A well-known photographer of a well-known publication had once published a picture of a flooded plain and a cow taking refuge on a tree. The following day the media rushed to the spot searching for flooded areas and encountered villagers who related the story of how they had helped place a calf on the tree against some money for the photograph. They offered to do the same if paid a little more.

 

Some areas are reported to have been flooded in the last couple of weeks in Assam.  An embankment in Jorhat has breached and two dozen villages are reportedly affected. Though the river Brahmaputra and many of its tributaries are flowing above the danger line, the situation is not as grim as some pictures show. It could get worse in the coming weeks with heavy rainfall in the region.

 

However, the impact of a flood is not seasonal and very often it carries on for years. A family that has been affected two years ago would still be grappling to make ends meet.

 

Every year the river washes away lives, land, and property. Poorly maintained embankments are breached and floodwater consumes whatever comes in its way. It may be an annual feature but for the millions who lose virtually everything it is an annual cycle of debt; houses are broken in low-lying areas and need repair. Standing crop gone, the farmers need to borrow money to run households. Property washed away means more borrowing to replace lost possessions.

 

I recall a village in Rohmaria near Dibrugarh in upper Assam. A family had lost its crop for the season and with silt deposit there was no hope for a second crop either. Their house was on the edge of a strip of land that was fast disappearing due to erosion; the river was eating up chunks of land every day.  A herd of elephants came down the river swimming with the tide and as they hit the banks they walked through the village trampling whatever came on their way.

Relief camps are routinely set up but the conditions in them are usually deplorable. Health centres are poorly equipped and most government agencies do not deliver.

The family had gone to spend the night at the relief camp set up by the government. The following morning when they returned home they found the elephants had destroyed it. They had lost their season’s earnings and with the house and property gone, the only means left was to borrow.

 

Floods, flash floods, river-bank erosion, and sand casting (deposition of large amounts of sand by flood water) in the eastern Brahmaputra basin of Assam over the last several decades have left people homeless and displaced, destroyed crops, damaged public property, and infrastructure. Annual cycles of hazards cripple people’s resilience and intensify the poverty spiral. None of this has been documented so one does not know how many lives have really been affected.

 

Entire settlements have gone inside the river. Migrations from low-lying areas into towns and cities have had serious political consequences due to an apparent change in demography. It is a state of chaos perpetrated by abysmal flood management

 

Thousands of hectares of fertile land across the valley have been lost to the river due to frequent shifting in the river course and erosion of riverbanks. Sand casting is one of the worst hazards because it results in degradation of thousands of acres of farmland and wetlands due to deposition of debris, mainly coarse sand particles, by floodwaters.

 

Educational institutions in flood affected areas shut down affecting students. As children drop out of schools and families struggle to provide food, traffickers prowl to take women and children away. Disasters are the most potent hunting ground for human trafficking.

 

Read more: Blood On My Hands

 

Relief camps are routinely set up but the conditions in them are usually deplorable. Health centres are poorly equipped and most government agencies do not deliver.

 

Flood mitigation actually means management of embankments and low lying areas and building of effective community disaster response system. That requires political will and no governments have yet demonstrated that. Given the new Assam Chief Minister has won from Majuli island that faces threat from unabated erosion, one expects a comprehensive flood management plan from the new dispensation.