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Northeast India Floods—the Anthropocene at work

Updated: Jun 14, 2023

Deforestation and violation of laws make flooding chronic in Northeast India's floodplains.

House Approaching by Tanishk Katalkar

In June 2022, the floods in Assam gained public attention amid an influx of visuals narrating the tales of devastation from Silchar. The northeastern states of India, which reside in a floodplain, are naturally prone to intense, annual flooding.


An aerial view of flood-affected areas of Assam on July 02, 2012, via the Ministry of Home Affairs

Northeastern India’s geography is defined by rolling hills, deep valleys, and meandering rivers. The vast river basin created by the Brahmaputra and Barak river systems facilitates the natural spread of floodwaters in the region, and it has been that way as far as historical records go. So what is so different about flooding now?


Dwindling Forests

Forests are integral to intricate ecosystems like the ones of northeastern India and are home to some of India’s densest forests. 84% of Mizoram’s geographical area is covered by forests—the highest of any Indian state. When humans disturb these complex balances, we witness a broader ecological breakdown.


This vast green cover, however, is rapidly disappearing. According to the Forest Survey of India, all of the northeastern states have reported forest loss between 2019 and 2021. This loss occurred as all other Indian states—except for Punjab and West Bengal—recorded a forest cover increase.


Graphic displaying the scale of forest cover loss in North East India between 2019 and 2021

Trees absorb a sizeable amount of rainfall, hence preventing excessive rainwater runoff. Meanwhile, the roots stabilize sediments thus deterring soil erosion. Consequently, the movement of water through a natural system, via rivers and streams, is dependent on the landscape.


In the summer of 1998, Northern China experienced severe flooding in the Yangtze river basin. The floods killed over 3,600 people and caused economic losses of over $30 Billion. Within months, scientists, journalists, and researchers began to associate the floods with indiscriminate logging in the basin.


These old findings ring alarm bells for India’s northeast where accelerated deforestation is being witnessed amid massive flood-induced destruction. But if 2-decade old findings can ring alarm bells, the administrative response from that time might as well act as a lesson. “Responding to the [disaster], Premier Zhu Rongji announced that logging of China’s natural forests in the upper reaches of the Yellow River and the Yangtze River had to stop, from September 1998”, writes Graeme Lang.



Climate Change

Days before floods began to ravage Assam, the Indian Meteorological Department had issued an alert for high rainfall in the region. By altering rainfall patterns, climate change is worsening floods. Rising temperatures are warming the air up allowing it to hold more moisture and form heavier, more unstable clouds. While the overall rainy season gets shorter, this intensity gets squeezed into shorter but more destructive periods of rainfall.


The data from IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) shows that what would have once been a 1-in-10-year downpour, now occurs 1.3 times every 10 years and is also 6.7% more intense. As rainfall patterns get further disturbed, the threat posed by massive floods will heighten, thus making climate change a significant aggravator of the likes of crises we are seeing in northeast India.


Graphic from IPCC AR6 Report Physical Science Basis’s Summary For Policymakers displaying the increase in the intensity and frequency of heavy 1-day precipitation event that occurred once in 10 years


Conclusion

Floods are natural and essential for most ecosystems. However, what we are witnessing in Northeast India is the proliferating influence of anthropogenic activities on such natural phenomena. This influence, of course, isn’t limited to floods—it further extends to the much visible realms of pollution, wildfires, and human health—and affects regions beyond the northeast.




References

Assam Floods: Over 21 Lakh People Affected, Silchar Worst Hit. NDTV, 28 June 2022, https://www.ndtv.com/india-news/assam-floods-over-21-lakh-people-affected-silchar-worst-hit-3106505.


Forest Cover, India State of Forest Report. Forest Survey of India, 2021, https://fsi.nic.in/isfr-2021/chapter-2.pdf


​​Clark, Colin. “Deforestation and Floods.” Environmental Conservation, vol. 14, no. 1, Cambridge University Press, pp. 67–69, http://www.jstor.org/stable/44521025. Accessed 27 June 2022.


Lang, Graeme. “Forests, Floods, and the Environmental State in China.” Organization & Environment, vol. 15, no. 2, Sage Publications, Inc., June 2002, pp. 109–30, http://www.jstor.org/stable/26161817.


Dickie, Gloria. Climate Change Is Driving 2022 Extreme Heat and Flooding. Reuters, 28 June 2022, https://www.reuters.com/world/climate-change-is-driving-2022-extreme-heat-flooding-2022-06-28/.


Masson-Delmotte, Valérie, et al. “IPCC, 2021: Summary for Policymakers.” Climate Change 2021: The Physical Science Basis. Contribution of Working Group I to the Sixth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, 2021, https://www.ipcc.ch/report/ar6/wg1/downloads/report/IPCC_AR6_WGI_SPM_final.pdf.

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