Floods and Water Resources Management in North East Region Vis-a-Vis Civil Society

[This is an abridged version of the paper presented by the author at two-day training workshop on Management of Water Resources in North-East Region with Special Reference to Floods held at Shillong, Meghalaya on 4-5 April 2011.]

Undoubtedly, human societies have experienced various water-related events and pressures throughout history, especially owing to climate change. Nevertheless, recent decades have witnessed further increase in frequency and severity in these events, particularly in drought and floods. India has become vulnerable to many water-related disasters that occur worldwide every year. In the past, demand for water was less in societies because of less affluence, small populations and lack of intense economic activity. Usually, supply of water excceded the demand for it.

According to one opinion, “In such circumstances water for agriculture, for industry, for domestic and all other uses could be managed separately there being sufficient water to accommodate all needs and there being little competition between uses and between users.” Besides, water use by humans did not overly encroach on the natural environment and ecosystems as it happens today. Hence it was common, and still is common, that within governments at both national and sub-national levels separate ministries would be set in place for each use for which water was needed.

Factors like growth in population, increased food production, expansion of economic activity and societies becoming more affluent have proved instrumental in burgeoning demand for water. The ongoing process of climate change has seemingly added more pressure on finite ater resources. In some instances, demand outstrips supply.

From Fragmented to Integrated Approach

The people entrusted with the task of managing water resources, whether in the government the private sector or local communities, have to make hard decisions on water allocation. Geographical, political, socio-economic and cultural diversities necessitate urgency for water-related approaches to be customized to the individual circumstance of country and local region. More often, the authorities are called upon to apportion diminishing supplies between ever-increasing demands taking into account the requirements of the poor and of the natural environment.

Broadlly speaking, viability of the traditional fragmented or purely sectoral approach to deal with water-related issues is almost under eclipse and a more hoilistic approach is required. The Integrated Water Resources Management (IWRM) approach is now accepted world-wide as the way forward for efficient and sustainable development and management of the world’s limited water resources and for coping with conflicting demands. Water conservation, management and other related aspects pertaining to water fall under the notion of Integrated Water Resources Management (IWRM).

All of the major organizations like the UN, the World Bank and others are using the methodologies and strategies of this broad concept. Viewed in broad context, some of the principles of IWRM, especially participatory approach, had been somewhat advocated earlier, and even at the outset of the 1990s the global water management practices still had a quite narrow focus and trusted in technological ‘hard tools.’ In the wake of global water situation becoming acute, many water experts started calling for a radical change in the approach to freshwater resources. Therefore, in January of 1992 concerned experts gathered in Dublin for the International Conference on Water and the Environment. With the convening of the UN conference on environment in Rio de Janeiro in June 1992, the Dublin participants saw their conference as an opportunity to put together their thoughts of the need for a new approach to the world’s water issues. The compiled views could then be presented to the world leaders in Rio. ‘The Dublin Principles’, which laid the foundation of IWRM.

According to Calder, IWRM constitutes a holistic approach, recognizing that water issues are complex and involves a multiplicity of layers, institutions and activities of society and nature, and consequently must be addressed in an integrated way. Local stakeholder involvement, the use of indigenous knowledge, the safeguarding of local heritage and ecology, the ensuring of a long-term viable economic situation in the watershed areas, and a demand-recognizing perspective are all important features of IWRM. Since IWRM is aims at fostering civil society, human democratic participation in governance, reducing poverty, and improving people’s health, the underlying thought is to promote and encourage democratic participation and democracy in the longer run as well.

Floods in India

Until the recent past, the response to tackle the catasrophies caused by floods had been in the form of dams, higher levees and sturdier embankments to contain rising waters. However, now-a-days, water management experts have started questioning whether traditional solutions make sense; in fact, some experts have argued that dams and other barriers do more harms than good. Acording to Philip B. Williams, President of the International Rivers Network, “River ecosystems can be degraded by many human interventions, including pollution, watershed destruction and channelization. But it is the impact of large dams that is now having the most immediate and far reaching effects. They cause huge changes in flows, transforming the character of such major rivers as the Nile or the Indus.”

Recent decades have seen billions of rupees being spent on river containment in India However, critics insist that the impact has been limited and in some cases had the perverse effect of aggravating damage caused by rain-swollen rivers. Flood is the penality human beings have to pay when they inrerfere with rivers’ right of way. India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru believed that dams to produce power, irrigation and control flooding would be the ‘temples’ of a modern secular India. Since his day until now, 400 dams have been built in India, along with thousands of small levees as well as 16,000 km of river embankments, but the areas affected by floods has expanded from 2 million hectares to 9 million hecatres, due to deforstation, poor urban drainage and other factors.

Many environment experts feel that official anti-flood measures have actually boomeranged. Dams and embankments have now become an important cause of floods. The man-made-barriers have failed to prevent drainage of excess water from flood plains into the main channels of rivers and streams. Embankments also tend to break when rivers rise suddenly, sending water gushing into the countryside. There have been 16 incidents of dam bursts in India, the worst being in 1979, which sent a wall of water through the town of Morvi in Gujarat, killing 1,500 people. Floods are a recurring annual phenomenon in the states of Bihar, UP, Haryana, Punjab etc in general and Assam in India’s North-East in particular.

Floods in North-East India

India’s North-East region is endowed with abundant water resources. According to broad estimates, one-third of India’s runoff flows from the North-East through the Brahmaputra and the Barak rivers and there is a substantial unutilized groundwater resource. There is estimated to be about 60,000 megawatts of economically viable hydropower potential, of which only about 65 megawatts is developed or under construction. It is also clear that the abundant water resources impose severe distress and costs on the region through frequent flooding and that this needs to be managed to improve economic development.

The basin of the Brahmaputra River is among the most flood-prone in the world, followed closely by that of the Barak River. Floods affect an annual average of 0.8 million hectares of land, but in some years they affect more than 4 million hectares of Assam’s total area. Such extensive floods inundate at least 2,000 villages in addition to destroying other infrastructure. The problem is further exacerbated by riverbank erosion, which destroys an annual average of about 8,000 hectares of riparian land along the Brahmaputra.

Flood Management Strategies

The existing plans and strategies designed to improve water resource management in general, and flood management in the North-East in particular, is the result of extensive and careful analysis of available information. Some general considerations are offered below to be associated with proposed strategies.

Consultation with Stakeholders

In the wake of non-availability of the Brahmaputra master plan and subbasin plans in the public domain, it is not possible to say as to what extent, if any, there has been meaningful public input to the various critical issues that are involved in the plans.  Given the reported difficulties associated with obtaining access to raw data and the general inaccessibility of the completed planning documents, it is unlikely that there is significant public awareness, let alone support for, the plans that have been prepared.

The Brahmaputra and Barak are both international rivers and this is probably a contributing factor to the lack of transparency. Nevertheless, experience elsewhere has clearly demonstrated that where local stakeholders have not contributed in a significant way to resolving issues associated with management of a key resource such as water, they become adversaries of the development process – particularly where plans, once implemented, cannot or do not meet expectations. This is particularly acute in the case of flood management or flood control where these terms mean the provision of a certain level of protection, not total security.

Land-use Adaptation

There is need for more consideration of policy options to promote adaptive land use, particularly with respect to agriculture. This would entail shifting agriculture production systems to the rabi (boro rice) and kharif I seasons, relying heavily on extraction of groundwater and thereby reducing reliance on the kharif II season, when crops are most susceptible to flooding. Additional measures are also required to ensure stable incomes and food production.

Climate change

It is not clear to what extent climate change has been incorporated into the plan analysis. Broad estimates indicate that by the year 2050, the average annual runoff in the Brahmaputra River will decline by 14 percent. Studies have also indicated that snow melting in the high Himalayas will increase flood discharges in the Himalayan catchments. One expert has suggested that an increase in surface temperatures will lead to a rise in the snow line, increasing the risk of floods during the wet season.

As the Land-water system is extensively affected by climate change. There is a need is to incorporate climate change in long-term planning. Dealing with existing climate variations through good construction quality and strengthened operation and maintenance is also good preparation for dealing with climate change, since infrastructure will need to respond to conditions that approach the limits of their design.

Research and Monitoring

It has been suggested that the rehabilitation of flood control embankments and the location and design of spurs and other erosion management structures would benefit from improved measurements of basic river processes. This would involve increased financing for such equipment as differential global positioning systems combined with echo sounders for improved bathymetric surveys; global positioning systems with float tracking to map changes in river flow patterns; and acoustic Doppler current profilers (ADCP) for measurement of current magnitudes and directions.

Satellite image-based morphological studies

World Bank report suggests that sequential satellite imagery can provide an accurate picture of changes to river banklines, both temporally and spatially. As an initial step there is a need to more carefully analyze and map such changes in order to (a) provide a reliable database on river movements; (b) indicate erosion risks along the river; and (c) indicate trends of increasing or decreasing erosion. It further suggests that a follow-on step would be to develop on a systematic basis morphological prediction methods based on satellite imagery, with a view to assessing erosion vulnerability. With this type of approach, investments in bank and embankment protection could be applied in a more proactive manner.

Levels of flood protection

There is a need to establish minimum levels of flood protection, in terms of expected frequency or probability of overtopping, for different categories of land or property, for example agricultural land, villages, and larger towns or cities. There is also need for sensitizing the people about the limitations of flood protection, and of planned emergency measures to provide warning and protect life, especially when larger events occur.

Hydraulic Impact of Embankments

The NHC report, while emphasizing on using historical river discharge and water-level data, also calls for efforts to be made to establish whether existing embankments have in fact raised flood levels by eliminating overbank spill and confining flood flows within the boundaries of the river itself. It further suggests that attention should be given to the consequences of further extending the embankment system, both within Assam and downstream in Bangladesh. Consideration should also be given to relevant experience in Bangladesh. Regardless of the findings, removal of existing embankments does not appear to be a realistic option.

Feasibility of proposed storage dams

The contemplated multipurpose dams on the Dihang and Subansiri rivers are extremely high and appear to be located in a seismically active region that has experienced major earthquakes. The World Bank report of 2006 was unable to ascertain to what extent this problem has been addressed by technical studies. The interjurisdictional problem associated with those dams is another question requiring investigation. The flood control benefits of those two dams alone appear to be somewhat limited.

Erosion control

The erosive potential of the Brahmaputra River is enormously high and it has resulted in frequent pulling back or retiring of flood control embankments, with adverse social consequences. Limited efforts have reportedly been made to avoid loss of embankments by constructing spurs at right angles to the embankments in some vulnerable locations. Keeping in view the fact that the methods used thus have been fairly successful, it is in the fitness of things that considerable benefits can accrue from extensive expansion and acceleration of spur construction where embankments are under immediate or near-future threat.

Civil Society and Flood Control

Broadly speaking, ‘civil society’ comprises ordinary citizens who organize themselves outside of government and the public service to deal with specific issues and concerns that normal governmental process cannot address by itself. Civil society has come to play a crucial role in a democracy because of being a link between the Government and the people; a civil society bridges the communication gap in the policy formulations and their implementations. Civil society consists of the totality of voluntary civic and social organizations and institutions that form the basis of a functioning society as opposed to the force-backed structures of a state (regardless of that state’s political system) and commercial institutions of the market. There are myriad definitions of civil society in the post-modern sense.

According to Gordon White, a civil society is “an intermediate associational realm between state and family populated by organizations which are separate from the state, enjoy autonomy in relation to the state and are formed voluntarily by members of the society to protect or extend their interests or values.” Gordon White’s definition of civil society is more dependable because of its usability in multiple contexts, especially given the complex nature of the Indian society. Hence for the purpose of this essay, reliance is placed on White’s definition of civil society because of its usability in multiple contexts, particularly given the complex nature of the Indian society.

Broadly speaking, there are six theoretical perspectives on these matters, where the first four perspectives – capacity building, women and marginalized groups, local focus and demand-led development and arena creation – are supportive to civil society, while the concluding two – adaptation to donor demands and depoliticization and instrumentalization of civil society – affect it negatively. An endeavour is made here to briefly appraise these six prspectives.


Water resource management with specific reference to floods in North-East India is a complex problem which requires holistic approach. Keeping in view the frequency of floods being a recurring phenomenon in North-East region, the engineering and technological solutions are significant as well as the importance of social engineering in mobilizing the support of the people and role of the civil society is equally worthwhile. The civil society can quite strongly affect the bonding between the people and the official bodies dealing with implementation of measyres designed to control floods. The people are positively responding to the civil society activities. Undeniably, the civil society has emerged as a potent instrument of building capacity among participants, creating new arenas and considering local context. Civil society has also echoed the voice of marginalized groups. In view of the mounting problems in managing water recources as well as floods in the North-East, increased role of civil society is required to be encouraged.

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