Assam turns to village disaster management committees to deal with worsening floods

by Teresa Rehman | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Monday, 17 January 2011 12:15 GMT
Residents India's northeastern Assam state are used to dealing with annual deluges. But as climate change brings worsening flooding, they are trying out a new tool to cope: a village disaster management committee

PATIWALA GAON, India (AlertNet) – The residents of Patiwala Gaon, a village in India’s northeastern Assam state near the banks of the mighty Brahmaputra River, are used to dealing with the perils of annual deluges. But as climate change makes rainfall more intense and erratic, they are trying out a new tool to cope with worsening flooding: a village disaster management committee.

The committee, organized with the support of the Catholic diocese of Dibrugarh district, is part of a community-based disaster preparedness programme aimed at reducing loss of life and property in 10 flood-prone villages in upper Assam.

In the past, the devastation caused by natural calamities was tackled at an individual level, resulting in many casualties. Now, it’s a collective effort by the community.

“Leaders are emerging from this structure to … lead the communities and bring about changes to aid development. Now the community is seen as united, helping to address the needs of vulnerable families, especially during floods,” said Father Philip Purty, the director of Seva Kendra, the diocese’s development wing.

The Brahmaputra, also called Tsangpo-Brahmaputra, is a trans-boundary river and one of Asia’s largest. Rainfall high in the Himalayas swells the river, increasing the likelihood of flooding in Assam’s low-lying regions.

From time to time, local authorities build embankments to try to change the course of the river and provide some relief to those living on its banks or near its tributaries. But experts say global warming is exacerbating the problem of flooding, making efforts to mitigate the effects of floods all the more urgent.

“Rainfall patterns are becoming more erratic. In the future, this is likely to increase, leading to floods of higher intensity that could spell disaster for the population living on the banks of the Brahmaputra,” said Kaliprasad Sharma, an environmental scientist at Tezpur University in Assam.

The floodwaters not only lead to loss of life and property but also livelihoods. Farming is the main source of income but floods often wipe out crops, Purty said. After the floods, communities also face a health risk from water-borne diseases.

TASK FORCES PROTECT VILLAGERS

Under the community-based disaster preparedness programme, village disaster management committees and task force groups have been set up in 10 villages with the aim of preparing residents for natural disasters, helping them to protect their homes and livelihoods, and protecting the most vulnerable members of their communities - particularly women and children.

Haridas Dey, president of Patiwala Gaon’s village committee, says he is now well equipped to deal with the risks of flooding. He organises meetings and training events, coordinates the village’s preparedness plans and oversees disaster preparedness programmes for school children.

Fellow villager Deepti Kalita, as a member of the village’s early warning task force group, is in charge of monitoring early warning systems, which include alerts by water and meteorological agencies to government departments, which are then passed on to the village either in person or by radio. Kalita is also responsible for gathering daily news bulletins about disaster threats and keeping local people informed.

Disaster management involves many layers of participation and the goal of the preparedness programme is to help villagers tap into their own capacity and resources for the benefit of the community as a whole.

Before the disaster preparedness programme began, Seva Kendra carried out relief efforts during and after the annual floods in affected villages by distributing rations, mosquito nets, hygiene kits and fodder for cattle. They also organised free health camps for the villagers and veterinary camps for their cattle.

While deluges hit Assam every year, floods in recent years have caused severe damage.

In 2004, at least 200 people died and more than 12 million people were displaced by floods. In 2007, 25 of Assam’s 27 districts were affected by flooding while an ActionAid report said heavy flooding displaced half a million people across 453 villages in 2009. Last year, heavy rains triggered flash flooding, displacing 50,000 people in the state’s Lakhimpur district, officials said.

To build and coordinated preparedness programmes, villages began by surveying the social composition of each village and deciding on target groups such as village leaders, women and children.

Action plans were then submitted to the panchayat – the local self-governing institution of each village - for approval and implementation. The panchayats provide a vital coordinating link between village management committees and government initiatives.

TRAINING IN NEW SKILLS

To help enhance the sustainability of the programme, villagers involved in the effort were trained by the district authority’s civil defence department and Seva Kendra.

Communities, with action plans now in place and government resources in hand, are now focusing on changing the behaviour of residents.

The village management committees have regular meetings, keep records of the community’s activity, supervise the task force groups, link with local and government institutions, generate funds from outside and inside, draw up annual community disaster preparedness plans and organise the community before, during and after a disaster.

Villagers are trained in the use of hand pumps, water purification, the erecting of raised platforms and how to disinfect contaminated water sources.

Committee members cannot take any major decision without the support of the community and are barred from favouring any political party.

Other task force groups are in charge of shelter management, evacuation and rescue, first aid, water, sanitation and carcass disposal, relief co-ordination, damage assessment, patrolling, and counselling for villagers who have lost loved ones or their livelihoods in floods.

“Trauma counselling or providing moral support to the affected people, and first aid and medical training is a new concept for us,” said Basanti Das, a villager in Patiwala Gaon. “We are trying to cope with the unpredictability of nature and our guiding principle is to be better safe than sorry.”

Teresa Rehman is a journalist based in Northeast India. She can be reached at www.teresarehman.net.

 

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