August 21, 2013
Floods and their associated misery are an annual phenomenon in Assam. But even by those standards, 2012 is turning out to be a particularly bad year.
From mid-September, the Brahmaputra and its tributaries overflowed their banks, for the third time during the May to September monsoon season. The surging waters broke through embankments in 16 of Assam’s 27 districts. Parts of the state capital Guwahati – the largest city in north-eastern India– went under water.
Atul Chaturvedi, head of the State Disaster Management Authority (SDMA), said that by the evening of September 25, he had reports of 1,916 villages being flooded, fully or partially. Over 1.7 million residents were affected. Over 20% of them, 384,000 people, were forced to flee their homes and take shelter in the 279 relief camps that had been set up.
While SDMA officials have reports of 18 people being drowned or washed away, many more are missing. Majuli island – Asia’s largest river island, in the middle of the Brahmaputra– was the worst affected. Around 70% of the island was under water. All schools had to be closed and turned into relief camps.
With all major tributaries of the Brahmaputra– Buridihing, Subansiri, Dhansiri and Jia Bharali – flowing above the danger level, the highway that connects parts of Arunachal Pradesh to the rest of the country was under water, and there were fears of shortages of essential supplies, though weather officials promised a break in the incessant rain by the end of the week. The National Disaster Response Force, the State Disaster Response Force, the army and the air force were rescuing marooned people and dropping food packets from helicopters.
Over 80% of the Kaziranga National Park– home of the endangered one-horned rhinoceros – was under water. This is a regular phenomenon in the park located on the south bank of theBrahmaputra, and the animals fled to higher ground. But they have to cross a highway to do so, and reports of them being run over are common.
Sikkim, another state in north-eastern India, was hit by flash floods and landslides in the same area that saw severe damage in the 6.8-level earthquake on September 18, 2011. The northern part of the state, which borders the Tibet Autonomous Region in China, remained cut off six days after the first landslides on September 19, and the death toll was still unknown. But by the evening of September 25, rescuers had already found 21 bodies, including those of personnel from the Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP) and the Border Roads Organisation. One ITBP camp was reported hit by mudslides, and eight people who were posted there are still missing.
T.W. Khangsherpa, deputy commissioner of north district, said at least nine landslides were blocking the road between Chungthang and Mangan, two areas badly hit by the quake last year. Houses along the Lachen river – a tributary of the Teesta – were washed away in flash floods.
Experts have been bemoaning the lack of disaster preparedness in this hazard prone region. There is no attempt to move towards modern flood management techniques such as building houses on stilts, though that is the traditional form of architecture in north-easternIndia. Activities to prepare the population, such as evacuation drills in schools and colleges, are seldom held.