The Brahmaputra is considered a moody river, meandering through the Tibetan plateau, almost turning on its head before entering Arunachal Pradesh in India, rampaging through the Eastern Himalayas, gushing and braiding through the plains of Assam and Bangladesh, before emptying into the Bay of Bengal. It is joined by tributaries from Nagaland, Meghalaya, Arunachal Pradesh and Bhutan, some of them larger than many of the rivers flowing in other parts of India. The floods that occur annually in the alluvial plains of the Brahmaputra river basin are often termed as catastrophic because of the life and property they destroy, the suffering they cause.

We know that these floods occur annually, are catastrophic, and that the underlying causes of these floods being catastrophic have been deliberated on by scholars for years, even decades. The question, however, is if these catastrophic floods are now considered catastrophic enough or are increasingly viewed as the new normal. It is often said that floods are a reality of life for communities living in the alluvial plains of the Brahmaputra basin, which is why these plains are also called “floodplains”, shaped by annual flood cycles over a period of time.

The Brahmaputra is the moody master sculptor, whose clay is the floodplain, shaping the destiny of its communities, giving life and also taking it away.

Normal catastrophes

But it is the anthropogenic interventions that have been engineered and embedded by state agencies in the landscape of the Brahmaputra over the past seven decades that have contributed to the severity of the floods and the annual misery. State agencies taking upon themselves the task of introducing so-called technological fixes to the annual floods, accompanied by state apathy to human suffering; a narrow focus on rescue and relief instead of rehabilitation; the poor allocation of resources for livelihood-centric mitigation measures make such catastrophic floods the new normal.

Every year, catastrophic imagery of the Brahmaputra floods prompts civil society organisations in the region to demand that it be declared a national calamity.

Catastrophic water-related events on the Brahmaputra have become far more frequent with climate change and accompanying shifts in the rainfall pattern. There are several layers of environmental disaster: river-bank erosion, degradation and ruptures in wetland connectivity, deforestation, unsustainable mining of river-bed boulders which provides a natural cushion from the impact of floods, especially flash floods.

The new discourses on the catastrophic hazardscape of the Brahmaputra include dam-induced flash floods in downstream areas, such as those witnessed in recent years because of the sudden discharge of water from the Ranganadi, Kopili and Doyang hydropower projects. Such dam-induced floods have acquired almost an annual status of recurrence.

A medical team assists residents of Assam's flood-hit Morigaon district.

Watershed moments

There are certain watershed moments in the life of any river basin that make everyone take notice, capture the national imagination through civil society and the media, draw political attention and calls for action outside the normal bounds of political procedure. These water-related events are termed as catastrophic in the real sense.

There have been such watershed events in the Brahmaputra river basin as well, the most prominent in the post-colonial history of India being the Great Assam Earthquake of 1950, which made the riverbed of the Brahmaputra rise substantially. This led to the construction of a series of embankments along the Brahmaputra and its tributaries, which were seen as an immediate technological and engineering fix. But they were introduced without enough time and resources spent on studying the river dynamics properly.

The construction of embankments along the course of the Brahmaputra became business-as-usual and a technological intervention of choice for the state agencies. It led to an “embankment economy” of sorts, involving contractors for construction, maintenance and repair of embankments. The limited benefits of these embankments far outweighed the catastrophic destruction they ensured during the high flood season, where they usually gave way, leading to the increased intensity of floodwaters, causing them to stay on for longer, coating fertile agricultural lands with a thick layer of sand.

The traditional knowledge of the communities living by the Brahmaputra, which had helped them comprehend the rhythm and pulse of the river, gradually became inadequate because of these structures.

The Siang swells and darkens

It was exactly 20 years back when a catastrophic flash flood occurred on the Siang – as the stretch of the Brahmaputra in Arunachal Pradesh is called – making national headlines. The Indian hydrocracy took some measures out of the normal bounds of political procedure to initiate and finally enter into a memorandum of understanding with upstream China in 2002. China agreed to provide hydrological data critical to averting such calamities.

However, we are yet to see an efficient flood early warning system that can mitigate some of the damage caused by floods. When the muddy waters of the Siang swelled again in 2017, the Indian hydrocracy had no effective solutions or answers for the communities living along the Brahmaputra. Instead, it let the speculation continue for over three months. Speculation on the Brahmaputra has thus become a new normal. It has come to be described as a speculative river.

A woman in a raft in Morgaon district. Credit: PTI

There have been several catastrophic floods and extreme water-related events on the Brahmaputra since the 2000 Siang flash floods, and many had happened even before that, and these remain etched in public memory, however, it is “business-as-usual” in the scheme of things for the state hydrocracy. The recent technological fixes that the hydrocracy has introduced as possible solutions, following from the “embankment economy”, are building large hydropower plants or dredging the river. Both are speculative, without cumulative environmental impact assessments or democratic public hearings.

Multiple jeopardies

The recent rush in infrastructure building along the Brahmaputra has further ruptured wetland connectivity. It has also encouraged unsustainable mining from the riverbeds. In the absence of participatory environmental decision-making platforms, the communities along the river live under the shadow of a perpetual catastrophic risk.

It is a common refrain nowadays that we have to live with Covid-19 and that will be our new normal. Communities along the Brahmaputra have lived with annual catastrophic floods as the new normal for years now. So there are multiple jeopardies in the hazardscape of the Brahmaputra – social, economic and ecological. These multiple jeopardies continue to exist while state resources are highly skewed towards engineering interventions for river control and symbolic events such as the Namami Brahmaputra.

The future seems to be crumbling away towards another watershed moment in the river’s life. It is a breaking point, that the hydrocracy needs to acknowledge, not simply move on. However, for now, these catastrophic floods are simply not catastrophic enough.

The author is a researcher at the Institute of Chinese Studies, Delhi.