With widespread drought followed by unprecedented and heavy monsoons, India has emerged as one of the biggest victims of climate change this year. Floods, flash floods, and landslides have become common across local newspapers in India.
According to a recent data published by the Ministry of Home Affairs, Disaster Management Division, over one crore nine lakh people in India are affected by floods. Floods have claimed 850 lives this monsoon, including 184 in Madhya Pradesh, 99 in Uttarakhand, 93 in Maharashtra, 74 in Uttar Pradesh, and 61 in Gujarat.
The two worst affected states are the usual suspects - Bihar and Assam, which have a long sad history of floods. The death toll in Bihar reached 249, while nearly 86 lakh people across 31 districts in the state are living in distress. In Assam, the angry Brahmaputra has claimed lives of 36 people, while nearly 35 lakh people have lost their shelter, land, or livelihood. Thirty out of the 35 districts of the state are affected.
Bihar is India's most flood-prone state. The rivers that originate in the Himalayan glaciers and flow into other parts of the Indo-Gangetic plain such as Uttar Pradesh, Punjab, and Haryana pass through the Middle and Lesser Himalayas before reaching the plains. The rivers that flow into Bihar, however, traverse very little distance before hitting the plains. These rivers, such as Narayani, Bagmati, and Koshi, and are much more forceful and damaging.
According to the Flood Management Information System, 76 percent of north Bihar's population constantly lives under the recurring threat of flood devastation. On an annual basis, floods destroy human lives, livestock, and assets worth crores in the state. To add to nature's havoc, what has made things worse for the state of Bihar is futile human intervention.
For centuries, residents of the northern parts of Bihar used its lowlands, called 'chaurs' in the local language, to collect the flood water and utilise it during dry seasons. The high lands is where the population lived, thereby lowering the impact of annual floods. Rapid and unplanned urbanisation, accompanied with rampant deforestation and illegal sand mining in the region has, however, led to heavy destruction of this fine balance.
Embankments have further worsened the situation. In 2008, the Kosi embankment near the Indo-Nepal border broke, leading the river to take a course it hadn't taken in over 100 years. The river flooded towns, villages, and cultivated fields in densely pockets of the state costing 434 lives.
According to a report titled Kosi Deluge: The Worst is Still to Come, the embankments restrains the river Kosi. The report, submitted by the Fact Finding Mission, stated that siltation has led to a major rise in the river bed, which was several feet higher than the adjoining land at many places. The high and low lands separated by embankments have created a situation where most low lands, 16 percent of North Bihar’s area, has become permanently waterlogged.
This year, the Ganges has wreaked havoc in the state. Experts agree that the silt carried by the river is the main culprit. The silt deposition leading to raised river bed-levels of the river have caused breakage of multiple embankments, leading to flooding of Bihar.
The Farakka barrage alone has led to the accumulation of nearly 18.56 billion tonnes of silt in the river’s bed, leading to excessive widening of the river in many areas and an increased frequency and magnitude of floods in the region. According to a BBC report, the excessive silt has also obstructed numerous passages through the Farakka barrage, leading to the water flowing backwards from Bengal to Bihar, further worsening the situation.
"Lack of desilting policies and practices are the major cause of floods in Bihar," says Mohamad Farukh, CEO of Rapid Response. Rapid Response is one of the many NGOs conducting relief operations in the worst affected areas in Bihar. The long-term solution to Ganga's flooding is "forming appropriate desilting policies and regular desilting of rivers. River Ganga needs to be desilted more frequently than other rivers to save the state from similar fate," says Farukh.
After descending the mountainous terrains of Arunachal Pradesh, river Brahmaputra enters the state of Assam from its westernmost corner and flows eastwards. The river flows across the state of Assam, and along with its tributaries, creates a 1,000-km long and 80-100-km wide floodplain in the region.
Although this floodplain is very fertile, Assam’s per capita food grain production has declined in the past five decades. The state, due to frequent floods leading to large-scale damage of agricultural fields and crops, is devoid of almost all modern agricultural practices.
On the other hand, the frequency, intensity and devastation of these floods have increased over the past decades owing to excessive rainfall, seismic activities, rapid climate change and human encroachment in the ecologically vulnerable riverine areas.
In 2012, the flooding of Brahmaputra and its tributaries led to death of 124 people and displacement of over 60 lakh people. The devastating floods claimed lives of 540 animals, including 13 rhinos at the Kaziranga National Park alone. Last year, the flooding of Brahmaputra claimed 42 lives.
This year, with 36 dead, and nearly 35 lakh affected, floods continue to haunt the state of Assam. Another 40 lives have been claimed by floods and landslides in the neighboring state of Arunachal Pradesh. According to a recent NDTV report, rain in August this year have submerged about 80 percent of the Kaziranga National Park, drowning more than 300 animals. Twenty-three rhinos were killed while two more were poached.
Over the past 250 years, river Brahmaputra has changed its course several times, with evidence of large-scale avulsions. Civil engineering the mighty and volatile river might pose many unforeseen risks. Embankments have been built along the river since early 1950s. Currently, 5,000km of embankments stand along the river and its tributaries to manage floods. These embankments, which try to tame the river, often fail to withstand the increased pressure during heavy rainfalls leading to breaches and flooding of areas which were otherwise considered safe.
The key to mitigating recurrent floods in the state lies in making the local people stakeholders in finding ingenious solutions based on the local topography. According to Dr. Naveen Pandey, Deputy Director at Corbett Foundation, who has worked for long to save the animals in Kaziranga during floods, "Building embankments is not allowed in the national park. Floods here do not last longer than 10 days as the river submerges the area and then drains itself. This makes the land very fertile, and since there is little crop damage, the ingenious population uses the floods to their benefit."
Climate change, global warming and increased ecological tension in the Himalayas are sadly true. This has further increased the risks of flooding across the country. India will have to look towards more holistic and long term solutions and move beyond the colonial legacy of embankments and futile human interventions.
According to the National Disaster Management Guidelines released by the National Disaster Management Authority, there are several non-structural measures that need to be undertaken by the government in order to prevent, mitigate and manage floods. These non-structural measures strive to keep people away from flood waters and use the flood plain judiciously while retaining its beneficial effects. These include flood plain zoning, flood proofing, and flood forecasting and warning. Unfortunately, these are yet to be implemented.
Traditionally, man has lived with floods and even tamed them using ingenious, holistic, and community driven approaches. This heuristic and evolutionary wisdom of man about his habitat, accompanied with modern technology can go a long way in solving the recurring problem of floods the country finds itself so deeply muddled in today.