The Flood Menace in Assam: A Review

July 15, 2011 Off By Mani Padma

No matter how much we speak about how beautiful the world is, how amazing the people are who make our lives wonderful in their own special ways, life is not always about the bold and the beautiful. There are certain realities that we cannot shut our eyes to, even if we want to be in a state of denial.  No matter how much we love the rains and celebrate the monsoon, the bitter fact remains, that monsoon brings tears to many in Assam and every year we fight a lost war against the floods.

Spoiler alert– This article is not an example of creative post nor is this an awareness article in the exact sense as I am sure that floods in Assam is something that everyone is aware of. But how much are we aware of the magnitude of the problem? What has been done till now to contain the floods? How successful have we been so far in containing Nature’s fury? Do we have the answers? I do not promise an answer for all of the following, but I started my search for it and decided to share with you all that I came across in the hope that some one out there or some of you over there may just have an idea on what to do for its solution.

If you are still skeptical on why this space should be devoted to the above issue, just take a look at the following two tables to understand why it needs to be addressed at the earliest. The tables below provide only the salient points; there is a huge amount of data available over the net if any body is interested in going into further details.

Flood damages in India.

Item Average 1953-1994 Maximum
Area affected in million hectares 7.56 17.5 (1978)
Population affected in millions 32.0 70.48 (1978)
Cropped area affected in million hectares 3.53 10.58 (1978)
Damage to houses in millions 1.17 3.51 (1978)
Number of cattle lost 96713 618248(1979)
Number of human lives lost 1504 11,316 (1977)
Damages to crop, houses and public utilities in crores 982.1 4630.3 (1988)

Average damage break up for Assam only

headings Area affected in m hectare Crop area affected in m hectare Damage to houses in nos Damage to public utilities in crores Total damage in crores
Average value s for the period  1953-82 excluding the years of high floods 0.582 0.118 5296 1.075 8.167
Average value for the period of 7 years from  1953-1982 (53 55 , 62, 66,73,77 and 80 1.853 0.31 27738 2.185 21.387
Average value for the period from  1985 to 1990 excluding high flood years 0.604 0.22 122477 85.70 139.74
Average value for three years for the period 1983 to 1990-1984,87,88 2.29 0.87 396061 119.65 353.75

A summary of Flood damages in Assam

Area affected in million hectares 41.66 3.82 (1988)
Population affected in millions 98.10 10.47 (1987)
Damage to crop area in million hectares 5.08 1.13 (1988)
Damage to houses in numbers 3327189 499835 (1988)
Number of cattle lost 431537 108913 (1987)
Number of human lives lost 1724 226(1988)
Damages to public utility in crore 832.42 225.82 (1988)

By the above comparative figures, it is quite apparent that Assam does contribute a major chunk to the flood statistics of India and though these were just the figures for a given section of time, the history of floods in the region goes long back and moves forward beyond 1994. If you take 1950, the year of the great earthquake of Assam as a sort of reference point then you will see that both the frequency and the intensity of floods has risen since then. Before 1950, floods were recorded in the years 1897, 1910, 1911, 1915 and 1931, mainly in the north banks of the Brahmaputra. After 1950, they were recorded in 1954,62,66,72,74,77,78,84,86,87,88,89,90,91,92,93,94,95,96,97, and the floods still continue to be a persistent problem of the region.

And I have not even counted the aftermath of flood – the diseases; the ensuing poverty etc. which if included will shoot up the figures of damages to an even unimaginable magnitude.

That brings us to few basic questions: Why does the Brahmaputra flood every year? How much does the environment contribute to its cause? How much are we to blame? If we do not understand that, we will never be able to proceed towards discussing solutions, let alone think about it.


It may sound sarcastic but it does seem that the Brahmaputra valley and the river basin were designed uniquely by nature to be favored for over flooding. Add to it some man made causes, the situation became grimmer and grimmer with each passing day.

Geographically-the 1950 earth quake caused some irreversible changes to the natural course of the river, river bed and the Brahmaputra valley which rendered the areas of Dibrugarh, Dhemaji, Majuli( to name a few) flood prone.

The valley being surrounded by hills and plateaus, a limited width of the area and the abrupt flattening of the gradient have been mentioned as contributing factors. As if these are not reasons enough, the weak geological formations add to the cause of massive erosion, which further adds to the disastrous effects of flood. In addition, the problem of drainage congestion at the mouth of the basin during high floods does nothing to help; instead, it worsens the condition.

Reckless land acquisition, mining in the upper reaches and deforestation for urbanization (partly due to rise in population), encroachment, and infiltration across the borders are notable factors that add to flood woes –all of which are induced by men. A little bit of check in our activities would go a long way in the prevention of floods. I was surprised to read that sometimes embankment which are built to contain over flooding can become the inducing factor for a flood disaster.

However, the primary reason of flood remains the Monsoons. The heavy rains lasting from June to September creates havoc and massive destruction to the amount of crores each year. Just imagine where Assam would have been today without this yearly outlay of crores in the name of flood damages- damages which include both private and public properties?

Half a century of damages and what has been done till date? Not much if we see from the continuing trends or may be just half done.

In Twitter language you can say that the flood control measures in Assam have proven to be an EPIC FAIL.

Flood Control Measures

It is not that flood control measures haven’t been implemented. Then why is it that they have failed to successfully control the damages? Though both the Brahmaputra and its tributaries and the Barak river are together responsible for the damages, the Brahmaputra which is also the lifeline for the people of Assam- the same Brahmaputra becomes the sorrow of Assam during the monsoons. It’s not the first time in history that the river of a civilization has caused immense grief; examples that come to my mind are the Hwang Ho, the Mississippi and the Nile, but how is it that they have advanced so much in flood control measures while we lagged behind?

 The Aswan Dam over the Nile permanently solved the flood woes of the Nile in as long back as the seventies.  Though the extensive and the longest system of levees or dikes, which like the Titanic was touted as infallible, could not prevent the floods in Mississippi in 1993, but it’s said that they at least were successful in controlling damages – damages, which in the absence of those same levees, would have been massive. Miles of levees, water reservoir dams at numerous points and erosion control measures have almost tamed the menacing Hwang Ho River.  Another noteworthy example of intelligence of man overcoming nature’s fury is the Delta works project of Netherlands. This has been the most successful example till date in preventing floods.

 It is said that the topography of the Brahmaputra plain and other River basins should not be compared to each other because of its high seismic zone. It is this same seismic risk which prevents Dams from being installed as a reservoir in the Brahmaputra and its tributaries. Even levees seem to be a doubtful option. Still, let us see what are the measures that have been taken till date and the objectives achieved.

Here is a table that shows us the achievements of the Brahmaputra Flood control commission in the Brahmaputra valley from 1976 to 2003

Unit Upto76-77 Upto79-80 Upto84-85 Upto96-97 Upto98 Upto 2000 2002-2003
Embankment constructed and RS work Km 3131/692 3262/692 3433/1086 4448 4450.5 4454.3 4459.70
Anti erosion and town protection work Nos /32 50/32 236 629 643 657 685
Construction of drainage channels Km 464 464 494 850.69 850.69 850.69
Sluices Nos 368 368 50 85 85 85 85
Benefitted Area L.Ha NA 13.90 13.27 16.147 16.150 16.159 16.182

For a period of twenty five years, it does not sound too impressive.  Till now, out of the total 31.6 lakh hectares only 16.18 lakh hectare area of the flood and erosion prone areas have been protected. Dams are controversial because of the seismic risk, economic hazard and the large scale displacement of people- something that does not go well with the environmentalist and activists.  In fact the Dam scene has been rife with controversies, which are more politically oriented rather than environment or socioeconomic driven.  The Pagladiya Dam that was approved by the centre for an amount of 540 crores in 2000 remains stalled till date because of many political oppositions and incompletion of the ground research work by the State Board. Dredging of riverbed has not been attempted much and the mainstay of our flood defense forces till date remains our embankments, which have become outdated and has been breached many times. A few flood prediction system been installed along the Brahmaputra but that is more a life saving means rather than going into the root of the cause. It can hardly prevent crop damage and damages to public utility works.

It has been agreed hugely that the effective management of floods may be possible as a long term solution with a reservoir in the upper catchment area and proper watershed management but that again brings us to a burning issue of building a dam in the Brahmaputra in China. But that will be dealt in another post in the future.

Certain Questions

So why have we been lagging behind?  In a country with the best brains and a state boasting of an IIT and a RRL, isn’t it an irony that we have not been able to contain the menace of floods? Frankly we do not have a clear transparent answer to this. No civic or government body has an answer to this. I tried searching for information on the cost, expenditure and funds utilized till date for flood management and what I came across is a mish mash of statistics which sort of opens a Pandora’s Box.

Flood control is a state’s subject and the state’s Irrigation or Water Resources Department takes care of flood control; the Centre has only an advisory, monitoring and funding role. In an Interview that I read in Toxics Alert an environment news bulletin, it was mentioned that over rated targets, poor maintenance and lack of accountability of the Irrigation bureaucracy are the major reasons behind the dismal performance. Here are some perfect examples of irrigation bureaucracy:

The failure of flood control in Assam has always resulted in a blame game between the state and the central government

-The Brahmaputra Board was constituted by the Centre on 1981 for planning and implementation of flood and erosion control measures in the Brahmaputra valley, but it became effectively functional only after 1997 when the Centre took an active interest in the flood problem of the North East. What happened in the interim years  1981-1997?

-Three master plans were prepared by the Brahmaputra Board as a centrally sponsored scheme which was put up before the Govt. of India for approval. Master plan I dealt with the river Brahmaputra while Masterplan part II concentrated on the Barak River. Both were approved by the Centre. An amount of 102 crore was provided to the Board in the tenth five year plan of which it was stated that 70 percent was utilized in salary and establishment related items. 70 percent for non-flood related expenditures? Isn’t that a huge ridiculous fraction? Either the fund provided was low or the Board overused it.

The schemes that were taken up by the Brahmaputra board back in 1999-2000 were

Harrange drainage development scheme

Pagladiya Dam project

New scheme for Majuli Island in Assam, Dihang

Dhola Hatighulli project

Immediate measures for protection of Majuli island from erosion and flood

Borbhaag drainage development scheme

Long term measures of protection of Majuli island from erosion and flood

Critical flood control and anti erosion measures

-The Harange project which was marked for a total expenditure of 10 crores and was later on increased up to 30 crores was supposed to be completed by 2005-2006 but was delayed inordinately and the last status that I detected was in 2010 where it was stated as 97 percent completed and a probability of completion by March 11. In spite of juggling the keywords , I still could not find out whether that project which was supposed to benefit 8300 families and an area of 11,000 hectare has been finally completed or not. Why the delay?

-The Pagladiya dam project, an ambitious project which was supposed to be started by 2001 and completed in 2007 has run into numerous controversies and road blocks and has been the worst hit of the lot in spite of an enormous fund allocation to the tune of over 540 crores . The Govt. of Assam has not been able to resettle the affected people yet, land hasn’t been acquiesced. In fact it hasn’t even completed a survey called Zirat survey (property assessment) ,after which only can the project proceed for implementation. The Centre blames the state government for non completion of the ground work. Does the State Govt have an answer to that?

The project for protection of Majuli  Island had a delayed start too. Does the Board have an answer as to why it was delayed?

-Earlier there had been accusation by the Centre that the State government often failed to utilize their allotted funds, while the State Govt. countered by saying that 100 percent of the funds should have been converted into grants rather than as loan. There was also a delay in release of funds in the year 2004-2005. Centre too took a long time in realizing and recognising the problem as a grave one. 


But now funds have been approved generously to the amount of 250 crores for flood control measures in the Bahmaputra Valley and the North East region.  Newer schemes have been detailed out and some of the older projects are on their way to completion hopefully. As per wishes of the people of Assam, Centre has agreed for a 100 percent grant instead of the existing 90 percent grant and ten percent loan.

It’s better late than never.  Both the state and central Govt. has been jolted into action but still a lot remains desired. If the authorities are led to believe that they are accountable and answerable to us for the delays, sloppy work, or any kind of irregularities, then may be we will see some of the objectives achieved, a shape of solution may take form.

Hence it is time now to make them accountable. With the boon and power of social media with us and people friendly laws, it is very much possible to make each and every dime that we pay as taxes accountable . Only then can we hope for a permanent solution of floods in Assam in the near future.

Sources –


 Author’s note- While researching for this article, I realized that in spite of numerous fan pages being there in Facebook for saving the panda, tiger, girl child and even Brahmaputra from Dams, surprisingly there was not even a single fan page that endorsed the cause of floods. Hence Fried Eye has taken the initiative to create a awareness and a discussion forum on the issue of floods. We will be thankful if you kindly show your support to the cause of Save North East India from floods.

We welcome your comments at