A hope for climate-focused urban planning in Assam’s cities reeling from severe floods

Image shows a lake under overcast skies in India
  • While cities expand rapidly, drainage systems fail to be developed accordingly, leading to prolonged flooding during intense rainfall.
  • The National Institute of Urban Affairs (NIUA) in New Delhi insists on facilitating groundwater recharge to store excess flood water.
  • The Assam State Action Plan 2.0, which is pending approval, focuses on mainstreaming climate action into urban infrastructure, governance and policy.

“There was water till my waist,” recalls Tarun Rajkhowa, a 70-year-old resident of Guwahati city’s Rukminigaon area. In mid-June this year, when incessant rains inundated parts of the city, Rajkhowa and his wife were stranded in their first-floor apartment for nearly a week. “It was impossible for us to get out. Relief material was delivered to us through boats. Vehicles parked on the ground floor of our building were completely underwater,” Rajkhowa said. Only weeks after a severe wave of floods in May, heavy rainfall caused south Assam’s Silchar city to remain inundated for days for a second time.

Rainfall-induced floods have caused large-scale devastation in recent years in rural Assam. However, this year, crucial urban areas such as Silchar and Guwahati were considered the worst hit. As a large number of people migrate to cities, experts say that there is a lack of urban planning and resources to support burgeoning populations, making these cities vulnerable to climate impacts, natural disasters, floods, landslides. A government study of 12 states in the Indian Himalayan Region (IHR) and their vulnerability to climate change found that Assam was among the most vulnerable states.

The challenges of urban planning

Dulumoni Kakati, a municipal ward councillor at Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) confirmed that increasing construction, urbanisation and improper waste disposal systems are some reasons why many areas in Guwahati are witnessing floods. Calling for better drainage systems, she explained that when rainfall is low, flooding isn’t usually a risk. But intense rainfall as witnessed in June overwhelms the city’s drainage.

Abhijit Sharma, chairman of the northeast chapter of Institute of Town Planners, said, “We do not have planning at the local level—no parks, no open spaces, no drainage systems. The municipal corporation is a people-driven institution, but somehow that is not given enough importance.”

According to him, there is also not enough land in the cities to meet the needs of those who migrate from smaller areas in search of livelihood opportunities–especially those who are economically and socially marginalised. “A lot of these people have taken to the hills and that has led to land cutting, which later clogs the drains in the cities. A town planning scheme would help these people. We tell them to not go to the hills but where will they stay? Most people who migrate are poor.”

Image shows an aerial view of Golaghat city in Assam, India
An aerial view of Golaghat, Assam. Increasing construction, urbanisation and improper waste disposal systems are some reasons why many cities witness floods. Photo by OmerMarcel/Wikimedia Commons.

A lack of clean drains and persisting unawareness among citizens he added, were manifestations of the larger problems.

Parthankar Choudhury, a professor of environmental science at Assam University in Silchar emphasises that while people living in single-storied houses have suffered a lot, the marginalised communities are going through tougher times.

Experts state that the rapid concretisation of surfaces and growth in infrastructure hinders the absorption of rainwater into the ground. “Because of the rise in infrastructure, rainwater gets accumulated in the cities very early,” said Ratnakar Mahajan, technical manager at Maccaferri India, which focuses on advanced solutions for mining and environmental engineering projects.

Read more: More research about relationship between flash floods and climate change needed

The National Institute of Urban Affairs (NIUA) in New Delhi also insists on facilitating groundwater recharge to store excess floodwater. “We emphasise proper management of ponds, lakes, and other water bodies that will serve as detention sinks during flooding events,” Hitesh Vaidya, director of NIUA said.

Mahajan believes that drainage systems aren’t being developed as cities expand rapidly. Drainage patterns should be tweaked according to the natural flow of water. “Drains need to be resized–they should be larger. The rainfall pattern is changing, so drainage systems need to be studied and properly planned.”

The role of the government

Rizwan Uz Zaman, technical consultant at Assam Climate Change Management Society (ACCMS) spoke of several initiatives recently undertaken by the government, including the State Action Plan 2.0 which has been approved by the Assam cabinet and is pending approval from New Delhi. “The water resource department has suggested a lot of measures, and the housing and urban affairs departments too have suggested new initiatives. Innovative climate resilient actions were suggested for flood management in cities. The document is not yet public and we can share it only when it gets its approval from New Delhi. We consult the civil society and people who are experts in this regard.”

According to Zaman, the Assam State Action Plan on Climate Change 2.0 majorly focuses on mainstreaming climate action into urban governance and policy, building climate resilient urban housing and waste management infrastructure,  low carbon road network and mobility, and ensuring holistic management of pollution/ emissions in cities. “These are the five big strategies that we are working on. The forest department, too, has taken on the initiative of rehabilitating and resettling forest dwellers from various places.”

Image shows an aerial view of Guwahati, India
Rapid concretisation of surfaces and growth in infrastructure hinders the absorption of rainwater into the ground. Photo by Anushila Bharali/Wikimedia Commons.

Hrishiraj Sharma, an architect and town planner based in Guwahati said, “Water comes from the hills to the cities. The city can only take in water according to its capacity. Apart from that if excess water comes from the hills, the water levels in the valley will increase.”

NIA director Vaidya said that cities in the northeast are no different from others in India when it comes to typical gaps in urban planning. Among these gaps, he noted, was the reluctance to adopt a systematic approach. This can be attributed to a lack of coordination and interaction with communities and the general public. “In most cases, public opinion is sought only after plans are prepared,” Vaidya said. He also stressed the need for more urban practitioners and public officials to develop ways to adopt an approach that considers climate resilience. “We need to move from a relief-centric to proactive response-centric approach to sustain extreme and more frequent disasters by building climate-resilient infrastructure.”

Experts have also suggested that the municipal corporation and district administration should conduct a carrying capacity survey in Assam’s cities and towns which can provide an idea of the population that a city can sustain with its resources.

Mongabay-India contacted the GMC commissioner for an interview but did not receive a response at the time of publishing.

Read more: Extreme flooding from intense cyclones to affect more people in India, Bangladesh


Banner image: Southeast Asia gets heavy rainfall, which makes cities in the northeast, like Guwahati, especially prone to flooding. Photo by lensnmatter/Wikimedia Commons.

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