Climate Change Engulfs Assam

Extreme rainfall intensifying flood risk in Northeast India, Climate Change Engulfs Assam

By Chandan Kumar Duarah

Though flood is a recurrent feature in this part of India, the recent deluge is quite unmatched. Of late, the northeastern part of the country is experiencing the impact of climate change in excessive rainfalls, heavy and flash flood,  a early or late monsoon, longer summer, drought-like situations, rise in temperature, an increasing pest population etc. Climate change in the region is found to be accelerated with large amount of carbon emission and deforestation in Northeast India. The annual monsoon, crucial to India’s food production and economic growth, hit the tropical country earlier in the month of June this year.
Human induced climate change continues to warm the Brahmaputra valley. Higher temperatures increase the amount of water that evaporates from the surfaces of water bodies in the region as well as the temperature of air that moves over the gulf, increasing the amount of water vapour it can hold. Apart from climate change attributed to global warming local factors impact the extreme weather in northeast Indian region–mostly the Brahmaputra River Valley (BRV). Loading the atmosphere with increasing carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping emissions from industries, vehicles and forest & fuel wood burning is raising global temperatures and triggering heavier precipitation events. Carbon dioxide from burning fossil fuel, natural gas-burning and burning of tropical forests for jhum cultivation accumulates in the atmosphere, trapping heat that would otherwise escape into space.

This trapped heat raises the region’s average temperature. Assam has been experiencing all the symptoms associated with alarming levels of BC pollution since the last 5-6 years (1. severe droughts in Assam during 2005-06 and 2008-09 leading to 25m in losses due to crop failure. 2. extreme flash flooding during certain years and abnormality in monsoon patterns and 3. strengthening of pre-monsoon tropical cyclonic systems).     Assam suffers flooding almost every year but this year’s disaster is the worst in at least a decade. Flooding is becoming more devastating year by year which causes extensive economic loses. So governments need to update their plans to prevent and mitigate floods to account for the ways in which climate change is driving more intense precipitation events.  Experts observe that after a heavy precipitation event, there is less water vapour in the atmosphere, and therefore dry spells tend to longer. In the absence of rain, extra heat exacerbates drying and can contribute to longer and more intense drought periods. So it is feared that the eastern and northeastern region may suffer from extreme drought. Prof. Nayan Sarma of IIT, Roorkee has said that the possible reason for the recent floods in Assam is the changes taking place in climate. He said that a study done under an Indo-German Project indicated the likely impact of climate change with the temperature projected to increase in the Brahmaputra basin in the coming decades, the higher values being in the Tibetan Plateau. Parameters directly dependent on temperature, like potential evatranspiration are also assumed to show clear trends of rise. This will have a severe impact on the hydrology of the Brahmaputra river basin. Different climate change indicators point to more frequent and prolonged droughts, Prof Sarma added.

As in most emergency situations, children and women are worst affected victims. They are in critical need of nutrition support and protection during this tumultuous time. These situations heighten vulnerability and expose them to abuse and threaten their very survival. Drinking water, dry food, hygiene kits, temporary shelter and infant supplementary foods are needed to rescue people from troubled water. Moreover the post-flood problems have heightened the risk of water-borne diseases in effected areas. The existing  water sources (well, hand pump, and tube wells have been submerged and contaminated with floodwater. The stagnant water and lack of mosquito nets have also raised the risk of malaria in the affected areas. Cases of viral fever and cold have been reported among children. There is no quick and emergency medical help by the state health and medical department to the effected areas. No temporary medical camps are opened. Doctors visit to these areas are rare. Every drop of drinking water will have to be stored, as the floodwaters drown the well in their compound which is their only source of water. The floods make defecation problematic, especially for women. Who are menstruating during the floods, things are much worse. The tattered cloths they use as pads, known as nuora or chua, are often dried inside the house or underneath other cloths to save embarrassment. These women usually wait for late evening or early morning to answer the call of the nature, journalist Teresa Rehman said. Now most of flood effected families have to keep a makeshift raft made of banana stems ready before the onset of the monsoon or probable floods. The raft is the only means the women have to search for a dry spot on which to defecate. Lacks of a dry place to defecate make it problematic. Sometimes, during the flood they starve themselves so that they do not need to defecate. Finding a palace to answer nature’s call involves drifting in a raft until she finds a dry place, and the polluted flood waters are the only source of drinking water and bathing. This, at a time when India has launched a Total Sanitation Campaign that aims to eradicate open defecation by the end of 2010.

Floods and erosion pose a grave risk for the entire Brahmaputra valley. Globally, the Brahmaputra river system is perhaps the only one known for its loss of about 100 sq km of land per year due to bank erosion. While some districts of Assam are struggling to get rid of erosion, food scarcity and other post-flood problems, another wave of flood hits another three districts of the state Bongaigaon, Chirang and Kokrajhar, Lakhimpur and Dhemaji. Both current wave of floods in the state have affected the nearly 25000,000 people marooning over 23 districts. Although, flood is a recurrent feature in this part of India, the recent deluge is quite unmatched. Of late, the northeastern part of the country is experiencing the impact of climate change in excessive rainfalls, heavy and flash flood, a early or late monsoon, longer summer, drought-like situations, rise in temperature, an increasing pest population etc. Climate change in the region is found to be accelerated with large amount of carbon emission and deforestation in Northeast India. The annual monsoon, crucial to India’s food production and economic growth, hit the tropical country earlier in the month of June this year.

The first flood in Assam have affected more than 15 lakh men, women and children in 23 districts of which Sonitpur, Morigaon and Nowgaon are worst affected.  After two week of the wave most of houses and paddy fields are still inundated by flood waters and communication channels have been cut off. Over 500.000 people continue to live in relief camps. At a time the second wave of flood pushed lakh people to leave their inundated or devastated homes. About 124 people have died due to the devastating flood. The flood survivours are struggling to get access to food, safe water and shelter. Over 90 percent of hand pumps have submerged in the flood water. Every drop of drinking water will have to be stored, as the floodwaters drown the well in their compound which is their only source of water. The floods make defecation problematic, especially for women. Agriculture was among the worst affected areas. Assam, predominantly an agricultural state, suffered huge losses in the recent floods. With 2,54,935 hectares of cropland damage, the crop loss has been estimated well over 50 per cent. The Kaziranga National Park, a World Heritage Site and the Dibru-Saikhowa National Park–located on the edge of the Eastern Himalaya biodiversity hotspot equally bore the burnt of the recent waves of flood—termed the worst in recent years. Both the parks are storehouses of Eastern Himalayan biodiversity.

The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) is prepared to support India and Bangladesh, the South Asian countries that are experiencing heavy rains and flooding, a top UN official said. “The office is monitoring the situation in both countries and stands ready to support if the authorities request international assistance,” UN spokesperson Martin Nesirky was quoted as saying by Xinhua. In Bangladesh, at least 110 people have been killed in Chittagong and 40,000 people uprooted following three days of rain and flash floods, Nesirky said. The countries of south and southeast Asia are home to more than 30 percent of the world’s population and about half the population depend on agriculture, rice being the staple. According to the World Bank global warming could reduce agricultural productivity in the region by 10 to 50 percent by the next 30 years.

Assam suffers flooding almost every year but this year’s disaster is the worst in at least a decade. Flooding is becoming more devastating year by year which causes extensive economic loses. So governments need to update their plans to prevent and mitigate floods to account for the ways in which climate change is driving more intense precipitation events. Experts observe that after a heavy precipitation event, there is less water vapour in the atmosphere, and therefore dry spells tend to longer. In the absence of rain, extra heat exacerbates drying and can contribute to longer and more intense drought periods. So it is feared that the eastern and northeastern region may suffer from extreme drought.

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