Assam floods: Nature’s fury or govt apathy?

The floods have clearly highlighted the inability of the administration.

Neha Attre

Assam is facing one of the worst floods since 1998. The wrath of the floods that hit the state recently has spared none, affecting humans and animals alike. So far, over 100 people have died in various districts of the state and nearly 600 animals have perished in the Kaziranga National Park.

Just as the loss of human lives in Assam is shocking, the news of the death of hundreds of animals, including some of the endangered species in the Kaziranga National Park has also given all of us a big jolt.

Assam Forest and Environment Minister Rockybul Hussain has called one of the worst floods in the last decade in the state, as nothing short of a "catastrophe".

Kaziranga Park, spread over 860 sq km, is a UNESCO world heritage site and is home to two-thirds of the world’s remaining one-horned rhinos. According to the rhino census of April this year, the Park has 2,290 one-horned rhinos.

Located on the southern banks of Brahmaputra, the floods usually help in recharging the grassland and wetlands in the area which in turn help in the survival of herbivores and carnivores.

This is not the first time that Kaziranga National Park has faced floods that have led to such severe losses. In 1988, around 1023 animals had died and in 1998, when 652 animals had perished.

“Kaziranga National Park is dominated by wetlands. During times of excess rainfall, the water from Brahmaputra river overflows into the natural reserve as majority of the land is in a low-lying area,” S Bora, director of Kaziranga National Park said.

The situation is same this year too. The floods swamped the area on June 22 as soon as it started raining; nearly 80 percent of the area was submerged in water making it difficult for the trapped and helpless animals to escape.

However, the administration is yet to wake up to the havoc that calamity has caused.

Should a National Park of this stature, which is home to one of the largest populations of an endangered species in the world, be left to nature’s mercy?

Following the floods, animals were forced to move to higher lands making them more vulnerable to poachers. Sadly, the young and the old ones were left behind to die. Around 4 rhinos have reportedly been killed by poachers.

However, the question remains - when facing the same situation year after year and being one of the important areas for conservation of the endangered species and home to several others, shouldn’t preventive measures have been taken to reduce the extent of damage and minimise the loss?

The administration has earlier made several announcements to prevent floods for the coming year but the fact remains that these promises failed to become reality. In a bid to control the extent of damage caused by floods, Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi had last year announced Rs 100 crore package to repair weak embankments. However, the project has still not been implemented.

According to Bora, “As this is a notified area, construction of embankment here is difficult. Earlier, we used to use dredger to take out the silt from the Brahmaputra riverbed. But as the mechanism was extremely expensive and the procedure did not turn out to be effective as the area here is too huge. So, we shelved the plan.”

Bora also added, “Technical experts are always welcome. It will be helpful not just in Kaziranaga National Park, but the entire state in dealing with such calamities.”

Is it the lackadaisical attitude of government officials, absence of much-needed expertise or lack of funds for the projects that is to be blamed?

According to forest department officials from the Kaziranaga National Park, the water resources department is authorised to carry out flood prevention work in the area. Also, as it is a notified area, in order to prevent such instances of floods from the river permission from various departments is required which is a time-consuming process.

Even as one department waits for the other to take concrete action, the fact remains that the floods have completely ravaged the area and the death toll is rising with every passing day.

The floods have clearly highlighted the inability of the administration to tackle the mighty Brahmaputra. The river embankments that have been constructed to control floods have proved to be a poor option. So clearly, we need a new and permanent approach to the perennial problem.