Trying to collect information on water and climate change has been a really challenging process but as I read more, it makes me sad and interested at the same time. Taking this interest forward, I tried connecting with an old friend, with whom I had done a summer internship programme, more than five years ago, at the Indian Institute of Technology, Guwahati (IIT-G).
He shared a few images with me on WhatsApp about the floods in Assam this year and how it had affected so many people in lower Assam. His name is Jyotirmoy Sarma, and he hails from Guwahati. He did his bachelors from National Institute of Technology, Silchar, Assam and is presently residing in Dallas, Texas in the United States. He went on to complete his masters from the University of Texas, in 2018, and is now continuing with his PhD programme in mechanical engineering, with a specialisation in micro/nanoscale thermal sciences.
The intent of doing this short interview was to compare and contrast the flood scenario in India and the United States and how it affects people differently cutting across geographies, economies, policies, etc.
Zeba Ahsan (ZA): How long has it been for you in the United States? Where in the US do you live?
Jyotirmoy Sarma (JS): It’s been a little over 3 years now since I landed in the US for my graduate studies. I have been residing in the Dallas-Fort Worth metropolitan area in Texas, since then. Texas is at the very south of the USA, and is the largest state, in terms of geographical area, second only to Alaska in the far north-west.
ZA: What are the similarities and differences in weather patterns in the US and India?
JS: While the climate in India varies from tropical monsoon in the south to temperate in the north, the US is mostly temperate. However, it is tropical in Florida and Hawaii, arctic cold in Alaska, and semi-arid to arid in the greater area, covering the West to the Southwest. Thanks to monsoons, India receives about 50% more rainfall compared to the US.
And because of the tropical climate and being near to the Atlantic Ocean, the state of Florida and its neighbours are prone to hurricane threats often, and the after-effects are floods followed by huge infrastructural damage.
ZA: Have you faced any flood-like scenario in Texas?
JS: I haven’t faced any such situations in my stay here at Texas. However, due to Hurricane Harvey hitting Houston and its surrounding areas in southern Texas back in August 2017, the state witnessed one of the most devastating floods in the US history. Harvey washed over major highways, properties and farmlands, leaving tens of thousands seeking shelter, and drenching parts of the region with a year’s worth of rain in the span of a week!
ZA: How does the government compensate or reach out to the flood victims?
JS: Through the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), the primary purpose is to coordinate the response to a disaster that has occurred in the country and that overwhelms the resources of local and state authorities. The governor of the state in which the disaster occurs must declare a state of emergency and formally request from the US President, that FEMA and the federal government, respond to the disaster.
Also, there is the National Flood Insurance Program, (NFIP) created by the Congress of the United States in 1968, which enables property owners to purchase insurance protection against losses from floods. On the other hand, in India, we have not seen any such program, except for the Chief Minister’s relief funds.
ZA: How effective is the Early Warning System (EWS)? Could you tell our readers how it is different from Assam?
JS: Accuracy of the Early Warning System of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is, of course, top-notch, with real-time data analysis and radar support. Based on which the evacuation programs in prone areas are well ahead of time. I think the Indian EWS for cyclones and hurricanes are also adept. The situations for both the US and India differ greatly. From the Assam perspective, it is quite difficult for me to comment at this moment, but as far as my knowledge is concerned, the EWS system has surely improved since the past few years. I was following the news from some 4-5 months back that the EWS had been extremely effective in reducing damage and loss to life and property, to a great extent, caused by Cyclone Fani which was, in fact, a Super Cyclone, that reached up to parts of North East India.
ZA: Any recent event of flooding that you experienced or your friends and colleagues experienced? Was it in India or in the US?
JS: The most recent event of flooding that we all can recall is the Assam floods in the month of July this year. Floods in Assam are a common thing year after year; however, this year’s floods may be considered one of the most catastrophic in line with the one in 2012. People, animals and crops in huge number were affected. The immediate experience is from my paternal grandmother’s house, in a village near Tihu, in Nalbari district, in lower Assam. She had to be relocated to her relatives, in a nearby village, due to floodwaters entering her house, and reaching up to the height of the lower frame of the window. Such a case never happened before, she recalled.
ZA: Is there any on-going initiative in your area to beat plastic pollution?
JS: Zeba, US is one of the worst places when it comes to plastic disposal. Currently, less than 10% of the plastic sold in the US each year is recycled. Unfortunately, most of the plastic ends up in the ocean, affecting marine life and aggravating the problem of artificial floods. In fact, the US and Japan are the only G7 nations which have refused to tackle plastic pollution. And President Trump evaded the meeting last time by sending a representative in his place.
ZA: Do you have any message for our readers so that we can induce in behaviour change? No matter how small, it can make a significant impact in tackling climate change.
JS: It is high time we practice ‘Be the change you want to see in the world’. Plastic pollution is one major environmental issue plaguing our society today. The planet’s water bodies are heavily contaminated with plastic wastes, with China being the top disposer of plastic wastes. The less usage of plastics the better it is for our own good.
The use of recycled plastics or bio-degradable paper bags should be practised. Avoid dumping of plastics in drains which lead to their blockage and flooding of city roads particularly in Guwahati. Again, mostly the garbage dumping ends up piling in the river Brahmaputra, and its various tributaries, which add to water pollution. This must be stopped.
Deforestation is another major cause of climate change. It not only disturbs the habitat of the birds and animals but also disrupts the whole of ecosystem. There should be a check in the number of trees being cut down in our national parks and sanctuaries. What I have seen in the US is that they take good care of the huge number of their national parks. Many houses in the US are mostly built with wood, which is retrieved from the trees grown specifically for that purpose, not cut down from the national parks.