerable being entirely dependent on it. However, even relief is subpar and miniscule, with many communities located in remote areas not receiving it at all.
While the local communities have developed their own resilience over time, the resilience, while notable, functions at a bare minimum level of basic and meagre survival. Resilience must cater to building self-sufficiency and agency and this resilience should transcend basic survival where communities are able to withstand, and adapt in the adversity of floods. Therefore, a multifaceted and sustainable approach is the need of the hour where the affected communities first must possess the power and the capacity to become the first responders to the disasters they habitually experience.
DISPECS takes a unique approach to disaster preparedness where preparedness exceeds basic training and addresses multiple areas of breakdown of a disaster. Here, communities embrace disaster preparedness and response as a fundamental aspect of their behaviour by integrating into their daily routine and habits. This is done by introducing incentives that possess economic, cultural and/or social value for the community, during the peacetime (period of no disaster) which encourage the adoption of the behaviour and thus making it sustainable. Through these practices, communities acquire the skills, knowledge and capacity that aid them in responding to natural calamities.
Rife with stories of loss, sorrows, hope, and resilience, this expedition has been a deeply eye opening and enriching experience. Humbled, the DISPECS team looks forward to piloting the intervention in Assam, working together with the most vulnerable communities, to build lasting resilience to the perilous floods.
Author – Kareena Bordoloi
Edited by – Aagam Shah