Legend has it that in a village on the island of Majuli in Assam, whenever someone needed something, they would go to a nearby beel (wetland) and pray to the water god (devata) and their wish would be fulfilled. Even today, the wetland is known as Bhakati beel, meaning “the beel of devotion”.

“Symbolically, this legend shows the significance of wetlands in the life of the people of Majuli,” says Gobin Kumar Khound, a writer and local environmental activist in the island. “Beels are the arteries of Majuli.”

Situated in the middle of the Brahmaputra, the landscape of Majuli is dotted with a string of beels. The variety of these wetlands is so rich that there’s an elaborate indigenous taxonomy of water bodies in Majuli.

In the book, Slow Disaster: Political Ecology of Hazards and Everyday Life in the Brahmaputra Valley, Assam (2023), political ecologist Mitul Barua writes, local people in Majuli divide the wetlands into many categories depending on their size and characteristics, such as beel, jan, suti, erasuti, dubi, ghuli, hola, pitoni and so on.

“A string of beels in a landscape indicates the presence of major rivers in it in the past, which may have migrated channels over time. Majuli is a classic case of that, given the elaborate network of beels found all over the island,” writes Barua.

In 1917, there were 49 named streams draining Majuli, which decreased to seven by 1972. Today, there’s only one drainage channel, Kakorikata, that drains the whole of Majuli. And Tuni, the only river in Majuli, that once meandered through the island like a serpent has ceased to flow.

Sand deposits and silt have choked water bodies across the island. Larger wetlands have reduced in size and many smaller ones have disappeared.

A combination of factors is contributing to the decline of wetlands in Majuli, including building of embankments and consequent lack of natural flood water circulation in large parts of the island, expansion of agriculture and infrastructure and erosion.

The lifeline of Majuli

Beels are the primary wetlands in Majuli. A beel is a billabong or a lake-like wetland with static water, typically formed by the inundation of low-lying lands during flooding where some water gets trapped even after floodwaters recede. Beels are perennial water bodies.

In the upper Brahmaputra valley, where Majuli is located, a large number of people depend on a range of ecosystem services provided by wetlands. According to a study published in the Indian Journal of Agricultural Economics in 2022, an estimated 200,000 people depend on fishing activities in the wetlands of the region.

In Majuli, beels ensured food security of the local populace, including marginal communities such as the Mishing and the Koibartta. However, with the decline of the wetlands, fish production in Majuli has reduced drastically over the past few decades.

Tilak Chandra Sarmah, a grassroots conservationist in Majuli, says, “Now the situation is so dire that if there is ujan [shoaling or schooling of fish] in a beel that has only a small number of fishes, hundreds of people will queue for a catch.”

The scarcity of local fish in Majuli is so high that for the last several years, fish has been imported to meet the local demand, adds Sarmah.

The decline of wetlands has impacted other local livelihoods as well. As wetland areas in Majuli decrease, the local demand for boats has dwindled, forcing traditional boat-makers of the island to look for other occupations, states a 2020 study on the impacts of wetland degradation on local livelihoods in Majuli.

A dry xuti, a type of water-body, that flows through the Salmora village to the Brahmaputra. Credit: Bikash K Bhattacharya/Mongabay.

Paradise for birds in decline

Majuli’s fertile floodplains and once highly productive wetlands used to provide an ideal habitat for a plethora of resident and migratory birds, more than 250 species.

Historically, the wetlands of Majuli were well known for birds, and Ahom monarchs used to visit the island for falconry. One such historical bird habitat in the island is Sorai Chung wetland. Considered as an Important Bird Area (IBA), local communities believe Sorai Chung to be one of the oldest royal bird sanctuaries in the world.

Khound, who has recently published a novel titled Sorai Chung set in the history of the area, says that this historical wetland has now shrunk to about 5 square kilometres.

“The shrinkage of the wetlands has led to a decrease in the water bird population in Majuli,” Shyamal Saikia, a research scholar at Assam University who is working on grassland birds of Majuli, says. “Decrease in the fish population in beels has in turn impacted the birds dependent on fish.”

In Ujani Majuli revenue circle, migratory birds frequent wetlands like Bordoloni, Aaroi Khowa, Bokajan, Goriya Beel, Sengeli Mora, Gelgeli, Koroiyoni, Xoriyohtoli, Nangoli Mukh, Aamguri, Kotai, Rotiram Jan, Kotai Nahoroni, Sorola Pothar. Many of these wetlands are under encroachment.

Nevertheless, Saikia says that some wetlands are still in healthy condition and have the potential for development of sustainable ecotourism.

“Unfortunately,” writes political ecologist Barua in Slow Disaster, “despite the presence of hundreds of beels in Majuli, some of them with great historical and ecological significance, none of the beels have been designated as a Ramsar site. Such a recognition could have perhaps helped conserve these wetlands better.”

Migratory birds in Majuli. Credit: Anil Ch Borah, CC0 1.0, Wikimedia Commons.

1950 earthquake, series of floods

In 1950, an earthquake of 8.6 Richter scale, changed the Brahmaputra valley, including Majuli’s wetlands, forever. The earthquake radically reconfigured the courses and configurations of the Brahmaputra and its tributaries, and raised the riverbed of the Brahmaputra by a few metres.

In his account, The Great Assam Earthquake 1950, Frank Kingdon-Ward, a British botanist who was travelling to the upper reaches of the region at the time, stated that the earthquake resulted in multiple landslides in the hills and the rivers got flooded with enormous amounts of sediments, which led to a change in the river pattern.

Following the earthquake of 1950, three heavy floods occurred during 1951, 1954, and 1962, the last being the most severe according to the people of Majuli.

A 2014 study states that Majuli has lost a huge area “due to combined effects of earthquake and consequent deposition of excessive sediment in river bed transported from the geologically fragile upper hilly catchments causing the river to braid erratically.”

Locals say that several wetlands turned shallow following the earthquake of 1950, ultimately leading to drying up of the water.

“For example, Pahumara jan was a run-off from the Tuni river and flowed to the Kherkatia suti,” says Sarmah. “Now, Pahumara jan has transformed into a patchwork of paddy fields and a few small water bodies called dubi.

Similarly, Polonga beel and Phuloni beel, located in Phuloni, have shrunk considerably following the earthquake of 1950. Parts of these wetlands have now been turned into agricultural fields. Locals say, about 50 years ago, Polonga beel was a favourite spot for resident and migratory birds.

Yet another wetland, Gela beel, has vanished as a result of the geomorphological changes triggered by the 1950 earthquake.

Erosion and embankments

According to government data, Majuli has reduced in size from 1,250 square kilometre at the beginning of the 20th century to 483 square kilometre by 2014.

Many wetlands have been lost to erosion. For example, Keturi beel, located to the east of Salmora, behind a village called Lahkar Gaon, has been lost to erosion. No traces are left of Lahkar Gaon and Keturi beel.

Erosion-induced migration and increasing population pressure as the island continues to lose its landmass, have triggered encroachment on wetlands. “With pressure on land increasing, people have turned several wetlands into paddy fields and homestead,” says Khound.

More than 100 kilometres of embankments have been constructed in Majuli as part of flood prevention measures. All water channels, which are linked with the Brahmaputra and other major rivers, have been blocked by embankments surrounding the island.

“This has divided the island into two distinct geographies,” says Jaya Kalita Gogoi, assistant professor of geography in Majuli College. “The area inside the embankments has stopped seeing natural flood, while areas outside the embankments experience heavy flood.”.

Consequently, silt deposits, water hyacinth, grass, and solid waste accumulated over the years has made wetlands inside the embankments shallow, impacting aquatic life. “Certain amount of flooding is necessary to keep the beels alive, while excessive flooding may be harmful,” says Gogoi.

On the other hand, when floods breach embankments, it leads to heavy siltation in these wetlands.

One morning in September 2023, thousands of fish turned dead in Kakorikata beel, a large wetland in the Chilakola area of the island. Local forest officials said this was caused by lack of oxygen in the wetland, as the beel was choked by sand deposits, solid waste, and water hyacinth.

Some water bodies are being dug as part of the Amrit Sarovar Scheme in order to rejuvenate.

“However, only time will tell what results this scheme yields,” Sarmah says. “What is concerning is that no environmental agency is involved in the scheme’s implementation.”

Further, there’s a concern that schemes like this may turn parts of natural wetlands to culture fisheries.

Potential solutions

“The potential solution,” according to Sarmah, “is to make the natural water flow happen through Majuli.”

“Revival of the Tuni river is vital for the survival and rejuvenation of Majuli’s wetlands as all the beels are connected to this river,” Sarmah says. “The major water bodies should be made weed-free and degraded bodies de-silted.”

Tuni, the only river in Majuli, has been blocked by an embankment towards its lower reaches in a place called Patia. As a result, the river’s capacity to flow has reduced considerably, and water hyacinth, sand deposits, and waste materials have choked the river and slowly pushed it to death.

“While constructing embankments and infrastructures, it needs to be ensured that natural floodwater is able to enter the landscape and pass through it,” Sarmah adds.

This article was first published on Mongabay.