The monsoon has only just hit Assam and the rising Brahmaputra has already affected 80,000 people in the state. It has flooded villages, ruined crops and prompted the government to open at least three relief camps, with more expected in the coming weeks. Over half of those affected are in just two districts in the eastern part of the state.

On the heels of a heat wave that left thousands dead, floods will be India’s next big concern in the coming months. Each year, an average of 32 million people are affected by floods. Around 1,653 die. Over a million houses are destroyed.

Floods affect the economy as well. The average annual loss to crops, houses and public utilities at 2010-'11 constant prices amounts to Rs 6,976 crore. That is almost Rs 1,000 crore more than the sum the government allotted to develop 20 urban areas into smart cities in 2015.

Given advances in preventive warning systems, much of this damage can be preventable. But even as the monsoon gets underway, yet another year seems likely to go by without adequate preparation.

In May, a Parliamentary standing committee submitted a sharply critical report on the Ministry of Water Resources, River Development and Ganga Rejuvenation’s preparation for floods this year as well as its tardy assessment of previous years.

The report identifies certain key causes for flood damage, including “high intensity rainfall in short duration, inadequate channel capacities, inadequate drainage, faulty regulation of reservoirs and failure of flood control structures”.

The ministry admitted to the committee that it had flood forecasting networks only in those areas prone to frequent floods and so did not generate any warnings for the rest of the country. Jammu and Kashmir, which faced a deadly flash flood in September, is one of several states without a warning system.

“The Committee are also amazed to note that though CWC [Central Water Commission] faces no bottlenecks in providing forecast to the local administration as well as uploading on the CWC website, still there is lack of coordination between the local administration and Central Water Commission in the matter of flood forecasting,” the report noted, while asking it to set up a nationwide warning network.

Extent of damage

The report’s data is patchy on the intensity and extent of floods. For instance, it compares the maximum damage of each state from 1953 to 2012, but does not assess the present extent of damage in each state.

Water and flood management are state subjects, which means the Centre acts only in an advisory and supportive capacity. But given that particularly floods along rivers do not conform to state boundaries, mitigation of flood damages can vary greatly from one state to the next, depending on their available funds and inclination.

Some of these funds come from the Planning Commission, for an unspecified variety of projects, the costs of which vary greatly from state to state. The report has data for projects sanctioned for flood management during the 11th and 12th Plans until 2012.

As of 2012, West Bengal completed seven of a budgeted 18 projects at an average cost of Rs 112 crore each. Assam, however, managed to complete 77 of 141 projects at a little under Rs 10 crore each.

But the effectiveness of these projects is not entirely clear.

“The government heavily relies of embankments and its effectiveness is not beyond doubt,” said Arupjyoti Saikia, a historian working on the Brahmaputra who teaches at the Indian Institute of Technology in Guwahati. “Breaches are regular and sometime it leads to massive destruction while there may be short time gains.

The government’s preparedness in maintaining these embankments is also highly erratic, he added. According to him, it is difficult to generalise, but floods seem to have become more unpredictable over time.

State subject

Assam remains likely to remain at risk. A significant reason for flooding in Assam is the steady and massive erosion of the river’s banks that causes the river bed to rise and reduces its carrying capacity. Entire villages have disappeared from one year to the next.

Floods are an annual occurrence in Assam and in other states along large rivers such as the Ganga and the Brahmaputra. Each monsoon comes with reports of large-scale displacement and destruction in these areas. To deal with this, the ministry at the centre set up various bodies to address the issue of flooding and erosion across state boundaries.

One body in particular, the Brahmaputra Board, comes under scrutiny in the report. Six of its seven posts have remained vacant, despite the committee’s first report of 2014-15 asking the ministry to appoint officials to it.

“The Committee feel that Brahmaputra Board which is required to play a vital role in the preparation of master plan for river basin, etc. can ill afford vacancies in its Board,” the report said.

It requested the ministry to fill the posts as soon as possible. This has not yet been done, which means Assam and other states will have to wait to streamline their flood management.