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Run, rebuild, repeat as floods eat away at India's indigenous land

by Moushumi Basu | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Tuesday, 28 December 2021 12:00 GMT

A family crowd onto a banana raft to escape the floodwaters inundating their home in Besemora village, India, July 2, 2020. HANDOUT/courtesy of the North-East Affected Area Development Society

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Each time flash floods engulf their villages, the Mising people shift their homes further inland - but after a decade of flooding and riverbank erosion, they are running out of space

* Indigenous communities among the hardest hit by climate change

* Over 32 million people affected by flooding in Assam since 2014

* Residential land shrinks due to floods and agricultural growth

By Moushumi Basu

BESEMORA VILLAGE, India, Dec 28 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Hemram Pegu has been forced to rebuild his home at least eight times in the past decade, shifting it a few metres inland every time heavy rains cause the Brahmaputra River to surge into 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 taking pride in being able to interpret the behaviour of one of the Earth's longest river systems.

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

"The original site of our village is now history," Pegu said of his home on Majuli, a riverine island in Assam state.

"Its location continues to change as we keep moving inland by 200 metres to 300 metres (656-948 ft) from the advancing river each time it floods," the 52-year-old shopkeeper told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

With limited work options and a high dependence on natural resources, the Mising - like other indigenous communities around the world - often suffer the worst of the extreme weather that has become increasingly common as global temperatures rise.

The swelling Brahmaputra frequently uproots families in Besemora, compelling them to relocate to a shrinking area of available land and putting a strain on their livelihoods.

Shopkeeper Hemram Pegu gestures to show how high the water level rises during flooding in his village of Besemora, India, March 27, 2020. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Moushumi Basu

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

It highlighted a range of factors, including Assam's low per-capita income, rates of crop insurance and land under irrigation, leaving farmers to rely on regular rainfall to water their fields.

Scientist Partha Jyoti Das pointed to climate warming as a major reason for the intensified flooding, adding it had caused "significant deviations" in natural weather patterns over Assam in the past decade.

"Previously, the rains were distributed in a more stretched-out period, occurring in (predictable) amounts at expected times," said Das, who heads the water, climate and hazards division at Aaranyak, a Guwahati-based research organisation.

"But we now experience erratic and heavy downpours for short, irregular durations, causing flash floods," he said.


Between 2014 and 2021, more than 32 million people in Assam were affected by flooding, including nearly 660 deaths, according to data from the state disaster management authority.

In an effort to minimise the destruction, Besemora residents raise the floors of their traditional stilted bamboo homes depending on the level of the latest flood, Pegu explained.

The villagers also try to break up the force of the flooding with a network of bamboo "porcupines", triangular structures made of intersecting poles built along the riverbanks.

But those measures are often no match for the overpowering water.

"On our return after floods, we often find that the very appearance of our village has changed. Patches of riverbanks or mid-river islets on which our homes exist ... may just get dragged away by the withdrawing river," Pegu said.

When that happens, said Binud Doley, an elder from Salmora village, about a kilometre north of Besemora, the area's indigenous communities face yet another problem: the inability to reclaim their land once the flood-waters have receded.

With no 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 farming and the region's growing population, mean available land is becoming scarce, he added.

A bird’s eye view of flooding in Besemora village, India, June 30, 2020. HANDOUT/Courtesy of the North-East Affected Area Development Society

Gojen Paw from Majdolopa village, in Assam state, said abrupt climate swings are also destroying the farming and fishing the Mising people depend on.

Historically, Assam has often experienced some flooding during the annual monsoon season, Paw said, with the waters leaving behind nutrient-rich alluvial deposits that would naturally fertilise its fields of rice, mustard and vegetables.

But these days, "frequent floods erode away the fertile topsoil from our fields and leave behind coarse sand, debris and rounded pebbles," he said.

Villagers say fish populations are decreasing as the bloated river and crumbling riverbanks disturb their habitats, and even the centuries-old Mising tradition of handmade pottery is under threat.

"The texture of clay has become coarse and sandy. We would earlier discard this kind of earth, but now we are compelled to use it," said Sarumai Chamuah, from Salmora, who has been making and selling pottery for the past 20 years.

Sand reduces the binding capacity of the clay, resulting in weaker pots that fetch lower prices, Chamuah said.

Villagers have built bamboo "porcupines" along the river to try to break up the force of the floodwaters, in Besemora village, India, March 27, 2020. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Moushumi Basu


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

Some families are offered daily wage work, if capable, with pay of up to 347 rupees ($4.65), he noted, while others might receive 10 kg (22 lb) of rice per month for a limited period.

The Assam government, meanwhile, notes on its water resources website that it has been raising and strengthening embankments, building flood walls and improving village drainage, helping protect more than half the state's flood-prone areas.

But it emphasises that "no long-term measures have been implemented so far to mitigate the flood and erosion problems".

Such long-term fixes are essential, said Tuhin K. Das, an expert on disasters and migration and former chair professor of the Planning and Development Unit at Jadavpur University.

To deal with the climate-induced displacement of indigenous communities, who make up nearly 9% of India's population, the government should create policies to re-house them, restore their livelihoods and offer job training, Das said.

Authorities also need to better tackle the lasting consequences of flooding on living conditions, health and education, he added.

"The long-term socio-economic impacts of riverbank erosion are rarely assessed from a policy perspective," he said.

For now, Besemora residents can only make sure they always have essentials - rice, cash, clothes and school records - bundled together on their roofs, ready to grab when the river bursts its banks again, said Purnima Doley, Pegu's neighbour.

"We have no choice then but to flee our homes with these meagre belongings to safer, higher ground, when this otherwise serene river swells up," said Doley, who has had to move her home six times in the past 10 years.

"Its water level keeps rising and its fierce currents charge at us, tearing through our homesteads and drowning everything that stands in its way," she said.

($1 = 74.7000 Indian rupees)

Research and reporting for this story were supported by the National Geographic Society.

Read more:

Local volunteers to the rescue as fiercer floods ravage northeast India 

With Assam silk and trees, Indians fight climate change and trafficking 

'No other option': Deadly India floods bare conflicts from hydropower boom

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

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