‘Unusual’ pre-monsoon rains and human activity form a deadly combination

For at least a week, the entire village of Janghal Block in Hojai district of Assam was under water. After heavy pre-monsoon rains, the nearby Kopili River – a tributary of the Brahmaputra – had been in full flood. On May 15, the waters of the river entered the village.

As it flooded homes, villagers were forced to flee. Part of the only road connecting Janghal Block to the outside world has been washed away.

Much of the road being swallowed up by the waters of the Kopili River, the only way to access the village was by boat. May 20, Scroll.in took a boat to meet 40 families crammed into a panchayat office.

“We couldn’t move a single thing,” said Jubeda Begum, 35. “The water entered our house very quickly. For his family of nine, the panchayat is home until they can return to their ravaged home two miles away.

“The floodwaters came into my house on May 15 and it’s still six feet under,” said Ajoba Khatun, 45. She and her family had been evacuated by their neighbor. “We could have died if he hadn’t come to our aid with his little campaign boat.”

Janghal Block village is just one of 3,652 villages in Assam that have been swept away by pre-monsoon floods this month. Over nine million people have been affected by floods and landslides in 33 of Assam’s 35 districts. As of May 22, 24 people had died.

Changing weather patterns were held responsible for the intense rainfall. But the damage caused by the floods that followed was made worse by human activity.

State authorities blame the rain. Residents of Hojai and Nagaon districts said the waters of the Kopili River suddenly swelled due to the dam upstream.

A hard rain

According to data from the Indian Meteorological Department, Assam received 62 percent above normal rainfall from March to May – 672.1 millimeters instead of the average 414.6 millimeters. This is the highest for 10 years. The state had recorded rainfall deficits of 41% and 10% in 2021 and 2020, respectively, during the same period.

Sunit Das, a senior scientist with the Indian Meteorological Department, said the humidity in the Bay of Bengal, combined with local weather factors, led to heavy rains. Das was cautious in calling this year’s rainfall “unusual”, saying long-term patterns should be studied first.

However, Guwahati-based geologist Sarat Phukan said flooding and landslides were “unusual” at this time of year. “It was triggered by an extreme climate/weather event compounded by poor design,” Phukan said. “We will definitely face more extreme climate/weather events in the coming days due to climate change.”

While extreme weather events are increasing in frequency, Phukan pointed out, the government has yet to build climate-resistant structures.

Environmentalist Dulal Chandra Goswami said, “High intensity rainfall combined with several factors such as deforestation, construction activities and hill-cutting over the past few years, has only worsened the overall situation. .

In Dima Hasao district, for example, large swathes of hills have been carved out and railway lines washed away by the rains.

Dima Hasao district is also home to the dam on the Kopili River. Tragedy had already struck the dam earlier this year. In March, three employees of the state-owned North Eastern Electric Power Corporation were killed trying to close the doors of a flooded tunnel after heavy “unseasonable” rain.

Rapids

In the downstream districts of Hojai and Nagaon, residents say the floods are getting worse every year.

Anar Ullah, 55, lives in Janghal Block and owns a small field boat, which he has already used to rescue 70-80 people this year. Ullah said he got the boat in 2004, during severe flooding.

“But this is the biggest flood I have seen in my life,” said Ullah, who has been living under tarpaulins near the road since floodwaters filled her home. “It’s not even the monsoon, but the flood is several times more deadly than that of 2004.”

According to the Central Water Commission, the Kopili River at Kampur in Nagaon district reached its highest flood level at 62.07 meters on May 17. The flood stage is the height reached by the water when the river overflows beyond the normal limits. The previous highest flood level for the Kopili River was recorded in July 2004, at 61.79 metres. The danger mark is 60.5 meters.

Residents of Tetelisora ​​Grant village in Nagaon district blamed their fate on the sudden release of water from the dam. The village lies between the towns of Kampur and Kathiatoli.

Flood waters from the Kopili have washed away the main road which connects Kampur and Kathiatoli and passes through the village of Tetelisora ​​Grant.

The road that crosses the village of Tetelisora ​​​​Grant.

Arobinda Deka’s house in the village of Tetelisora ​​Grant was inundated with water to the roof, he said, forcing him to take refuge in a camp five kilometers from the village.

“The floodwaters were very dirty and muddy,” he said. “The water was also flowing at high speed. We heard that they opened the floodgates to the dam – that’s why there’s a lot of water.

Scroll.in spoke to at least 20 residents of villages in neighboring Hojai district. They had all heard the same story.

“Some gates were opened in Dima Hasao, after which water suddenly entered the village on Sunday evening [May 15] said Abdur Hoque, 38, from Bhedeoti village. Hoque’s farmland is now under water and his rice crop is destroyed.

“The Kopili River is about eight to nine kilometers from our village,” he said. “Even though there had been a flood earlier, it took two to three days for the whole village to be submerged. This time, the whole village was submerged in 10 to 12 hours.

Zakir Hussain from Pub Bagari village echoed these claims. “It was water from the NEEPCO dam,” he said. “Most of the year it stays dry. They store water in winter and release it when the dam is full and they cannot control it. If a warning had been given, we could have prepared even better.

Mokbul Ali, a resident of Paschim Bagari village, agreed – they had only time to run for their lives. “What are you going to save – humans or animals?” asked Ali, 40.

He also said that for about a decade and a half they had seen the river go from drying up to overflowing its banks.

Anar Ullah, who has used his boat to save 70-80 people this year.

The rain, not the dam

NEEPCO Chairman and Managing Director VK Singh said all the gates of the dam had been opened since the tragedy in March and it was not even operational when this rainy spell started.

“People find it very easy to blame us without knowing the real facts,” he said. “The current floods have nothing to do with Kopili. The river flows naturally because all factories in Kopili have been under maintenance for three months. So how come NEEPCO causes flooding? This is nothing but misinformation.”

Gyanendra Tripathi, chief executive of the Assam State Disaster Management Agency, also attributed the pre-monsoon floods to “very heavy rainfall” in Assam, Meghalaya and Arunachal Pradesh .

“The release of water from the dam is not the main reason for the flooding,” said Tripathi, who also added that the situation was improving.

Even though NEEPCO did not release water from the dam after the rains started, the hydroelectric project had already disrupted the river system and the natural flow of water, pointed out researcher Mirza Zulfiqur Rahman, who works on the sociological impact of rivers.

“There is climate change, off-season rains and pre-monsoon showers at a higher percentage,” he said. “But this is combined with everything we have done on the ground. Interventions like the Kopili dam have made life difficult downstream in Nagaon and Hojai. This combination is what caused the disasters – it is neither one or the other.

“They shouldn’t be so selfish”

Meanwhile, at the panchayat office in Janghal village, displaced families said they had no clean water and were surviving on just one meal a day. Until the evening of May 20, they claimed, they had received no government assistance.

Help was reportedly sent by the district administration. But transporting them to residents was difficult.

“There is a boat crisis,” said Allauddin, whose brother is a member of the Janghal Block neighborhood panchayat. “There is no communication. The roads are damaged. How are we going to distribute them in very remote areas?

The desperate conditions led to anger against politicians and the government. “If there was an election they would have come for our votes, but now that we need help they must not be seen,” Hussain said.

Tankeswar Das, a resident of Tetelisora ​​Grant village, questioned the logic of hydropower projects.

“It hasn’t even rained a week here,” he said. “How can there be floods? They should have thought of us. Farmers like us are currently suffering huge losses. We need electricity, but they shouldn’t be selfish.

He continued, “We have a request for Narendra Modi: save the people of Assam. Every year, floods cause enormous damage. Why has the government not yet found a solution? They don’t know how to control the floods in Assam.

A house in the Nagaon district.

All photos by Rokibuz Zaman.

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