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Can we afford to overlook Assam Floods?
Oxfam India / Pankaj Anand
Floods in Assam have become normalised in Indian consciousness. In over 70 years as an independent nation, India boasts of many achievements but we have not been able to solve the riddle of recurrent Assam floods. Often times, I have been asked what the reasons are for Assam floods which happen with such alarming regularity and the scale at which destruction happens.
It is estimated that over three million hectares of land in Assam is prone to floods of which roughly 1 million hectares is directly affected every year. The social, economic and ecological costs from successive floods are huge. Assam has seen irreversible land erosion caused by floods. Since 1954, erosion of over 0.42 million hectares of land has happened which is a whopping 7.1% of the state land mass. Southern Assam has borne the maximum brunt of erosion sweeping away several villages and small towns.
Assam floods happen due to a complex mix of geomorphology, physiography of the valley and the excessive rainfall. But these are natural causes. Make no mistake, all floods in Assam are not because of natural causes. There are man-made causes too. Riverine areas have been encroached by humans and then chaotic development efforts across the river systems in the state. We have built bridges, embankments and roads mindlessly which has restricted the natural flow of water. In Assam, the back flow of water is now a common occurrence which leads to breaking of embankments.
Given the extreme complexity around Assam floods, there are no easy solutions. Over the last 50 years or so, we have sought to only find structural solutions in the form of embankments to the problem completely ignoring natural flood control techniques using local topography. It is time we value the local knowledge, wisdom and coping mechanisms of communities who have co-existed with the strong rivers of Assam.
Oxfam India, an Indian entity, works on the short and long-term solutions by undertaking end-to-end action. This entails a combination of time-tested relief-early recovery-rehabilitation-Disaster Risk Reduction.
In the short term, Oxfam India provides quick relief which usually lasts 3-4 months. Typically, our quick relief comprises of a standard package covering Water, Sanitation and Hygiene, temporary shelter and emergency food and livelihood. But that is not all. There are several other initiatives which might be undertaken in the short term but have long term impact on the community e.g., bringing the focus on pregnant and lactating mothers, creating sustainable livelihood after the disaster subsides, life-skills education for children, preparing the citizens for accessing government entitlements/resources by creating an interface between citizens and government, among others. Even the documentation of best practices, policy papers, learning notes et al are sustainable ways of creating knowledge and engaging in a dialogue with the donors, government and civil society.
There is one lament though: Floods in Assam, as in the rest of North East, Bihar and Uttar Pradesh have become so normalised that we see no substantive media coverage. Media is the most potent force of public education and can spur policy changes at the highest level. It is time Indian media plays that role with earnestness. Urban middle classes have a role in spreading awareness that the problem of perennial flooding cannot be wished away. Complex problems need sustained solutions!
In the longer term interest of the local communities, Oxfam India undertakes initiatives for engaging with the state and district administration, UN agencies, and other humanitarian actors by advocating for sustainable change such that the ownership is taken by other stakeholders as well. Oxfam India also builds the capacities of other actors to achieve its long term objectives. Oxfam India’s response, recovery and rehabilitation efforts are designed on the principles of ‘value for money’ and we do recognise the dignity of those who we serve in the most difficult of places. It is always a humbling experience to see Oxfam India staff and volunteers work in the most trying circumstances, often in vulnerable conditions.
Despite a proud history of responding to disasters in India, Oxfam India recognises with humility that each disaster comes with a new challenge in terms of death, destruction, loss of livelihood and security and protection of the most vulnerable. We are learning as a humanitarian organisation and will continue to do so in the face of newer challenges posed by disasters!
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