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The Brahmaputra's Changing River Ecology

A. K. Das

The great earthquake of 1950 created havoc, specially in the upper reaches of the Himalayas in and around the Siang and the Diboug river courses as well as in the upper Assam plains. There was considerable impact on the topography on both sides of the Brahmaputra Valley. This natural calamity was mainly responsible for the abrupt changes in the river ecology. The river Brahmaputra and its many tributaries in upper Assam badly suffered due to blockage caused by uprooted trees, boulders and soil erosion.

The first casualty was the small township of Sadiya on the north bank (and virtually the headquarters of the erstwhile NEFA) due to change of the course of the Digaru river, which eroded the entire township in a very short time. This was followed by the constant soil erosion of the Brahmaputra in and around Dibrugarh town on the South bank in upper Assam. About one-third of the total area of the township was eroded, cutting across the horseshoe-shaped bank of the river. A considerable population had to be shifted to safer places.

This was the major ecological disturbance faced by the people of Dibrugarh and the neighbouring areas. There were, however, quick responses to the situation using traditional means without having to depend on outside relief measures. In spite of dislocation and losses there was no let-up in indigenous efforts either in the mountains or in the plains.

Prior to this great earthquake, Dibrugarh town and the neighbouring areas experienced floods a couple of times in the rainy season. On many occasion the low-lying areas adjacent to the river were under waist-deep water, sometimes even more. Water usually entered the town from two sides: from the Brahmaputra itself from the north and from the Dibaru, a small channel, from the south-east. The south-eastern part of the town was a little higher. These were the outskirts of the town surrounded by tea gardens and paddy field, while the north-west of the township was at a lower elevation so that flood water regularly inundates the houses in the area. As a long-time measure several houses in this area were built on platform, even the official residence of the district administration. Such houses were traditionally called changbangla or changghar. A few such houses still exist in the town as an epitaph of the past.

Dibrugarh was a very green town with lots of big trees. Kathal, lichi, pipal, simalu, bargad, nahar, mango, ajar, and many other valuable timbers grew luxuriantly in and around the town. Wherever there was fallow land, herbs, shrubs and bushes of wild foliage were a common sight.

Prior to the introduction of the tube-well there were traditional wells, both kechanad (without a brick lining) and patanad (with a lining). The water was good. There were several ponds in the town privately owned, as well as marshy land full of meteka (water hyacinth) and other aquatic vegetation, some of which was edible. These ponds were used for fishing in the lean season and never created any major health hazard. Malaria occurred occasionally but there was no epidemic as has been reported in recent time. Probably because of the fish and other aquatic creatures the ponds remained clean and because of the floods they were regularly flushed.

The floods which occurred regularly in suburban Dibrugarh due to the Brahmaputra were not considered a threat to the people living in the ‘water ecology’. Because of their recurrence, people with their traditional wisdom know when they would occur, even their magnitude and duration. Sometimes certain natural signs were taken into consideration such as the movement of ants, the appearance of certain species of plant, the behaviour of an insect called gagini (a species of locust), some actions of birds and animals, etc. Well before the floods people were ready to tackle them with age-old means. If necessary they moved to an elevated place. Otherwise country boats were used or quickly assembled rafts called bhoor made of the trunk of plantain and split bamboo. The use of boats and plantain rafts was a sort of pastime for the children of the town during the floods. Many young children enjoyed swimming in the flood-water in the courtyards of their houses.

Another pastime connected with the floods was fishing. The most important and enjoyable was the method called dewapata. Generally a barrier is created against the flow of water in with a bamboo dewa (a sort of loose bamboo matting), or occasionally by placing boulders across the water channel. Normally a fish swimming in with flowing water jumps over the barrier and falls on a net or a piece of cloth which is kept hanging just below the dewa. Sometimes fish jump over and fall to one side of the barrier on a dry patch. During floods plenty of fish were caught with traditional devices such as porangi jal (a lever-operated deep net), jakoi, polo (basket traps), etc. On many occasions people would catch fish overnight and bake them.

As soon as the flood was over everything went back to normal. There was no panic because of an epidemic, no worry about the paddy transplantation or about the kitchen gardens. Nor was there worry over clean water because the brick-lined wells remained without pollution. After the floods, which occurred two or three times during the rainy season, the agricultural land in and around Dibrugarh became fertile due to siltation, locally called palash para. After each inundation of the paddy fields the harvest in most cases was exceptionally good. Vegetables grown after the floods were found to be of good quality, specially leafy vegetables like cabbage, cauliflower and mustard, as well as carrots, potatoes and turnips. The town was full of wild vegetables such as dhikia (a kind of fern), khutara (a leafy vegetable), matikadene (medicinal), manimuni, videli lata, etc. Besides these were medicinal herbs which were traditionally used as antiseptics and pain-killers, remedies for coughs and colds, stomach diseases and so on.

This was the ideal ecological situation in and around the Brahmaputra river in upper Assam prior to the great earthquake. There was a natural balance between man and the river and at no time did people hate the river for its fury. The Brahmaputra was considered sacred and secular at the same time. During Magha Sankranti people preferred to go for a holy dip in the Brahmaputra rather than in the Ganga.

Due to the earthquake, there was topographical disturbance in the river bed with deposition of soil, gravel, tree trunks and branches coming from the badly damaged mountain. Because of the disturbance in the soil a strong undercurrent started cutting the soft soil of the bank on the Dibrugarh side. It was a sight to see how houses and trees collapsed and disappeared in the turbulent river. Engineering measures were taken to stop the soil erosion. Several dykes of boulders were built across the river to divert the dangerous undercurrent along the river bank covering the entire eroded zone. This measure saved the town but created problem for the areas outside the protective cover of the dykes.

Because of the flood control and soil erosion measures there was a gradual change in the river ecology in and around Dibrugarh town. Its impact on day-to-day life was evident at a later stage. Some of the significant points are recounted below.

  1. Dykes built with boulders to divert the undercurrent of the river along the bank protected the township yet created problem for the areas outside the protective cover. Fishing, which was a regular feature near the river bank, became impossible. A whole village of fisherfolk living on the bank were displaced and had to change their life-style.

  2. As has already been indicated, with the engineering success in controlling the erosion attention was given to flood control. The dam which was constructed along the river bank covering the entire the length of the town, although it stopped flood water entering the town, in a few years’ time the results of the flood control measures were reflected in the changing river ecology and the corresponding impact on the life-style of the people. The river’s fury became a nightmare because of breaches during peak flood times and the possibility of flash floods.

  3. Since Dibrugarh town lies in a heavy rainfall zone, during the rainy season water started accumulating inside the town and the low-lying areas. This became the source for health hazards. The north-western part of the town faced this problem constantly, which was a cause of worry for the Public Works Department. To solve this new problem a drain was dug through the length and breadth of the town for stagnant water mainly in the rainy season. The canal served its purpose for some time but became a source for change in ecology and the environment with gradual water pollution due to deposition of debris and blockage at places.

We have seen two contrasting realities when we take into account the pre-earthquake ecology and the post-earthquake ecology in Dibrugarh. In the pre-earthquake period there was complete harmony between the people and the river ecology. Floods were tackled in an indigenous way and were hardly considered a menace. The recurring floods were responsible for the fertility of the soil and for cleaning the stagnant water of the town. They were also responsible for a source of protein because of the large quantity of fish caught.

In the post-earthquake period, because of engineering measures, there was a gradual change in the river ecology in and around Dibrugarh town which resulted in socio-economic problems. Some of them are described below.

  1. The dam which was erected to protect the town from floods has became a source of fear for the people in the recent past. It has created a constant threat of flash floods in heavy rain due to a possible breach in the dam. People of the town living adjacent to the river have had to be shifted to multi-storied buildings or to high places a couple of times in the past. Arrangements for a public address system had to made to inform people about the flood situation and prevent panic.

  2. Another factor reflected in the agricultural sector was due to the stoppage of annual silting. The people of the area after the earthquake faced the problem of normal growth and production of quality crops and vegetables. This resulted in the use of chemical fertiliser and resultant deterioration in kitchen garden produce.

  3. Fish became more expensive — because of the dyke and the natural drying of the ponds.

  4. The drain around the town has become a health hazard. This drain is now a constant source of water pollution.

  5. In pre-earthquake times Dibrugarh was a green town. Due to the change in the river ecology there are now fewer trees, herbs and shrubs, specially medicinal herbs.

There are many other observations relating to the changing river ecology in and around Dibrugarh. The primary idea here is to show that there is a need for understanding the traditional wisdom of the people living in a particular ecology and infusing their traditional knowledge into ecological and natural crisis management. The river ecology in Dibrugarh, which was once attuned to the life-style of the people, has been alienated by engineering measures and other development work without considering need-based long-term planning.

This is one of the examples of modern ecological management in which the significance of the cultural dimension has been totally neglected while tackling changing river ecology. In modern scientific parameters, the importance of the interdependence of the cultural component is not central but peripheral to the planning process. That is why disastrous after-affects are often noticed. As a matter of fact, in ecological crisis management by scientific means, the short-term results overshadow long-term holistic requirements. This is quite apparent in the present study of changing river ecology in Dibrugarh region.

Keeping in view the traditional knowledge and experience of the people who have lived their lives in river ecology, the following long-term planning and ecological management would have been the right prescription for this particular region:

  1. Soil erosion by the Brahmaputra is a natural process. This has happened in the past as and when there were disturbances in the river bed. It is continuing over the years in different dimensions.

  2. Erosion should have been allowed to continue naturally till it reached its stage of saturation. This would have allowed the normal flow of the river and gradual cleaning of debris from the river bed in course of time.

  3. Instead of constructing an artificial dam to prevent river water overflowing the bank and low-lying areas, the natural process of flooding should have been allowed to continue. With the gradual removal of debris either naturally or by mechanical means, the fury of the floods would have eased in course of time.

  4. The traditional ecological crisis management system should have been studied by planners to make it more effective in dealing with the recurring floods and soil erosion.


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