Conflict Alerts

Conflict Alerts # 127, 22 July 2020

85 dead, 70 lakh displaced: Assam floods make the impacts of climate change in South Asia pronounced
Sourina Bej

In the news 
On 20 July with six more deaths, the flood-related death toll in Assam now stands at 85. The Chief Minister of Assam Sarbananda Sonowal has informed that around over 70 lakh people have been displaced and many more affected in the third wave of floods that started since May. The district of Goalpara is the worst hit with over 4.53 lakh people suffering, followed by Barpeta with around 3.44 lakh persons and Morigaon with more than 3.41 lakh people. The current deluge has affected the Assam's Kaziranga National Park; more than 109 animals have been killed, including nine endangered one-horned rhinos.

Issues at large
First, shifting rainfall patterns in the flood-prone riverine geography compounded the deluge. The floods in Assam have been ravaging since 28 May when the Cyclone Amphan triggered the State's first flash floods affecting nearly three lakh people in the nine districts of the State. With the advent of the flash floods, the episodes of extreme rain and short summer months led to waves of floods that started inundating the riverine beds and flooding several districts. Even though the floods in Assam are annual affairs, the summer months getting replaced by extreme rain events and cloudburst add to the recent trends in shifting rainfall patterns that have been increasingly predicted by climatologists in South Asia. 

Second, flood control measures have done little to stop floods. The system of embankments in controlling the swelling of the river has, in turn, confined the course of the river and in an episode of heavy rain, the river swells up breaching the banks. The embankments which were supposed to be a temporary solution has now become a permanent way of life for the riverine communities in surviving the annual floods. In addition, the communities have also moved closer to living in the flood-prone areas, and as the intensity of rain changes the flood severity, the community is completely unprepared to high-intensity flood. Also, this time, the incessant rainfall has led to the release of dam water further worsening the flood situation in Assam.

Third, the flood is an annual affair, but a largescale displacement of both humans and animals was not. In Assam flooding in both the national park and upper region occurs annually. However, this is the second time a row, both animal and human have been displaced in large numbers. Almost the entire Kaziranga has submerged, putting the survival of many endangered species at peril. While in monsoon the Brahmaputra has been flowing above the mark, but this time the water level in the Barak river was also recorded to have risen. The geography of the river valley is such that tributaries join the Brahmaputra leading to swelling of water level and the flood is ecologically considered essential for revitalizing part of the grasslands in Kaziranga. With the whole park inundated, the animals didn't have any higher grounds to migrate. Similar has been the fate of the human when the river water flooded deep inland. 

Last, overworked and fatigued disaster and relief bodies. The flood took place when the State is dealing with rising COVID infection numbers. The central government by bringing COVID-19 as a natural disaster emergency has put the control of the disease spread with the state disaster management authorities leaving them little space and scope to prepare and focus on natural disasters like the flood or cyclone. The relief measures by the disaster management authorities are far less than the number of people displaced already. The funds being now used for health infrastructures, little attention was given in predicting the deluge and mitigating it after the first wave of floods. 

In perspective
The floods in Assam is not an isolated incident. With similar floods like incidents in the Bihar-Nepal border and Bangladesh, increased attention needs to be paid to adaptation policy from the rom the Himalayas to the deltas... This policy has to come from the region collectively. With most of the rivers in South Asia emanating from the Himalayas, the legislative and infrastructural negligence is not something that the region can afford anymore. As more cloudbursts like incidents rise, it's cross border impacts on the ecology as well on human are becoming more pronounced. The cumulative effect of this long-term climate change impacts has been displacement. With displacement, the trends of climate refugees and economic migration will follow. With four million people already displaced in South Asia due to flooding, how long before the region realizes that rehabilitation of more than four million is arduous and not possible without a proper climate-focused labour policy of the region.

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