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Climate change is a depressing reality in Assam

By Aditya Malaviya

The floods in Assam this year are only the most recent manifestation of the impact of climate change in the Northeast. Assam's people are struggling to cope with the impact of climate extremes on their livelihoods. A special report

Families seek refuge on raised embankments, Morigaon

Families seek refuge on raised embankments, Morigaon

Home to a village of nearly 195 families until June, the raised embankments of Baramari platform in Mayong block, Morigaon district in the northeastern Indian state of Assam, are lined with weathered wooden boats and bundles of bright blue fishing nets. The sun dances off the surface of the flood waters from the Killing, Kollong and Kapili rivers which flow through the southern part of the district (1). Cries of children playing with the boats fill the air. A group of 15 men and women stand on the edge of the embankment to meet us, curiosity writ large on their tired faces. They lead us through the Baramari relief camp on a sandy track lined with brush and half-submerged trees.

The first wave of flooding was reported in Assam after incessant rains in the catchment areas of the Brahmaputra and its tributaries during the first week of June 2012. Many villages in upper and lower Assam were reported inundated. According to Assam Disaster Management Authority (ASDMA) data, around 2,391,369 people across the state (in 11 worst-affected districts) have been impacted by the floods and over 1 million hectares affected by floods and landslides. Over 109 people, including 70 children, have died in the floods and landslides. Some 17 persons are missing.

According to Joint Assessment Report of IAG Assam, Assam Flood 2012, by July 3, there were 650 camps in 15 districts with 383,421 inmates.

Jamal Abdin is worried, as temperatures continue to rise and flood waters run amok. Although the district is flood-prone, with three or four incidents of flooding annually (most of the area lies below the maximum flood level mark of Brahmaputra), the area still faces intermittent dry spells during the kharif and rabi seasons. During this time, irrigation based on groundwater is vital (2). And a more serious threat is rapidly emerging: the threat of lost livelihoods and lost homes. Jamal has only just moved to the Baramari camp.

Studies on rainfall and temperature regimes in northeast India indicate that in the 'south Assam meteorological subdivision' (covering mainly the hill states of Nagaland, Manipur, Mizoram and Tripura and parts of the Barail hills in southern Assam), there has been a significant change in seasonal rainfall -- monsoon rainfall has decreased at an approximate rate of 11 mm per decade over the last century (Das, 2004, Mirza et al, 1998).

State Excess (+)/Deficiency (-)
2005 2006
Assam and Meghalaya -23% -32%
Arunachal Pradesh Normal -25%
Nagaland -22% -25%
Manipur -22% -25%
Mizoram -22% -25%
Tripura -22% -25%
Source: IMD, Guwahati, India

Analysis of long-term temperature data for the region points to distinctly higher levels of surface air temperature. Annual mean maximum temperatures are rising at the rate of +0.11°C per decade. Annual mean temperatures are also rising, at the rate of 0.04°C per decade (Das, 2004). This could well be a manifestation of the regional impact of global warming/climate change. Das made this observation in 2004, when he said: "As of now it is confirmed that the increasing trend of temperature over the northeast region is a manifestation of global warming."

Climate extremes

Several districts in Assam suffered drought-like conditions for two years consecutively in 2005 and 2006, bearing the signature of climate change as vindicated by the IPCC report of 2007 (IPCC, 2007). In the intense drought-like conditions that prevailed in as many as 15 districts of Assam during the monsoon months of 2006 -- owing mainly to below-normal (nearly 40%) rainfall in the region -- more than 75% of the 26 million people associated with agriculture suffered crop failure and other peripheral effects. Normally, such fluctuations are considered a result of inter-annual variability in the monsoons, but climate change increases the variability of the southwest monsoon beyond the normal. According to IMD records, the amount of rainfall received by the northeast region in the 2006 monsoon season was the scantiest in 25 years since 1982.

Of the seven northeastern states, Assam seems to have suffered the most from the deficit rainfall and high temperatures that prevailed in 2006. Transplanting and sowing of rice were severely hampered. Between 1991 and 2000, only four years saw normal or above-normal rainfall in the region. Conventionally, it becomes difficult to complete agricultural operations with heavy and continuous showers. Intense heat further aggravates the situation. In the absence of an organised water source and an irrigation management plan, the region could face complete or partial crop loss.

Rice is the predominant crop in this region, covering about 84% of cultivated area. The total area affected by agricultural drought during the south-west monsoon period constitutes an average of 40% of the geographical area of the NER and 39% of the area under rice. Drought conditions prevailing in almost all fish farming areas have also adversely affected the rearing of fish.

An issue attracting a lot of concern is the condition of available fish seed and prospects for their survival. Farmers use 'carried over seed' to rear the next season's fish. Low water levels in the bheels (natural landlocked water bodies),ponds and rivers, accompanied by high temperatures, inhibits fish breeding, a phenomenon that's pronounced in shallow water bodies with low biological oxygen demand (BOD). Reduced fish populations in the bheels impact the livelihoods of communities (both tribal and non-tribal) traditionally dependent on fish for a living, like the Mishing tribal community in Dhemaji and Lakhimpur districts.

The southern part of Nagaon district in the central Assam valley and adjoining areas of Karbi Anglong form a rain-shadow zone where annual rainfall is as low as 800-1,200 mm. Water scarcity is always a potential threat to the people living in this rain-shadow area, and the absence of an effective irrigation system or water-harvesting practices adds to their vulnerability. But the immediate concern is that rainfall in this area is decreasing slowly, as seen in Lumding where the rate of decline has been 2.15 mm per year (Das, 2004).

Anecdotal reference abounds about climate-related incidents such as spells of intense rainfall in the pre-monsoon and monsoon seasons in some places, and lack of rainfall in the post-monsoon and winter seasons in others, both of which affect agriculture adversely (ICIMOD, 2008). Heavy rainfall and soil erosion are believed to have increased in upstream areas of the Brahmaputra basin. As a result there have been many more flash floods in the hills, affecting vast areas of the floodplains. The intensity, frequency and duration of riverine floods have also changed. Sediment load in the rivers has increased because of erosion caused by heavy rainfall on the hill slopes, scaling up the effects of sand-casting (deposition of large amounts of sand and coarse silt particles by flood waters). In some areas, especially in the case of the Jaidhal river, large ponds and wetlands as deep as 10 feet have been filled to the brim with silt, sand and debris brought by the flash floods.

Rhinos compete with cattle Park
Submerged fields

According to 'Damming Northeast India', by Dr Partha J Das, a researcher in issues related to water resource management, climate variability and change, at Aaranyak, an environmental NGO based in Guwahati, and Neeraj Vagholikar of Kalpavriksh, who together authored the paper, "the mean air temperature of the Himalayan region rose on average by about 1°C from the 1970s to the 1990s with sites at higher elevations warming the most (4). The Tibetan region, through which the Brahmaputra flows on its way to India, has undergone considerable warming. In the period 1960-2000, the rate of warming in Tibet was 0.26°C per decade, higher than the global trend (0.03-0.06°C per decade) and the trend in other parts of China (0.04°C per decade) (5).

"The main stream of the Brahmaputra is known as Yarlung Zangbo (Tsangpo) in Tibet. Chinese scientists have found that temperatures are rising even more alarmingly in the Yarlung Zangbo (upper Brahmaputra) river basin. In the period 1971-2003, warming over the Yarlung Zangbo basin was 0.30°C per decade, significantly higher than the rate of increase of average annual temperatures over India (0.22°C per decade) (6), in the same period. Considering the entire Brahmaputra basin, there is a clear upward trend in temperature at an average rate of 0.06°C per decade (7).

"As a result of rising mean temperatures in the Himalayas, Tibet and the upper Brahmaputra basin, glaciers in the Himalayas have been found to be retreating since 1850 (8), consistent with the general warming of the earth since the industrial era began. Several rivers in northeast India, including the Brahmaputra and its tributaries are fed by snow and glacial melt; indeed, around 12.3% of the Brahmaputra is glacial melt water (9). Glaciers in the Bhutan Himalayas are now retreating at an average rate of 30-40 m per year (10). In the last 40 years or more, glacial area in the entire Tibetan plateau has shrunk by more than 6,606 sq km, with the rate of retreat higher since the mid-1980s (11). Similarly, over northeast India, annual mean maximum temperatures are increasing at a rate of 0.11 degrees Centigrade per decade, and annual mean temperatures at a rate of 0.04 degrees per decade (12)".

Loss of forest cover

Dr Partha J Das says: "Forest cover in Assam is disappearing at an alarming rate, leading to heavy sedimentation of river channels, consequent quick flooding and river-bank erosion and loss of agriculturally productive land to sand deposition."

Assam's rich forests are vanishing. They are being cut in wasteful and unsustainable commercial logging and slash-and-burn clearing for agriculture. Forest Cover Change Matrix, 2011, (13) reveals that there has been a decrease of 17 sq km of dense forest, and 154 sq km of moderately dense forest, and an increase of 152 sq km of open forests in the state over 2009. Despite initiatives to expand forest cover in Assam, such as the chief minister's Seuji Dhora Achoni (Green Earth Programme), motivating people through PPP, awareness programmes, distribution of seedlings from forest nurseries, associating various communities, groups and NGOs in the activities of the forest department, the rate of deforestation continues to rise. This, when three out of the 34 biodiversity hotspots identified globally (14) -- the Himalayas, Indo-Burma and Western Ghats and Sri Lanka -- cover parts of India. The northeast, comprising the eight states of Assam, Arunachal Pradesh, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland, Tripura and Sikkim is home to the first two of these biodiversity hotspots.

Impact on agriculture and livelihoods

The challenge of meshing urgent environmental needs with stubborn economic realities is becoming harder. Take the farmers of Nalbari and Morigaon districts. With agriculture still rain-fed in large parts of the state, significant aberrations in regional weather climate patterns negatively affect agricultural output. As a direct result of strange winter weather, yields of rabi crops like sugarcane, lentils and potato -- which are extremely sensitive to rainfall patterns, especially winter rains -- were poor this year, delaying new planting. And now, farmers facing financial difficulties from a poor rabi harvest are hit by extended floods and siltation of their land.

Farman AliIncreasing turbidity and irregular rainfall patterns also affect the breeding, migration and harvesting of fish, reducing the productivity of natural fisheries. Farman Ali, 48, who once farmed 40 bighas of his own land in Phaliya Mari, Lehpati gram panchayat, Mayong block in Morigaon district says: "All my land has been washed away by the Brahmaputra and I am reduced to doing manual labour in Morigaon town. Crops yields are down and farmers are replacing traditional crops with newer ones like summer rice (boro varieties), with provision for irrigation. Even the fish have disappeared from the rivers. Everything in the agricultural world is upside down."

But it isn't just agriculture that's taking a hit. In districts like Baksa and Nalbari, large-scale deforestation has caused huge tracts of once-verdant forests to be reduced to acres of stumps. Women used to sell wood from these stumps as firewood to eke out a living, but even these have gone. Now they sell country liquor instead. School dropout rates are high because children are being pulled out of school to support their families in agriculture, though with declining productivity and erratic rainfall, many are moving away from cultivation to working in dhabas (roadside eateries), doing manual labour and other livelihood opportunities. In Baksa district, for example, NGOs report an alarming increase in human trafficking, especially of young girls who earlier worked in the paddy fields but are now being trafficked because they are out of work. According to the report 'Action Research on Trafficking in Women and Children in India' in 2004, the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) has stated that "the situation in the northeastern part of the country demands special attention. Trafficking of women and children in this region cuts across the different states and extends beyond national boundaries". Women and children from Assam are trafficked to various parts of the country such as Delhi, Mumbai, Haryana, Gujarat, etc, and are exploited sexually or otherwise.

Dr Partha J Das says: "The evidence of climate change in agriculture is hard to ignore. The knock-on effect on food supplies is obvious. Climate change did not arrive overnight; its impact has become more apparent and observable over the last four to five years and will become even more so in the coming years."

Phulesha KhatoonBut the climate change debate is far removed from the lives of people like Phulesha Khatoon, who lives in a tiny shelter made of bamboo and tarp sheets in Baramari camp. She points forlornly at the bullock cart standing nearby; she lost the bullocks to the floodwaters two months ago. "I now have a bullock cart without any bullocks, and no land left to farm so that the cart can be used to earn a living. I have to use rafts made from banana tree stumps (called bhur in Assamese) or country boats to fetch water and food from distant villages. It's difficult to cook, attend to the children and take care of the livestock. The rise in prices of essential commodities during and after the floods is very trying for my family. Which mother would like to have her children sleep hungry night after night?"

"Who cares about our problems," asks 55-year-old Palan Biswas. "We have lost our lands to the floods and have no land. We have settled on this embankment, while others have got together and taken a few bighas of land on lease for agriculture and are constructing makeshift homes of bamboo and plastic sheeting. But the locals are not very happy because even living on the embankment is occupation of their land and water resources. Some men migrate to places as far away as Kerala, Bangalore and Mumbai to work as masons, daily wage labourers or agriculture workers. I cannot recall when I last had a home of my own. I do not have personal property, land, a house; my children cannot go to school regularly, and there is no regular work. The sarpanch (15) refuses to help, and the government schemes don't reach us. We were supposed to get Rs 3,000 as flood relief; instead, we received Rs 500."

"Responding to climate change requires action on three fronts: strengthening 'autonomous adaptation' to the impacts of current and future climate change at the community level; 'planned adaptation' which happens at the government level; and building up a knowledge base and policy advocacy. However, it is this knowledge base which is not percolating to the community levels. We need to make all these three components of understanding climate change work together to develop effective policies and programmes to mitigate climate change. Ultimately, good policy should be based on good science," says Dr Partha J Das.


1) The greater part of the district is an alluvial plain, criss-crossed with numerous rivulets and waterways and dotted with wetlands and marshes. The river Brahmaputra flows along with the northern boundary of the district, while the Killing, Kollong and Kapili rivers flow through the southern part of the district. The Killing meets the Kapili at the Matiparbat from where the Kapili moves westward. The Kollong joins the Kapili at the Jagi Dui Khuti Mukh and from here they jointly fall into the Brahmaputra. A total of 183 wetlands with an area of 11,658.00 ha are distributed throughout the district
2) Resources Centre for Sustainable Development, 2011. 'Hydrogeology Assessment for Mayong and Bhurbandha block, Morigaon district, Assam', RCSD Project Report No 09, 2011 GRS & GIS
4) Shrestha, A B, Wake, C P, Mayewski, P A, Dibb J E. 1999. 'Maximum Temperature Trends in the Himalaya and its Vicinity: An Analysis Based on Temperature Records from Nepal for the Period 1971–94'. Journal of Climate, 12: 2775-2786
5) Source: Du Jun. 2001. 'Change of Temperature in Tibetan Plateau from 1961-2000'
6) Source: Kothawale, D R, and Rupa Kumar K. 2005. 'On the Recent Changes in Surface Temperature Trends over India', Geophysical Research Letters, 32, L18714, do: 10.1029/2005GL023528
7) Source: Immerzeel, W. 2008. 'Historical Trends and Future Predictions of Climate Variability in the Brahmaputra basin'. International Journal of Climatology, 28: 243–254
8) Mayweski, P and Jasche, P A. 1979. 'Himalaya and Trans Himalayan Glacier Fluctuation since AD 1812'. Arctic and Alpine Research 11 (3): 267-287
9) Source: Bongartz1, K, Flugel, W A, Pechstaldt, J, Bartosch, A, Eriksson, M. 2008. 'Analysis of Climate Change Trend and Possible Impacts in the Upper Brahmaputra River Basin -- the BRAHMATWINN Project'. http://
10) WWF brochure on glacier melt entitled 'Going, Going, Gone! Climate Change and Global Glacier Decline'.
11) Shen Yangping. 2005. 'An Overview of Glaciers, Retreating Glaciers and Their Impact in the Tibetan Plateau'. Report of Cold and Arid Regions Environmental and Engineering Research Institute (CAREER), Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS), Lanzhou 730000, China
12) Das, P J. 2004. 'Rainfall Regime of Northeast India: A Hydrometeorological Study with Special Emphasis on the Brahmaputra Basin'. Unpublished PhD thesis, Guwahati University
13) Source: Indian State of Forests Report. 2011. Forest Survey of India, Ministry of Environment and Forests, Government of India.
14) Source:
15) A sarpanch is an elected head of a village-level statutory institution of local self-government called the gram panchayat (village government) in India and Pakistan


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(Aditya Malaviya is a researcher and journalist based in Bhopal)


Infochange News & Features, September 2012