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Coupled With Degrading Water Quality, Are The Yearly Assam Floods Leading To Something Much More Severe?

The state of Assam is the most populated state in the northeast region of India. The Brahmaputra valley and the Barak valley are the lifelines of the state. The Brahmaputra Valley stretches through 30 districts, while the Barak valley covers three districts. A major part of the state is inundated by the Brahmaputra, a transboundary river and one of the biggest rivers in Asia, exposing the state to the risk of flooding.

The river valleys bear testimony to the menace of devastating floods every year. A crippled rural economy, riverbank erosion, destruction of lives and valuable crops, and drainage congestion are the aftermath of the flood. The state is most vulnerable during monsoons because it is a basin for a large amount of runoff water from higher ground. It is surrounded by the hills of the neighbouring state of Arunachal Pradesh (Government of Assam, 2018).

Assam floods
Representative Image.

Degrading water quality of Resources

The state of Assam lies at the foothills of the Himalayas. The geographical location is such that it is neither in the highly irrigated nor semi-arid tropic areas. The state is enriched with heavy rainfall, abundant water resources and fertile soil. The large perennial rivers and other enormous water bodies with rich aquifer speak the vastness of its rich water resources.

Surface water is available in the form of river, stream, lake, swamps, pond, etc. The groundwater is available at low to moderate depth almost in the entire state (ENVIS centre, Assam).

Despite such favourable condition with rich water sources, the state is combating the issue of degrading water quality. Arsenic contamination can be found in the Brahmaputra basin along with elevated levels of fluoride, nitrate and iron contamination in the state.

Further, the flashiness and unpredictability of some tributaries of the Brahmaputra combined with contaminated surface sources due to industrial and agricultural activities are the burning issues regarding the quality of surface water sources.

Fluoride, arsenic and other heavy metal contamination have made the option of alternative surface waters seem like a viable alternative. However, the inadequacy of surface water sources near areas with contaminated water has become a hurdle in the availability of these sources. There is also a lurking ambiguity about the availability of these surface water sources.

Climate change affecting water source Sustainability

The most probable impact of climate change on the water can be summarised by stating that: climate change will shorten or hasten the water cycle. Higher temperatures mean evaporation rates will rise, which will affect all other processes in the water cycle and their interrelationships.

Climate change is already altering “the distribution of precipitation, and intensity and frequency of precipitation events could potentially exacerbate both flooding and water scarcity”.

It will not be an exaggeration to state that that the recurring problem of floods in the state of Assam is the product of climate change. Prior to the devastating earthquake of 1950, which registered an 8.7 on the Richter scale, floods occurred only in the northern region of the Brahmaputra. But after the 1950s, the entire Brahmaputra valley and Barak valley region have been witnessing floods year after year.

Assam flood
Representative Image. (Source: flickr)

Several records from the last century indicate the widening phenomenon of the Brahmaputra. The Brahmaputra river occupied around 4000 sq. km in the 1920s and now the Brahmaputra occupies about 6000 sq. km.

Further analysis on the impact of climate change on flood characteristics in the Brahmaputra river suggests that for both the pre-monsoonal and monsoonal seasons, peak discharges and flood wave durations are expected to increase under the projected climate change scenario.

Groundwater serves as the source of a significant portion of drinking water and makes for approximately 85% of rural drinking water. It is estimated that the gross per capita availability of water in India is projected to decline from 1820 cubic meter per year in 2001 to 1140 cubic meter per year in 2050.

One of the important reasons cited is that due to recurrent flash floods, the downpour of water will increase, making the availability of water scarcer. We are already witnessing recurrent flash floods in many parts of India, including Assam.

However, groundwater reacts at a slower pace to rainfall and temperatures and can thereby be resilient to water stress. Groundwater storages can also contribute towards mitigating the problem by absorbing the excess runoff.

Implication on Gender

Floods not only severely affect the environment but also leave behind a trail of adverse effects on women. Several challenges related to access to sanitation facilities, menstrual hygiene and maternity care leading to other longer-term adverse health outcomes have been faced by Health and WASH Women in this context.

Not just these, during floods, access to hospitals can be difficult for pregnant women leading to their death. An impact of water-related disaster analysis (J. Jagnoor et al.) has revealed that banana leaves are used as toilets during floods. Children defecate in the water, thereby rendering it unfit for public consumption.

During a flood, people are compelled to consume such contaminated water, which can lead to death by deadly diseases such as diarrhoea.

Bank erosion has been continually wiping out more than 2500 villages and 18 towns, including cultural heritage and tea gardens, affecting the lives of nearly 5,00,000 people.

Featured Image via Wikimedia Commons
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Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

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The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

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Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

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MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

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A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

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As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

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A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
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Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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