Why Bihar and Assam are worst hit by floods?
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.
The two worst affected states are the usual suspects – Bihar and Assam, which have a long sad history of floods.
Recurring disaster in Bihar
- 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.
- 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. 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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.