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Eaux, pauvreté et crises sociales

Habib Ayeb
Thierry Ruf

Atelier 3. Crises autour de l’eau dans les plaines et les deltas

Water Availability, Poverty and Socio-Economic Crisis in the Floodplains of Barak Valley, Assam, North East India

Abhik Gupta

Texte intégral


1Floodplains of tropical rivers are of immense ecological and economic importance. The river-floodplain interaction is mainly governed by the seasonal pulsing of floodwater from the river onto the floodplain and its subsequent recession back into the river (Welcomme, 1979; Junk et al., 1989; Dudgeon et al., 1994). The seasonal entry into and recession of river water from the floodplain comprises the key mechanism that makes it a very important landscape in any area. Many species of fishes synchronize their breeding activity with the flood season and migrate into the inundated floodplain to feed and spawn, and return to the river in the dry season. These fishes also show intense feeding activity during flood season that declines drastically in the dry period (Dudgeon, 1992; Borgström, 1994). Consequently, the floodplains support rich capture fisheries that sustain the livelihood of scores of fisher families. Furthermore, the deposition of nutrient-rich alluvium renders fertility to the floodplain soil, which is used for agriculture when the floodwater recedes after monsoon. Besides, the floodplains also contribute to water storage and supply and serve as retarding basins for excess floodwater. However, unsustainable anthropogenic activities leading to overexploitation of resources, accompanied by the absence of comprehensive water and soil management measures have pushed many riverine floodplains in developing countries including India to the brink of ecological and economic bankruptcy. Seasonally inundated floodplains comprise a very prominent landscape element in the North East Indian state of Assam, especially in the Barak Valley region in its southern part. Besides harbouring capture fisheries that sustain the livelihood of thousands of fishers and traders, they are also used for agriculture in the dry period, especially for growing summer rice. In spite of their overriding importance in terms of water supply and storage, mitigation of floods, fishery, agriculture and tourism, the floodplain ecosystems of Assam are threatened with reclamation, environmental degradation, overexploitation and pollution (Bhuyan, 1987). Studies conducted by the Space Application Centre (SAC), Ahmedabad, India, (Garg et al., 1998), reveal that seasonally inundated floodplains comprise 23.15 per cent of the total area under wetlands in the state of Assam. However, while these areas have plenty of water during monsoon, they also suffer from water scarcity during the dry season, thereby affecting their agricultural potential. This paper, therefore, attempts to analyze the problem of water availability in the floodplains of Barak Valley in the Southern part of Assam, assess its impact on the human communities that live and obtain their livelihood from these ecosystems, and suggest ameliorative measures to improve the situation.

Floodplains of Barak Valley, South Assam, India

2Barak Valley derives its name from River Barak that along with its tributaries drains its 6,922 sq. km area lying between 24°8’–25°8’ N latitude and 92015’–93015’ E longitude south of the Borail range of mountains in the state of Assam, North East India. The valley comprises the three districts of Cachar, Hailakandi and Karimganj, and is bounded by the North Cachar Hills district of Assam and the state of Meghalaya to the north, the state of Manipur and Mizoram to the east and south, respectively, and the state of Tripura and the Sylhet district of Bangladesh to the west (Fig. 1).

Figure 1. Map Showing the Location of Barak Valley

Figure 1. Map Showing the Location of Barak Valley

3Table 1 shows the area under different types of wetlands in the Barak Valley districts of Cachar, Hailakandi and Karimganj. The total wetland area is 13,737.5 ha, which in turn, represents about 14% of the total natural wetland area in the state of Assam. It may also be seen that seasonally inundated floodplains, locally called Haors or Beels, are the most important type of wetlands in this area. Together they comprise 72.91% of the total area under wetlands of Barak Valley. They also represent 42.75% of the total area under floodplain wetlands in the State of Assam, although Barak Valley comprises a mere 8.8% of the total geographic area of Assam (Garg et al., 1998). Thus these floodplain ecosystems play a significant role in the economy of these three districts in terms of their overriding importance as repositories of fish, as habitats for resident and migratory birds, for storing excess flood water, and for supplying irrigation water to nearby fields in the dry season. Chatla in Cachar, and Shonbeel in Karimganj district are the two major floodplain wetlands of Barak Valley. While Chatla has an area of around 10 km2, Shonbeel is the largest floodplain wetland in Assam, having an area of 15 km2 (Choudhury, 2000). Besides these two, the other important floodplains include the Jabda and Lucca Haors in Cachar, Bakri Haor in Hailakandi, and Anair Haor in Karimganj district.

Table 1. Statistics of natural wetlands in Cachar, Hailakandi, and Karimganj districts, Barak Valley, Assam, India

Table 1. Statistics of natural wetlands in Cachar, Hailakandi, and Karimganj districts, Barak Valley, Assam, India

Source: Garg et al. (1998)

Topography, ecology and society in the Barak Valley floodplains

4Topography: the two major floodplains, viz., Chatla and Shonbeel are in the catchments of Ghagra and Singla rivers, respectively. These rivers are tributaries of R. Barak. The topography of Chatla comprises extensive low-lying areas with numerous small hillocks strewn in between, while Shonbeel is surrounded by high ground >100 msl. The human habitations are mostly confined to the areas at higher elevation. The valley floor elevation ranges between 45-70 msl.

5Vegetation: the floodplains originally had rich vegetation with Barringtonia acutangula as the dominant species. This tree can withstand prolonged water logging and is a common swamp forest species in this region. Large-scale removal of this species was initiated in the 1960-1970s and now a few patches remain. The other common trees include Lagerstroemia flosreginae and Vitex spp. Reeds such as Erianthus raveneae and Phragmites karka are also found (Gupta, 2001).

6Human Communities: one of the major ethnic groups in the Barak Valley floodplains, especially Chatla and Shonbeel, are the Kaivartas, a fisher-cultivator community. The property regime in the floodplains is also unique: when it is covered with water in the monsoon, it is treated as a ‘Common Property Regime’ (CPR) with community fishing rights. However, after the water recedes, the land reverts to a ‘Private Property Regime’ (PPR) with restoration of individual property rights. The other floodplains are inhabited by a plethora of Hindu and Muslim communities who also earn their livelihood through fishing and agriculture.

Flood pulse, water availability and floodplain economy

7Barak Valley experiences a subtropical monsoon climate with an annual rainfall ranging between c 2,500-3,300 mm. About 80-85% of this rainfall occurs during the months of April/May-September/October. December and January are normally the driest months. Pre-monsoon rains often accompanied by thunder and hail occur in April-May. The monsoon arrives in early June and continues till September, although heavy rains may also occur in October. The seasonal pattern of rainfall and its variations from year to year govern the flood pulse and determine the extent and duration of inundation of the floodplains by the overflowing river waters. These in turn have profound effects on both capture fishery and agriculture in the floodplains. Heavy pre-monsoon rains may cause early floods in April-May when excess river water inundates the floodplains and destroys the ripening summer rice that is harvested in April. For example, between 1996 and 2005, heavy pre-monsoon rains in 1996, 2000 and 2004 inflicted severe damage on the crops, thereby causing economic distress to the farmers. Severe hailstorms during this season can also have adverse effects. If the monsoon arrives on time in early June and the rainfall is more or less evenly distributed over July-September, successive flood pulses inundate the floodplains, resulting in the entry of a large number of potamodromous (fishes that migrate from the river to the floodplains) species of fishes, and the consequent boom in fish capture and trade. In contrast, less than average rainfall during July-September, such as that in 2003 and 2005, resulted in reduced fish catch and entailed economic depression. Adequate rainfall in September-early October is also vital for agriculture, as in the absence of rain, the ground becomes too hard and dry, hampering the sowing of rice seeds in November and the planting of saplings in January. Thus inundation of the floodplain till early or mid October is necessary for both fishery and agriculture. Inundation also renders the soil fertile because of enhanced silt deposition and decomposition of plant biomass. Table 2 reveals that soils that remain inundated for a longer time have significantly higher water holding capacity, organic carbon content and clay-silt percentage compared to those remaining inundated for a shorter period of time (Das, 2002). Farmers growing summer rice do not use any synthetic fertilizers. They depend on the natural fertility of the soil which gets replenished annually by alluvial deposits brought in by the floodwater. It may be mentioned here that the consumption of NPK in Assam as a whole is very low (6.9 kg/ha) compared to the national average (67.1 kg/ha), and it is still lower in Barak Valley.

Table 2. Soil variables (mean + SD) in floodplain sites with longer inundation (A) and those with shorter inundation (B). Statistical comparisons of A and B by one-way ANOVA

Table 2. Soil variables (mean + SD) in floodplain sites with longer inundation (A) and those with shorter inundation (B). Statistical comparisons of A and B by one-way ANOVA

NS: Not significant - Source: Das (2002)

8From October onwards, water recedes from the floodplains and the land is exposed barring a few depressions where some water is retained till about January-February. These depressions are often called beels, although this term may be rather loosely used to denote the whole floodplain as well. The cultivable land is prepared for agriculture – mostly for growing summer or boro rice. Private property rights are now reestablished in the floodplain. However, the major constraint for agriculture is the scarcity of water. In the absence of any irrigation facilities, the farmers face great difficulty in procuring water. Only those farmers who own plots located in the lowest elevations in the floodplain have easy access to water-filled depressions or small natural water channels that they can impound to obtain water. Farmers having plots in the middle and upper layers of the floodplain suffer from acute water scarcity. Pumping up water from distant sources is both costly and cumbersome and can be afforded by few. Thus a paradoxical situation exists where the lower plots have better access to water but are exposed to a greater risk of inundation by pre-monsoon floods in April that may destroy the crop. In contrast, the middle and upper plots are relatively safe from premonsoon floods, but are constrained by the scarcity of water in winter. The situation has worsened over the years as deforestation in the catchments of the feeder streams and rivers, especially in the hills, has led to soil erosion and deposition of silt in the watercourses that drain the floodplains. The floodplain lakes that used to retain water in the dry season have also become progressively shallower due to silt deposition and/or due to reclamation for agriculture. Water scarcity has reached such a state that many floodplain farmers, especially those having land in the middle and upper zones, are converting their land into ‘semi-natural’ fisheries. Fishes enter these impoundments along with floodwater and are trapped inside. They are then allowed to grow through the monsoon. The fishes mostly thrive on natural food in the systems, although some farmers provide some supplementary feeds, and may also release some additional carp fries or fingerlings. These fishes are harvested in the post-monsoon and winter. Thus the farmers are desperately trying to earn their livelihood by opting for fisheries in place of agriculture. Some farmers in the upper elevations of the floodplains have started growing winter rice, locally called shail or shali, which grows through the monsoon and is harvested in December. However, they are also totally dependent on good monsoon rains, failing which the plants suffer from water stress during October-November. To cope with this problem, some farmers apply a thin layer of urea in November to enhance maturation of the paddy and try to save the crop.

Impact of water scarcity on floodplain economy

9Pauperization of fisher-cultivators: the absence of effective and sustainable water resource management in the floodplains of Barak Valley has led to the pauperization of the fisher-cultivators in this area. On the one hand, over-fishing has depleted the natural stock and prevented its regeneration, leading to serious decline in fish density and decreased size of fishes in the catch. To counter this, the fishers have gone on reducing the mesh size of the nets to capture small fishes. This in turn has further depleted the fish stock. On the other hand, agriculture has also suffered due to water scarcity. The impoverished condition of the floodplain farmers is reflected in the low per capita income in Chatla and Shonbeel floodplains (Table 3). Many farmers including their female family members have started migrating to the nearby cities to find work in construction sites, as rickshaw pullers and other petty workers. Those who can afford have opted for small trade. It is indeed deplorable that the womenfolk who being proficient in weaving, made fish nets, produced dried fish, and husked rice in a fairly prosperous and largely non-monetized economy, are now compelled to work as manual labours. The occupational pattern in Chatla floodplain is depicted in Table 4. It may be seen that a large section of the people are still dependent on fishing and farming, although a considerable proportion has gone for wage labour in the dry season instead of farming. However, in the monsoon, they still engage in fishing in the common property fishing area as it is not only a means for livelihood, but integrated into their culture. The situation has been exacerbated by the decrease in landholding size, which is much lower than the Barak Valley average (Table 5). The productivity of summer rice is also somewhat low, ranging from c 700-1,150 kg/ha against a Barak Valley figure of 1,180-1,970 kg during 1991-2000.

Table 3. Annual per capita income of fisher-cultivators in Chatla and Shonbeel, Barak Valley, India

Table 3. Annual per capita income of fisher-cultivators in Chatla and Shonbeel, Barak Valley, India

INR: Indian Rupee

Table 4. Occupational pattern in the Chatla floodplain

Table 4. Occupational pattern in the Chatla floodplain

Table 5. Landholding size distribution in Chatla and Shonbeel compared with Barak Valley average

Table 5. Landholding size distribution in Chatla and Shonbeel compared with Barak Valley average

10Land grabbing by brick kilns: taking advantage of the poverty of the floodplain farmers, brick kiln owners are grabbing the agricultural lands for making bricks. Bricks now have a high demand because of the construction boom in the cities of Barak Valley, and the demand is being met by digging up good agricultural land by cleverly bypassing legal restrictions of utilizing such land for other purpose. The brick-kiln owners lure the poor farmers into renting out their land on lease. They offer a yearly sum of INR 22,000 (c US $ 500) per hectare of land and take the land on lease for a period of three years, after which the land reverts back to its original owner. However, the entire topsoil and a substantial portion of the subsoil are excavated for making bricks during the lease period. When the farmer gets back his land it becomes virtually useless and defaced. Such land does not even make good fishery because lack of nutrients does not encourage plankton growth, and it takes a long time for any pioneer invasive species to establish itself in such barren areas. The brick kilns are located on relatively high ground, while soil and water are transported from the low-lying areas to make the bricks. This is a very serious ecological issue in the floodplains that has its roots in the declining fish and agricultural productivity in the floodplains and the resulting impoverishment of the farmers.

Domestic water availability scenario

11There is no drinking water supply scheme in most of the Barak Valley floodplains, including Chatla and Shonbeel. There are very few borewells and these are mostly located on the outer fringes, near main roads or markets. They cater to the relatively wealthy sections. Inside the floodplains, people obtain water for drinking and other domestic purposes from dugwells. In Chatla and Shonbeel, around 60 and 67 per cent, respectively, of these dugwells are in the form of shallow and turbid mud holes, while the rest (40 and 33 per cent, respectively) are paved. Enumeration of faecal coliforms in both borewells and dugwells reveal that only 19.6% of these drinking water sources have less than 10 faecal coliform CFUs (colony forming units) and may therefore be considered safe to consume. Another 13 per cent have moderate contamination, having 11-100 CFU faecal coliforms. However, 28.3 and 39.1% of the sources have between 101-1,000 and more than 1,000 CFU faecal coliforms (Fig. 2). Only some of the borewells have low contamination, while all the dugwells sampled are contaminated to varying degrees. As a result of such heavy and widespread contamination, incidences of diarrhea are very common in the floodplain villages.

Figure 2. % Occurrence of drinking water sources with different levels of faecal coliforms in Chatla floodplain, Barak Valley, India

Figure 2. % Occurrence of drinking water sources with different levels of faecal coliforms in Chatla floodplain, Barak Valley, India

Suggestions and conclusions

12The green revolution was able to bring self-sufficiency in food production for India. However, one of its shortcomings is that it still remains confined to a very small area of the country. The marginal areas have not directly benefited from its technology, being still dependent on rains and the vagaries of nature for food production. This has really hit hard the subsistence level farmers, as illustrated by the dismal scenario in the floodplains of Barak Valley. At the same time, the continually degrading natural resource base is unable to support the burgeoning population. It is ironical that in a region receiving 2,500-3,000 mm annual rainfall, a major constraint in agriculture is water scarcity in the dry season. Declining water retention during monsoon and shortage of irrigation water in the dry months are, therefore, major factors responsible for impoverishing the Kaivarta community and bringing about a socio-cultural crisis where a large section of a once-thriving and self-sufficient community has been reduced to a state where they have to migrate to the cities to live in slums and do odd jobs unsuited to their temperament to eke out a living. While it would be beyond the scope of this paper and perhaps a bit too simplistic to offer solutions to this problem, a few suggestions could be made to halt the ecological and economic degradation of the floodplains of Barak Valley. Firstly, an integrated and sustainable water management is crucial for improving the situation. Participatory rural appraisals made in the study area indicate that if road-cum-embankments that would remain above the flood level could be cleverly designed and laid across the landscape, these could augment the retention of water in the floodplain. This would enhance fishery prospects and provide water for agriculture, besides improving communication. These road-cum-embankments could be provided with sluices at appropriate places to regulate water entry and exit, based on the local needs. Enhanced retention of water is also expected to attract migratory birds that earlier used to flock to these areas in large numbers in the winter, but whose numbers have severely declined in the recent years. These include several threatened species such as Baer’s Pochard (Aythya baeri), Ferruginous Duck (A. nyroca), Bar Headed Goose (Anser indicus), Greylag Goose (Anser anser), Black-necked Stork (Ephippiorhynchus asiaticus), Greater Spotted Eagle (Aquila clanga), and many others. Besides bringing about biodiversity conservation, this could also open up the prospects for eco-tourism and provide gainful employment to the local people in various ways. Secondly, land regulations should be strictly enforced to prevent loss of good agricultural land to brick kilns. Another important strategy would be to change the cropping patterns in the floodplains. This could include introduction of deepwater paddy varieties having higher yields during flood period, rapid-growing yet high yielding summer rice varieties that could be harvested before pre-monsoon inundation of the floodplain, and cultivation of pulses and vegetables in the flood-free period (Borthakur, 1981). All these measures would have to be integrated with forest restoration and soil conservation in the hills as well as in the lowlands along with proper management practices in micro-watershed development and land use planning to prevent silt deposition in water courses (Gupta, 2003). Special efforts should be made to restore the Barringtonia acutangula forests in the floodplains in order to enhance water and nutrient retention as well as to attract the potamodromous fishes in larger numbers to the floodplains because of increased allochthonous food resources (Dudgeon, 1992). At the domestic level, microbiologically safe water could be provided through rainwater harvesting in the rainy season and solar water purification in the dry, sunny days. The latter could include boiling of water using solar heaters or by introducing inexpensive yet effective methods like “SODIS” that involves exposing water kept in transparent PET bottles to sunlight to capitalize on the germicidal properties of the UV-A radiation in sunlight coupled with increased temperature inside the bottles (Gupta, 2004). An impending ecological, economic and socio-cultural crisis in the Barak Valley floodplains can only be averted by well-concerted efforts on several fronts, adopting measures that should ideally spring from the bottom rather than being imposed from the top.



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Table des illustrations

Titre Figure 1. Map Showing the Location of Barak Valley
Fichier image/jpeg, 40k
Titre Table 1. Statistics of natural wetlands in Cachar, Hailakandi, and Karimganj districts, Barak Valley, Assam, India
Légende Source: Garg et al. (1998)
Fichier image/jpeg, 59k
Titre Table 2. Soil variables (mean + SD) in floodplain sites with longer inundation (A) and those with shorter inundation (B). Statistical comparisons of A and B by one-way ANOVA
Légende NS: Not significant - Source: Das (2002)
Fichier image/jpeg, 66k
Titre Table 3. Annual per capita income of fisher-cultivators in Chatla and Shonbeel, Barak Valley, India
Légende INR: Indian Rupee
Fichier image/jpeg, 43k
Titre Table 4. Occupational pattern in the Chatla floodplain
Fichier image/jpeg, 43k
Titre Table 5. Landholding size distribution in Chatla and Shonbeel compared with Barak Valley average
Fichier image/jpeg, 73k
Titre Figure 2. % Occurrence of drinking water sources with different levels of faecal coliforms in Chatla floodplain, Barak Valley, India
Fichier image/jpeg, 32k


Environmental specialist. Dept. of Ecology & Environmental Science, Assam University, Silchar – India

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