Rains invoke poetry for many, but for those living in the periphery of the nation, it also means destruction and misery. This monsoon has been especially unkind to the land of seven sisters. The scale of destruction has been massive and the season is far from over. A sense of helplessness, desperation and rage has gradually gripped the region. Acknowledging this grim reality, even the official portal of Assam State Disaster Management board calls the flood as ‘an annual event in the State of Assam.’ Statistics show that more than 40 percent of its land surface is susceptible to flood damage. So are we to accept flood and disasters as a fait accompli? At the face of the daunting tragedy and unfolding misery, the task seems twofold. First, to learn from similar global experiences, to expand our critique and agendas, and second to strengthen and capitalise on the existing expertise at hand.
Community Resistance Worldwide
Natural disasters have taken on epic proportions in the last few decades. The International Strategy for Disaster Risk Reduction estimates that 200 million people have been affected by natural disasters every year for the past two decades. It is a good idea to learn from global practices of fighting an environmental war, a war of strategies to cope with disasters. Governments, corporations and even the communities need to be held accountable in the larger goal of preserving the fragile ecological balance. In the Northeast, we are so used to hearing about disasters caused by, for example, water released from different dams time to time that we have stopped seeking any accountability from anyone about this. At the heart of the debate is a concept called the public trust doctrine, which suggests that the government has a duty to protect certain natural resources from damage for the future beneficiaries of them.
In Brazil, we have the example of Movimento dos Atingidos por Barragens-MAB (Movement of people affected by dams), where the members of MAB signed an agreement with the federal government for the resettlement of the signed families. In the US, the Central Green Co. v. United States 2001 judgement made the federal government concede that the phrase ‘floods or flood waters’ encompassed waters released for flood control purposes when reservoir waters are at the flood stage. This had wide ranging implications by holding the dam authorities legally accountable who used to release upstream water from the dams causing significant flooding downstream. Most interestingly, a case is ongoing in the American court of law right now involving a bunch of youngsters ranging from 9-19 years who have sued the Government on the legal argument that climate change threatens the plaintiffs’ fundamental constitutional right to life and liberty. Julia Olson, a lawyer for the plaintiffs and executive director of Our Children’s Trust, argued in court that the federal government has understood the threat of climate change for decades and knowingly put the lives of future generations in danger. The government, according to the plaintiffs, has not upheld its legal obligation to protect public trust resources like air and water, so the youths seek a court decision that will compel federal agencies to regulate emissions and take actions to prevent climate change. Let us keenly follow the developments.
The Need to Strengthen Existing Expertise
India is highly vulnerable to natural disaster catastrophes especially due to the fact that it supports about a sixth of the world population with only 2 per cent of the world’s land mass. The Govt. of India has enacted the Disaster Management Act of 2005 which is aimed to make a shift from a relief centric approach to a proactive, holistic and integrated one. Interesting measures are adopted but the question is their efficacy on the ground. In the context of the Northeast and especially Assam, it is interesting to look into the evolution of policy experiments like ‘Flood Early Warning System’ (FLEWS) designed by the state disaster management authority in recent years. The project is an integrated approach to develop Flood Early Warning System. All stakeholders viz. IMD, CWC, NEEPCO, Brahmaputra Board are taken into the system. The FLEWS is supposed to provide early warning of flood in magnitude (severity), location (revenue circle/group or cluster of villages) and probable time (within 12-24 hours range), high rainfall warning with location and time, pre and post monsoon status of embankment in various flood causing rivers etc. But given the fact that the region and the State specifically is reeling under one of the worst floods in decades, one needs to urgently ask about its efficiency and perhaps ways to make it more effective.
A Call for a Rights-based Approach
Going back to our global narrative sharing, the Australian aborigines have a pertinent message for us all. ‘We are standing here to fight and protect everything that we love—from our land to our waters to the mountains to the rivers and forests. This is the moment where we decide what kind of legacy we are going to leave behind for future generations,’ chief of the Yorta Yorta Aboriginal Community commented in the legal landmark battle known as Yorta Yorta Aboriginal Community vs. Victoria, Australia, 1988.
Nature, in all its fury, is repeatedly passing a verdict on us. It’s a condemnation of our collective follies, shortsightedness and arrogance. But do we ever listen to it?