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A hungry river eats away at Assam's villages

Source: Thomson Reuters Foundation - Wed, 12 Mar 2014 12:52 GMT
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Eroded land in the Rohmoria area of Dibrugarh district in India's state of Assam. Over the last 15 years, erosion by the Brahmaputra river has destroyed 38 villages in the region. THOMSON REUTERS FOUNDATION/Rohan Singh
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KUSUNI, India (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – As Aswini Setia looks out at the Brahmaputra, anxiety is evident in his face. The mighty river flows just 100 metres from his home in northern India’s Assam state.

“It used to be 5 kilometres away when I was a kid. But now it is at my doorstep, ready to eat away my house,” he said.

In the last decade, Setia has lost about 1.2 hectares of land out of a total of 1.6 hectares, due to erosion caused by the river in the Rohmoria area of Dibrugarh district.

Rohmoria, which covers an area of about 70 square kilometres, suffers particularly severe erosion along a 9 km (5 mile) stretch, causing the loss of about 60 hectares of land a year.

Experts say that while erosion is a natural longterm process, heavy deforestation in the region, increasingly severe weather and manmade alterations along the river have accelerated its pace.

What land remains to Setia is of no use to him now as it is slowly turning sandy and unproductive for agriculture, he said.

“Nothing grows now except sweet potatoes. I used to sell paddy (rice) cultivated on my farm, but now I have to buy it. I have lost everything to this erosion. Farm, cattle and now this house will also be gone,” he said.

The 44-year-old has a wife and two daughters, and does not know where his family can go when the water reaches their house.

LIVING WITH UNCERTAINTY

The story is the same for 50 families in Kusuni who live with uncertainty and risk as the river approaches their houses, threatening to swallow up the dwellings.

Over the last 15 years, erosion has caused the loss of 28 villages, six tea plantations, 10 schools and a police station in Rohmoria. The area’s name means juicy in the Assamese language, but almost every villager has lost some part of their land, and much of what remains has become barren.

“Brahmaputra is surrounded by hills and mountains from three sides. The region has witnessed large-scale deforestation in the last three years. Satellite images clearly show that forest cover is diminishing. This has adversely affected the pace of erosion,” said J. N. Sharma, a geo-morphologist at Dibrugarh University.

Many people in the region who have lost their land due to erosion, including Setia, have turned to furniture-making, while others sell illegally felled wood to timber factories. The result is further deforestation.

The erosion causes a vicious circle as earth washed into the water accumulates on the riverbed as sediment. This leads to sudden rises in water level when it rains, increasing the risk of floods and intensifying the erosion.

The decrease in the amount of usable land, coupled with population growth, has put tremendous pressure on the region’s inhabitants.

Laupani village, also in Rohmoria, is mostly inhabited by the descendants of migrants from eastern Nepal who came during the colonial era to escape poverty by working on the tea estates in Assam.

Now the residents are on the verge of losing everything to the Lohit River, a tributary of the Brahmaputra, near which Laupani stands.

Since 1998, the river has moved 4 kilometres towards the village, leading to the loss of 500 houses. Villagers have also witnessed changes in the flow of the river.

‘A NOMADIC LIFE’

Anjana Rai, a local, says, “I have (moved) house five times. Now I cannot go to any other place. The river is again so close. We are living a nomadic life in our own region.”

Villagers accuse the state government of an ineffectual response and of failing to compensate them for the loss of their land. An innovative project to stop erosion using geobags – waterproof bags filled with concrete – showed promising results, but the scheme became entangled in red tape and was halted for lack of funds. So far, only 2.6 km (1.5 miles) of the worst-affected stretch of 9 km of river in Rohmoria has been improved under the project.  

Experts believe the half-hearted approach to dealing with the problem also fails to take into account the potential consequences of interfering with the river.

“More study needs to be done,” said Partha Das, a researcher who has written extensively on the issue. “Brahmaputra river basins are ecologically sensitive and geologically fragile. Any change in the flow of the river can leave serious implications (for) the populations dependent on it.”

For many villagers in Rohmoria, hopes of staying in the area have died. Some plan to go to neighbouring states like Arunachal Pradesh to the north, while numerous men are leaving for cities like Chennai and Mumbai in search of jobs. The burden of work in the village falls on the women, who must take care of their children, farms and cattle.

“It’s painful. Things get even worse in the flood season. I have to look after my four kids and cattle,” said Jhuma Devi of Laupani, whose husband moved to Chennai to work as a factory security guard.

“Most of the cattle have been washed away by the river. And now it seems this house will also be gone. (The) future is uncertain for me and my family,” she said.

Rohan Singh is an India-based journalist and documentary maker. He has special interest in environment and development issues.

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