Local volunteers to the rescue as fiercer floods ravage northeast India

With homemade rafts and plastic-bottle life jackets, teams of young villagers save stranded locals when the Brahmaputra River bursts its banks.

rescue mission in northeast india floods
Rescue teams from the local disaster management committee in Majdolopa village use rafts made of banana stalks to help stranded villagers during flooding in northeast India. Image: HANDOUT/NEADS

Giridhar Pegu shuddered as he remembered the day in July last year when raging flood-waters trapped him, alone, in his home in northeast India.

More than a day of heavy, non-stop rain had caused the Brahmaputra River in Assam state to burst its banks, sending water rushing through Pegu’s home village of Majdolopa.

“I kept shouting for help as the water started flooding my stilted home. I was ready for the worst that day, had it not been for a couple of youths who rescued me,” the septuagenarian told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Those youths were volunteers from the Majdolopa Village Disaster Management Committee, one of hundreds of local groups that have formed across flood-prone Upper Assam to help their communities through increasingly frequent storms and floods.

With the effects of climate change making flooding more sudden and destructive, even Majdolopa’s indigenous residents, who have lived along the Brahmaputra for generations, can be caught off guard, said committee leader Paramananda Daw.

“Even (for us) it is hard to predict the mood swings of the river. So the least we can do is help our fellow villagers, especially the elderly and children who get caught in its unpredictable floods,” he said.

Daw formed the Majdolopa committee in 2015 and today its 23 young men and women volunteers help with flood warnings, evacuations and rescues at least three or four times a year.

“The biggest challenge for us is to first protect the lives of villagers by getting them to the nearest high-rise platform or embankments where they can be safe, and then we save the livestock,” said Daw.

Feni Doley, of the committee’s early warning crew, explained how his team tap into a mix of traditional knowledge, radio news and weather apps to anticipate when floods might occur.

They then use drums, megaphones and mobile phones to advise other villagers to evacuate.

When Doley and other volunteers saw dark, thunderous clouds gathering over the distant mountains in July 2020, “we knew the flood waters would soon tumble over our village,” he said.

The team quickly spread the word to the rest of the committee, who started getting villagers to safety.

“As the water inundated the village during the next few hours, there was absolute chaos… The flood-water seemed to be chasing us from behind,” said Dilip Paw from the search and rescue team.

On boats and makeshift rafts, Paw and his team of six picked up a stranded woman, a few small children and several elderly people, along with some calves, pigs and goats that day.

“Soon (the boat) resembled Noah’s Ark,” said Paw.

Training and supplies

Flooding is a recurring problem in the tea-rich state of Assam, with persistent rains during the monsoon season causing the Brahmaputra to overflow with disastrous regularity.

The exceptionally heavy rains that started in May 2020 triggered months of flooding in the state that displaced or affected 8 million people, like Pegu in Majdolopa, and killed more than 110, authorities said at the time.

While flooding this year was less extreme, it still impacted more than 647,000 people, according to the Assam State Disaster Management Authority.

To prepare for when the river rises, the Majdolopa committee and others around the state get supplies - including first aid kits, boats and megaphones — as well as training from the North-East Affected Area Development Society (NEADS), a grassroots nonprofit.

NEADS holds mock drills and practical sessions with experts from the district authority’s civil defence department and the local unit of the national disaster response force, said its joint director Tirtha Prasad Saikia.

The organisation also supports local committees to provide clean drinking water and sanitation after floods, helping volunteers put together water filtration systems using sand, pebbles and bamboo charcoal, and build hand pumps and toilets on higher ground to protect them from future flooding.

Simanta Sharma, deputy controller of the Jorhat district civil defence unit, said the committees are enthusiastic and quick to act, but their effectiveness is undermined by a lack of funding and time for training.

“More frequent training and updates on the latest first aid (techniques), skills on capacity-building and leadership exercises could further add to their capabilities,” he said.

‘Bottle belts’

Even with basic skills, community-based approaches to emergency and rescue operations make evacuations much faster than help sent in by government agencies or international charities, according to disaster management expert NM Prusty.

That is something villages and towns around the world could learn from, as the impacts of climate change hit communities in different ways, said Prusty, who is president of Humanitarian Aid International, an Indian nonprofit.

“Such basic units of disaster management, providing localised interventions, can prove to be the foundation for other climate-affected regions too. So, more lives can be saved and losses minimised,” he said.

The disaster management volunteers in Assam agree their work relies on local knowledge and indigenous techniques.

“We can swim across the rough torrents of the flood-waters with the help of traditionally made, inexpensive life jackets,” said Bhupen Borah, leader of the committee in Sumoni Chapori village, about 90 km (56 miles) east of Majdolopa.

Volunteers secure at least eight 10-litre (2.6-gallon) plastic bottles side by side with cord to create “bottle belts” they tie around their chests to stay afloat, Borah explained.

And in two hours, they can nail together several sturdy banana plant stalks to make a raft as an alternative to expensive boats, said Mintu Neog of the village’s rescue team.

In Majdolopa, Pegu is grateful that a group of young volunteers had the right mix of modern training and traditional solutions to make sure his memory of that day last July was one of relief, not disaster.

“We cannot control the climate, and today it’s hard for us to predict its sudden changes. But at least our villages have our own climate warriors, who can readily step in to protect us from its immediate dangers,” he said.

This story was published with permission from Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, climate change, resilience, women’s rights, trafficking and property rights. Visit http://news.trust.org/climate.

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