Floods and Landslides in Assam: A warning or an opportunity to reorient development?
By taking steps to reorient Assam’s development to mainstream climate concerns, the state can heed the warning from the floods of May 2022 and emerge stronger and more resilient to future climate risks.
Subrata Chakrabarty 3 Jun 2022 9:52 AM GMT
While traveling to my native village in the interior of Assam to meet my grandparents, I used to wait for the Barak Valley Express train at the New Haflong railway station. I always admired the lush greenery and scenic beauty in and around the railway station. Two weeks ago, I was shocked to see images of the entire railway station engulfed in waist-deep mud and debris, devastated by floods and landslides due to unusually heavy pre-monsoon rains.
The mayhem was not limited to this station alone. Extensive damage to roads and railway lines along the Lumbding-Haflong-Badarpur section disrupted the supply of grains and vegetables to districts like Cachar, causing the prices of these essential items to rise rapidly. The same heavy pre-monsoon showers also caused waterlogging in parts of Guwahati city.
As the floods and landslides continued, 38 persons lost their lives and more than 41,000 houses were damaged. At the peak of the crisis, more than 7 lakh persons were affected across more than 2,000 villages in 22 districts. More than 95,000 hectares of cropland was under water. The Food Corporation of India warned that the worst-hit districts of Hailakandi, Karimganj, and Cachar had just 15 – 20 days of food grains in stock.
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Why did this happen?
Assam is prone to floods during the monsoon. However, the pre-monsoon rain was unusually intense this year. One factor could be global warming, which is causing marine heatwaves and intensifying the water cycle. The recent "Code Red" report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change cautioned that the variability of monsoon precipitation in South Asia is likely to increase during the 21st century.
Secondly, deforestation and inadequate urban land-use planning along with the demand for land for agriculture and housing have led to the destabilization of hill slopes. Guwahati, for instance, has witnessed increased landslides due to increase in urbanisation and house construction in hilly areas.
Moreover, the construction of major road, rail, and hydropower projects could also have exposed the region to the impacts of heavy rainfall and flooding. Examples of recent infrastructure development include the East-West Road corridor that connects Silchar to Saurashtra, the conversion of the Lumding-Badarpur rail line to broad gauge, and upstream dams in Assam and Arunachal Pradesh.
Though infrastructure development is needed for this region, if it does not take into account the increased risks due to climate change and the ecological sensitivity and carrying capacity of the landscape, then such development could become maladaptive and increase the vulnerability to extreme weather events.
Opportunities for climate-resilient growth
The state of Assam is vulnerable to the impacts of climate change and the yearly occurrence of these extreme events will not only lead to the loss of lives and infrastructure, but also put a lot of financial stress on the economy. It is imperative and urgent for the state to climate proof its people and infrastructure against future risks by integrating climate action and disaster risk management into the development agenda.
First, develop climate resilient urban development strategies with the active participation of local communities, experts, NGOs, research organisations, and all other relevant stakeholders. For example, another flood-prone state, Kerala, is planning to develop a monitoring and evaluation framework to mainstream climate change strategies into state level planning and development process.
Second, develop and enact a framework to mainstream climate change adaptation objectives into sectoral policies and plans. This will require coordination among multiple stakeholders, institutions, and processes, but will ensure the efficient use of resources and investments and improve the climate resilience and development outcomes for the state.
Also Read: Northeast battered by floods: Landslides wash away bridges, at least 15 dead, more than 500,000 displaced
Third, align domestic budgetary resources with climate friendly development. For instance, Odisha undertook a rigorous cross-sectoral analysis to come up with the state climate budget for 2020-21. Such an exercise will assist the state in identifying policies and programmes that need to be strengthened or safeguarded from the perspective of climate resilience and mitigation.
Finally, tap into international finance by developing programmes and projects that transparently target climate mitigation and resilience outcomes within set timelines. For example, after the 2018 floods and landslides, the Rebuild Kerala Development Programme received finance of US$250 million from multilateral development bank to enhance resilience to climate change impacts.
By taking steps to reorient Assam's development to mainstream climate concerns, the state can heed the warning from the floods of May 2022 and emerge stronger and more resilient to future climate risks.
Subrata Chakrabarty is Senior Manager, Climate Program, World Resources Institute India. Views are personal.