APAR LAUPANI, India (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – As the wind suddenly starts blowing, Madhumati Chettri rushes to save the rice spread to dry on open ground near the compound of her house, making sure that none is swept away.
“This is all we have for this week. Every grain is too precious,” says 60-year old Chettri. She forces a smile as she recounts how difficult life has become for her family in recent years since devastating river erosion has washed away farms in her village of Apar Laupani, in Assam’s Rohmoria area, 500 km (310 miles) from Guwahati, the state capital.
Assam, which shares international borders with Bhutan to the north and Bangladesh to its south, is also home to one of Asia’s longest rivers, the Brahmaputra, which flows through China, India and Bangladesh.
For the last 60 years, villages in Assam have suffered devastating riverbank erosion initially triggered by a powerful earthquake in 1960 that altered the geography of the river valley. The changes have been intensified since then by more extreme weather and worsening yearly floods.
Erosion has affected over 4,500 villages in the state, destroying more than 425,000 hectares (1 million acres) of land, according to Assam’s Department of Revenue and Disaster Management.
Most of the land lost was agricultural, and its destruction has ruined the livelihoods of nearly a million of the state’s roughly 30 million people. Many men who no longer have land to farm have moved to bigger cities elsewhere in the country to work as daily wage labourers or security guards. Experts say the effects of this exodus on the women who must stay are profound.
“Usually the women are left behind to take care of everything from the children and the elderly to the livestock, farms (and) house and protect the families from imminent natural risks,” said economist Partha Ganguly of the University of Dibrugarh in Assam.
Research has shown that natural disasters take a particularly high toll on women’s health and mental wellbeing.
“The burden is heavier on women than men as they have so many responsibilities, especially in disaster situations,” added Ganguli.
There are plenty of examples of growing problems for women in Assam’s remote villages like Apar Laupani, where almost all the men from the 150 households have moved away, mostly to affluent cities in the country’s south.
The women says they must not only worry about ensuring that their families have enough food, but also struggle to access assistance from politicians.
“We have been completely abandoned by the government and the officials never listen to women,” charged 35-year old Ganga Bharati, whose husband now works in Bangalore.
‘NOBODY COMES TO TALK TO WOMEN’
“I have never seen a journalist before (now) because nobody really bothers to come here to talk to women,” said Gunwati Gurung, a 37-year old mother of three children.
Gurung is worried about the coming monsoon arriving in April or May, she said. Women must start planning for floods by storing their valuables and stockpiling food, she said, in addition to keeping their cattle in safe places and finding shelter for their children and older family members.
The nearest hospital is 18 km (11 miles) from the village, and at times the villages face attacks from bandits or armed separatist groups, the women said.
“It is difficult to find a single man to help us and we need them to protect us and carry the sick,” Gurung added.
A dead tree stands in the middle of the village, a constant reminder that little can now survive in the marshy soil that once was farmland.
“In the past there were several small villages, forests, bamboo groves, swamps and cattle farms, which provided all commodities necessary for an affluent rural livelihood,” said Jogendra Nath Sharma, an expert on river erosion at the University of Dibrugarh. These have now been destroyed by river erosion, he said.
The government needs to do more to help families prepare for disasters and rehabilitate those who have lost their farms, Sharma said.
“There are efforts being made by the government but there is more that needs to be done,” said Rajit Dutta of the district agriculture office. Dutta helps to train farmers to use climate-appropriate and diverse crops, and said the government is planning to train women farmers in crop diversification.
“So far the only alternative for the farmers is fishing, but that is also gradually diminishing due to huge competition,” said Sanchita Boruah, a hydrology expert.
The situation is dire for female farmers, she added.
“As the erosion increases, the size of the farms will reduce, and eventually survival will be even more difficult for the farmers, and women will be more severely affected,” said Partha Das of the Water, Climate and Hazard Programme of Aaranyak, a national scientific research organisation.
Naresh Newar is a Kathmandu-based writer with an interest in climate change issues.