Adapting to floods and improving lifestyles could give us some clues to finding an alternative to embankments

Dr David Molden, Director General, ICIMOD, talks to Monoj Gogoi on his visit to flood-affected Lakhimpur and Dhemaji districts of Assam and Itanagar, Arunachal Pradesh.
In conversation with Dr Molden (Source: Monoj Gogoi) In conversation with Dr Molden (Source: Monoj Gogoi)

Dr Molden, you have visited Dihiri in Dhemaji district and Borsala in Lakhimpur districts. Both these villages are the worst flood affected villages of the region. You also interacted with the communities in these two villages. What was the purpose of this visit? Please share your experiences.

Yes, the purpose of the visit was to understand what has been happening at these sites. We have two different kinds of projects, one is the Community Based Flood Early Warning System (CB-FEWS), and the second looks at how best to use remittances from the migrants to rebuild the livelihoods of the people. So these are important programmes and important ideas from ICIMOD and its partners, and that is my purpose of coming here. We also want to try and see how we can support and make those programmes better, and also make them widely available to the people here. It is thus important that our team discusses with villagers and partners and really see how we can support them.

ICIMOD and Aaranyak jointly installed the CB-FEWS on the banks of Jiadhal river in Dhemaji district and Singora river of Lakhimpur district. As we are told by the community, due to the early warning from such machines, it became possible for them to save their livestock, property and other valuables from the floods. What are the future plans regarding the CB-FEWS?

I think it has to continue but to do so, we need an expanded network of early warning systems. So the idea is that it has to be done with government and local partners. We need an improved and expanded network because what we heard from the communities also is that floods are really threatening livelihoods and are possibly getting worse these days, especially the sediments of the floods. So we have a situation where the people are highly vulnerable to floods, perhaps the vulnerability has been increasing. We have to do more in that area.

The rivers of this region are shared rivers. All the rivers that cause havoc due to flood and erosion in this part of Assam are either oozing out from Arunachal Pradesh or flowing through Arunachal Pradesh but it has been noticed that there is no coordination between these two states; they aren't sharing any data. What can be done in this regard?

You know, what I noticed is that both pan-India and cross border sharing of data is extremely sensitive. But as I was talking to my Chinese colleague, I asked "Can you help in facing flood problems. It is a more humanitarian issue?" He looked at me and said, "We don't need to share water data, we can share the warning, the flood warning". That was the way he could get around the issue. So presented as sharing of flood warning, we can get around the contentious issue of sharing water data and I think we have a possibility there. I will be going to Itanagar today for this Indian Mountain Initiative Summit which starts from the 7th of October. There, one of the sessions is on Disaster Risk Reduction (DRR) where there is an opportunity to bring up this issue to both the people in Assam as well as in Arunachal Pradesh. I think it is a serious humanitarian issue. Lives are at stake here.

During floods or flash floods, these rivers carry huge amounts of silt and debris downstream. The people from Arunachal Pradesh claim that they are losing fertile soil in their state and affected communities in Assam claim that widespread sandcasting has degraded their agricultural lands and damaged standing crops. How can these problems be tackled? 

I think you really hit the nail on the head. We heard during our visit about the source of flooding, which is deforestation in the hills that has been bringing down more and more sediments. So on one hand Arunachal Pradesh is losing top soil, and Assam is losing fertile lands on the other. The story we need to tell the people is 'protect forests and protect the downstream'. I hope people derive to make changes on both the sides, Arunachal Pradesh and Assam. And that's story we need to tell to help protect the hills, help the downstream people. That needs to be stated loud and clear, over and over again.

It is often alleged that the embankments and other engineering structures are not the permanent solutions to floods. Is there any other alternative? How can the flood problem be controlled or mitigated in this region?

I have heard about these issues/concerns not just in Assam, but in many other countries as well. People are going to build roads, railway lines etc, but that stops water, stops drainage and makes the flood worse. So I think there is an engineering consideration that we need to pay more attention to. Embankments are always a contentious issue because you know once you start building embankments, you almost have to continue forever.

But there is a solution from Assam that we should really look into much more, and that is 'living with floods'. We heard the person from Dihiri, from the Mising tribe, right? I was curious, you know, the Mising community like to live on the riverbanks. He was saying, "Our nature is to live with floods". That I think is a clue from which we can learn and study a little bit harder and take what people are doing in this area seriously. You know, adapting to floods and maybe improving lifestyles could give us some clues to finding an alternative to embankments. The other approach is living with floods and not building permanent settlements on flood plains etc.

Do you think that basin wise study of these rivers will help in tackling/mitigating/managing flood and erosion?

Certainly, basin-wise study can be done. I was involved quite a bit in a number of these studies during my career from small community skills to bigger river basins and to understanding issues of how people are connected through water. It is important to do basin-wise studies but the studies need not be just about hydrology, they have to be about community, social science, how people manage water, how people are more connected etc. What we saw today is interesting. The early flood warning system was bringing people closer. The upstream villagers sharing information with the downstream people connected them. So that should be a part of the basin where the water is coming from and where the water is going through.

We all know that the ICIMOD has been working on climate change and adaptation in various countries. Due to climate change, the intensity and frequency of floods and erosion is increasing in this region. Affected communities are adapting to it without any scientific knowledge. Will your organisation take any initiative to help these communities in adapting to climate change related disasters?

There are few points that I want to make. You know what's happening is that there is social change in addition to climate change. For example, deforestation is human, a man-made change that could be making the floods worse than climate change. In the future, there is the likelihood of more intense rainfall, serious flood events, so there will be a combination of climate change plus each of the human made change, that's number one.

Secondly, ICIMOD is trying to help at several places. One way is by just understanding the impact of all these changes and second is on how to adapt to these as we saw in Dihiri, that flood early warning system is a key to adaptation. That is what I would call a more protective type of adaptation to floods. We need more than that, we need something that builds on the livelihood appeal. The alternative in the face of disaster that really helps is to have a strong livelihood base. We have also seen what to do with the villagers with remittances from the migrants. We are also providing training to women on how to better handle money that their husbands are making. We are building the inner strength of the community. On the one side we are protecting and on the other side building the core strength of the community.

But the key for ICIMOD lies in working with local partners, one is Aaranyak and the other is Institute of Integrated Rural Management (IIRM) as they know the local realities. The second key is sharing of knowledge to connect people throughout the mountain region. We get people from different parts of India, from different countries from the Himalayas. We share ideas all the time through face to face meetings, through literature, media, videos. We appreciate the role of the media.

As far as I know, your organisation, in collaboration with Guwahati based NGO Aaranyak worked a lot for sustainable ecosystem livelihoods at Maguri Motapung wetland in Tinsukia district of Assam. The wetlands of Dhemaji and Lakhimpur districts are vanishing rapidly these days due to various factors. What should be done to restore the ecosystems of these wetlands?

We are closely involved with Maguri Motapung wetland of Tinsukia district in Assam. We chose one particular area to do a pilot but this can be replicated in other areas too. We know that a lot of wetlands require the management approach. The management till now is under Forest Department, and with the Fisheries Department coming in, they have been auctioning wetlands to the bidders for fishing. Most of the time, the local communities lose their rights over fishing. That's the scenario.

Now what needs to be done is to bring in an approach which is more fair to the local people as well, where they will find a better deal and will have more incentives. In Maguri, we are working with 7-8 villages around the wetland. The Forest Department is also involved because it's a wetland, as is the Fisheries Department and the district administration (DA). The DA has already set up a committee which draws from different departments and the community and are now looking at how we can develop a management plan.

This is the way ICIMOD is working. We will bring in technical expertise involving local experts. Once the management plans are developed in the community and the different departments involved, the committee will then approve the management plans and then look for funding within the government. That way the institutions, the mechanisms, the whole process is a model we try out. If we succeed then this can be replicated in other wetlands too.

There is a huge under appreciation of the value of wetlands in terms of understanding its role in flood protection, fishing, groundwater recharge etc and it's a public relations exercise to quantify the value of an ecosystem. You were talking about river basin. Wetlands are always a part of river basins, so one should understand the function of river system and livelihoods as well.

What will be the next phase of work with Aaranyak?

We have our pilots, somehow we can do better work for all of this, especially since we have flash flood and more dense networks of early flood warning systems, but I believe also that we need community and government support. So for me the next step is lifting the game to another level.  Aaranyak is doing wonderful work with the community and it's spreading!

Dr David Molden is the Director General (DG) of Kathmandu-based International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) and also a world renowned water expert and an environmentalist. Monoj Gogoi works as a Dhemaji district correspondent for Eastern Chronicle, Eastern Sentinel and Dainik Agradoot and DY 365 (an Assamese news Channel). He is interested in reporting on environmental, water, climate change, disaster and dam related issues from the eastern Brahmaputra basin.

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