Natural Disasters

Raised shelters, changing crop patterns: How Assam is adapting to frequent floods

Assamese villagers are adopting climate-proofing or flood-resilient mechanisms to cope with floods better

By Shagun
Published: Monday 27 June 2022
A raised hand pump. Photo: Shagun / CSE

The people of Assam are learning to live with floods that are an annual occurrence in the state. They are adopting climate-proofing or flood-resilient mechanisms to cope with floods better.

People in Dhemaji, one of the worst flood-affected districts of Assam, have some important lessons to share. Dhemaji is in the foothills of the Himalayas. The Brahmaputra and its tributaries traverse from the hills of Arunachal Pradesh through this district.

The river naturally changes its course frequently and flows through several channels. However, changes in rainfall patterns, especially heavy rainfall events upstream, have made it more volatile.

The river has changed its course thrice in the last four years alone, according to locals. It flowed — stable and sturdy — towards the south-west between 2006 and 2015, before changing character and course in 2016.

“The character of the river keeps shifting. So, we keep running as it shifts. We can never predict as to when floods will strike. We always have to be prepared. Resilience is the only way to survive,” Joynath Hajong, a resident of Ajarbari village in the district, said.

The people of Ajarbari, who have been victims of frequent floods, have developed a number of adaptations and coping mechanisms.

The surging waters of the Brahmaputra submerged Ajarbari in July 2020. That is when the people quickly shifted themselves, their families and livestock to a high, raised flood shelter.

The shelter had been built in 2017, after the 57 households in the village had first demanded it from the taluka-level panchayat in 2015. It was built as a temporary structure and was later made permanent.

It currently serves as an immediate shelter when the floods come every year, with the river flowing just a kilometre away from the village. The villagers no longer have to run to flood camps or away from their homes.

“It used to get very difficult for us earlier, especially when we had to run with our livestock. Some of the animals died. Our kids are our priority. But we used to feel bad for the livestock at that time. The nearest camp was a kilometre away,” Hajong said.

The shelter is small in size and not enough for people of all households and their animals. But the people say something is better than nothing.

“At least now we know that when a devastating flood comes, we have a safe space in the village itself. Even if we have to run to the nearest camp, we can leave our animals tied up in the shelter for some time,” Hajong said.

Almost all houses here are raised above the ground to protect them from frequent small floods. Purmila Hajong, another resident, said people realised the importance of raising their houses in the early 1990s.

“Initially, we raised our houses according to the flood levels. But the houses submerged in the next few flooding episodes. We then raised the houses more so that we did not have to vacate them in smaller flooding episodes,” she said.

The residents of the village last raised their houses after the 2018 floods. They have also formed a village disaster management committee, comprising 13 people.

It responds first whenever flooding takes place. “We realised that on almost all occasions, the community in any village is the first respondent.

“So we formed this committee and provided them rescue and relief training with the help of the National and State Disaster Response Force,” Luit Goswami, director, Rural Volunteers Centre (RVC), said. RVC is a non-profit which works in the Dhemaji and Majuli districts.

The raised shelter. Photo: Shagun

Other adaptations

Villagers are adapting in other ways as well. Families in Nepalipatthar, Banai, and Nalbari villages have shifted their cropping patterns by cultivating more Rabi than Kharif crops.

“We have started cultivating vegetables such as potato, tomato, eggplant, okra, and peas instead of Kharif paddy, which is slowly fading.

“We have also shifted more land towards boro rice, which is sown in November and harvested by March or April. People are also taking up mustard and pulses cultivation. We have also started rearing ducks,” Swadesh Hajong of Nalbari village, said.

The traditional variety of Kharif paddy gets damaged in floods usually. The three villages are also among the 40 that boast of a child friendly space in Dhemaji and Majuli districts.

These spaces, built on an elevated platform, have been conceived by RVC so that children’s studies or other activities don’t get disturbed.

“Children are worst-affected in any disaster. They get distressed without their normal routine like education in schools and recreation activities,” Goswami said.

Another adaptation measure has been raised hand pumps constructed with RVC’s help. It had become difficult for villagers to access any water source during floods as normal hand pumps used to get submerged.

People were then forced to drink floodwater by filtering it through a piece of cloth. But not anymore. The Mising Autonomous Council, an autonomous district council for the Mising tribal community in Assam and panchayats in some places, constructed elevated hand pumps.

However, there is a minor difference in the two models. While the RVC model has a ramp to access the hand pump, making it easier for elderly and pregnant women, the other models have stairs.

Similarly, in districts like Nalbari and Kamrup, 185 such tubewells and nine such elevated shelters have come up in the last few years, with the help of non-profit Gramya Vikas Manch.

The villages also have a raised Anganwadi, which the children also use as a school classroom, whenever the government school floods.

Ironically, the government school in Ajarbari was renovated in 2020, when the authorities already had a raised Anganwadi model in front of them. The Anganwadi was renovated and developed into a raised structure by RVC.

“It is perplexing as to why the government would not consider raising these structures. All Anganwadis and schools in the country can’t have the same model. The government should look into local problems. There is a strong need for advocacy of these measures,” Dharamraj Karki, secretary of RVC, said.

Newly built government structures in other Dhemaji villages too have not accounted for local factors. Take, for instance, Prafulla Hajong’s toilet built under the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan in 2018.

Hajong, a 79-year-old resident of Saguni Kota village, got a high raised toilet constructed way back in 2008, with the help of a UNICEF project, for which he paid from his own pocket.

Yet, when the government built a toilet just on its left side in 2018, it didn’t adopt the same model. The two toilets stand next to each other. “It is laughable. The government had a readymade model in front of them. But still, the authorities blindly followed the standard guidelines,” Hajong said.

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