Water beneath our homes
Liz Gross finds out the tough life in the river islands of Assam
For a moment that afternoon, Dodhia seemed the most beautiful place imaginable. From their stilts, buildings made of wood poked out from languidly rolling expanses of neon-bright grass. But the water-weathered buildings betrayed the ephemera. Despite four foot stilts, flood waters reached the bottom of homes. The water that nourishes Dodhia also wreaks havoc on it.
Dodhia is one of the 2,500 river islands of the Brahmaputra. These islands, called chars in Bangladesh and saporis in Assam, have 2,300 villages, which are home to three million people. On some islands, villages are just a few huts, while the largest and best known sapori, Majuli, has a population of 1,50,000. Despite wide variations from island to island, all saporis are similar in their dependence on and vulnerability to the Brahmaputra.
"The Brahmaputra is a young river.It can get as wide as 18 km across during the summer monsoons. It is still carving out its final path before it becomes deeper and thinner," said Sanjoy Hazarika, an expert on north east India. Hazarika, who is the managing trustee of the civil society organization, Centre for North East Studies and Policy Research (cnes) added that, "While deceivingly calm to look at, the river is highly volatile, causing extensive flooding and erosion. People have to camp in cramped relief camps for sometimes weeks. They suffer every year."
Upon returning, they find massive property damage with correspondingly severe economic consequences. According to cnes's research, the economic damage by flooding amounted to Rs 4,400 crore between 1953 and 1995. In large part, these damages are tied to the fact that almost everyone living on the saporis earns a living through either farming or dairy.
Over 90 per cent of the cultivated land on the river islands is flood-prone. Large numbers of cattle succumb every year to hunger and disease. "The floods force the sapori dwellers to make new investments, just to get back to the level where they were before the deluge," Hazarika said.
The floods also have an impact on the health of people. The temporary relief camps lack proper sanitation. "During the floods and in the weeks that follow, entire communities, and especially children are at risk for water-borne diseases, including diarrhoeal diseases, and vector-borne diseases, notably malaria and Japanese encephalitis. The floods leave the islands completely separated from the mainland, making hospitals, pharmacies, and other health services nearly impossible to access," Hazarika said.
Dodhia is one of the 14 saporis in Dibrugarh district of Assam where cnes launched a project in 2005 to improve the health of the sapori dwellers. The project found an innovative way to deal with the inaccessibility of the islands instead of bringing the sapori dwellers to mainland doctors, they put the health clinic on a boat.
As the original project proposal stated, "The Brahmaputra could be used to respond to and answer some of the very problems and challenges it caused." This idea won Rs 15 crore of start-up capital through the World Bank's India Development Marketplace 2004 competition, and is now funded through partnerships with the National Rural Health Mission (nrhm), unicef and a number of private companies and individuals.
The two river boats, Akha (hope in Assamese) and Shanaz (less sentimentally named after the wife of a large donor), now provide immnunization to mothers and children and routine check-up services to 50,000 people on dozens of river islands in five districts of Assam Dhubri, Morigaon, Dibrugarh, Dhemaji amd Tinsukia. F our more boats are in various stages of construction. To reach the islands, the boats leave Dibrugarh town, staying on the river for three or four days to see multiple villages on each trip.
At night, Akha finds an uninhabited sandbar and docks for the night, and the mood becomes relaxed and jovial. The crew catches fish in the river for dinner, while the two doctors play volleyball badminton on the shore, and chat about their lives. The three nurses, one paramedic and the pharmacist join in.
Once Akha sails into a sapori island on the river, the medical team heads towards a clinic in a building close to the shore-this building is usually provided by the community.
The staff sometimes has to shift to a small wooden motorboat to navigate the shallow waterways that lead to the village. It is tough life but they don't mind it. The medical professionals have private practice for three days a week.
In travelling with cnes, I found that while flooding is in itself an immense problem, the deeper issue is the geographic isolation that the Brahmaputra forces on the saporis. "The river's dependents have problems of access to basic infrastructure. Those on the islands are the most marginalized, isolated, and voiceless," Hazarika said.
|Inside of a classroom in Aichung sapori,|
|At a CNES medical camp. The baby is weeping because it was vaccinated|
We are a voice to you; you have been a support to us. Together we build journalism that is independent, credible and fearless. You can further help us by making a donation. This will mean a lot for our ability to bring you news, perspectives and analysis from the ground so that we can make change together.
Comments are moderated and will be published only after the site moderator’s approval. Please use a genuine email ID and provide your name. Selected comments may also be used in the ‘Letters’ section of the Down To Earth print edition.