Run, rebuild, repeat as floods eat away at India’s native lands

  • Indigenous communities among the hardest hit by climate change
  • Over 32 million people affected by flooding in Assam since 2014
  • Residential land shrinking due to flooding and agricultural growth

VILLAGE OF BESEMORA, India, December 28 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Hemram Pegu has been forced to rebuild his house at least eight times over the past decade, moving it a few meters inland whenever strong rains cause the Brahmaputra to flood in his village of Besemora, in northeast India.

As a member of the indigenous Mising tribe, who have lived along the Brahmaputra and its tributaries for generations, Pegu remembers being proud of being able to interpret the behavior of one of the longest river systems on Earth.

But today, he said, the community is bewildered by its unpredictable nature.

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“The original site of our village is now history,” Pegu said of his home in Majuli, a coastal island in Assam state.

“Its location continues to change as we continue to move inland 200-300 meters (656-948 feet) from the advancing river each time it overflows,” said the 52 trader. years at the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

With limited work options and a heavy reliance on natural resources, the Mising – like other indigenous communities around the world – often suffer from the worst extreme weather conditions that have become increasingly common as the global temperatures are rising.

The burgeoning Brahmaputra frequently uproots families in Besemora, forcing them to settle in an increasingly limited area of ​​available land and straining their livelihoods.

Scientist Partha Jyoti Das said global warming was one of the main reasons for the intensification of flooding, adding that it had caused “significant deviations” in natural weather patterns over Assam during the last decade.

“Previously, the rains were spread over a longer period, occurring in (predictable) quantities at the scheduled times,” said Das, who heads the water, climate and risk division at Aaranyak, a Guwahati-based research organization.

“But we are now experiencing erratic and heavy downpours for short, irregular periods, causing flash floods,” he said.

A study published by India’s Ministry of Science and Technology in 2018 found Assam to be the most vulnerable of the Indian Himalayan states to the destructive effects of climate change.

He highlighted a range of factors, including Assam’s low per capita income, crop insurance rates and irrigated land, forcing farmers to depend on regular rainfall to water their fields.

DEAD FISH, POTS OF SAND

Between 2014 and 2021, more than 32 million people in Assam were affected by the floods, including nearly 660 dead, according to data from the National Disaster Management Authority.

In an effort to minimize destruction, residents of Besemora are raising the floors of their traditional bamboo stilt houses according to the level of the latest flood, Pegu said.

The villagers are also trying to break the force of the flood with a network of bamboo “porcupines”, triangular structures made up of intersecting poles built along the banks.

But these measures often fall short of the sweltering water.

“When we come back from the floods, we often find that the very appearance of our village has changed. Plots of riverbanks or islets in the middle of the river on which our homes exist… can simply be washed away by the receding of the river, ”Pegu said.

When that happens, said Binud Doley, an elder in the village of Salmora, about a kilometer north of Besemora, indigenous communities in the region face another problem: the inability to reclaim their land once the waters flow. floods have retreated.

Without title deeds to prove ownership, the Mising traditionally settle on unused riparian land, Doley said.

But the effects of flooding and riverbank erosion, along with the spread of agriculture and population growth in the region, mean that available land is becoming scarce, he added.

Gojen Paw from the village of Majdolopa in Assam state said sudden climatic fluctuations are also destroying the agriculture and fishing on which the Mising depend.

Historically, Assam has experienced frequent flooding during the annual monsoon season, Paw said, the waters leaving behind nutrient-rich alluvial deposits that would naturally fertilize its rice, mustard and vegetable fields.

But nowadays, “frequent flooding erodes the fertile topsoil of our fields and leaves behind coarse sand, debris and rounded pebbles,” he said.

Villagers say fish populations are dwindling as the swollen river and crumbling banks disrupt their habitats, and even the Mising’s centuries-old tradition of artisan pottery is under threat.

“The texture of the clay has become coarse and sandy. Previously, we rejected this type of soil, but now we are forced to use it,” said Sarumai Chamuah, from Salmora, who has been making and selling pottery for 20 years. year.

The sand reduces the clay’s binding capacity, resulting in weaker pots that sell for lower prices, Chamuah said.

LONG TERM SOLUTIONS

After heavy flooding, the government is stepping in to help villagers like Chamuah get back on their feet, said Sisuram Bharali, chairman of the gram panchayat of Bongaigaon, the village-level government agency that oversees Salmora.

Some families are offered daily paid work, if they are able, with a salary of up to 347 rupees ($ 4.65), he noted, while others could receive 10. kg (22 lbs) of rice per month for a limited period.

The government of Assam, meanwhile, notes on its water resources website that it has lifted and strengthened dikes, built flood walls and improved village drainage, helping to protect more of the half of the state’s flood zones.

But he points out that “no long-term measures have been implemented so far to alleviate the problems of flooding and erosion.”

Such long-term solutions are essential, said Tuhin K. Das, disaster and migration expert and former full professor in the Planning and Development Unit at the University of Jadavpur.

To cope with the climate-induced displacement of indigenous communities, which make up nearly 9% of India’s population, the government should create policies to relocate them, restore their livelihoods and provide vocational training, Das said.

The authorities must also better fight against the lasting consequences of the floods on living conditions, health and education, he added.

“The long-term socio-economic impacts of bank erosion are rarely evaluated from a political point of view,” he said.

For now, the people of Besemora can only make sure they always have the essentials – rice, money, clothes and school records – clustered on their rooftops, ready to be picked up when the river will overflow again, said Purnima Doley, Pegu’s neighbor.

“We have no choice but to flee our homes with these meager possessions to safer, higher ground, when this otherwise serene river swells,” said Doley, who has had to move six times in the past. Last 10 years.

“The water level keeps rising and its violent currents charge us, tearing our farms apart and drowning anything that stands in its way,” she said.

($ 1 = 74.7000 Indian rupees)

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Reporting by Moushumi Basu; edited by Jumana Farouky and Megan Rowling. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, which covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org

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