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Hemram Pegu has been forced to rebuild his home at least eight times in the past decade, shifting it a few meters inland every time heavy rains cause the Brahmaputra River to surge into his village of Besemora, in northeast India.

As a member of the indigenous Mising tribe, who have lived along the Brahmaputra and its tributaries for generations, Pegu remembers taking pride in being able to interpret the behavior of one of the Earth’s longest river systems.

But today, he said, the community is baffled by its unpredictable nature.

“The original site of our village is now history,” Pegu said of his home on Majuli, a riverine island in Assam state.

“Its location continues to change as we keep moving inland by 200 meters to 300 meters (656-948 ft) from the advancing river each time it floods,” the 52-year-old shopkeeper told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

With limited work options and a high dependence on natural resources, the Mising — like other indigenous communities around the world — often suffer the worst of the extreme weather that has become increasingly common as global temperatures rise.

Weaver Rekha Doley works at home in Panbari Mising village in Assam, India. | IMPULSE SOCIAL ENTERPRISES / VIA THOMSON REUTERS FOUNDATION
Weaver Rekha Doley works at home in Panbari Mising village in Assam, India. | IMPULSE SOCIAL ENTERPRISES / VIA THOMSON REUTERS FOUNDATION

The swelling Brahmaputra frequently uproots families in Besemora, compelling them to relocate to a shrinking area of available land and putting a strain on their livelihoods.

Scientist Partha Jyoti Das pointed to climate warming as a major reason for the intensified flooding, adding it had caused “significant deviations” in natural weather patterns over Assam in the past decade.

“Previously, the rains were distributed in a more stretched-out period, occurring in (predictable) amounts at expected times,” said Das, who heads the water, climate and hazards division at Aaranyak, a Guwahati-based research organization.

“But we now experience erratic and heavy downpours for short, irregular durations, causing flash floods,” he said.

A study published by India’s Department of Science and Technology in 2018 found Assam was the most vulnerable of the Indian Himalayan states to destructive climate change effects.

It highlighted a range of factors, including Assam’s low per-capita income, rates of crop insurance and land under irrigation, leaving farmers to rely on regular rainfall to water their fields.

Dying fish, sandy pots

Between 2014 and 2021, more than 32 million people in Assam were affected by flooding, including nearly 660 deaths, according to data from the state disaster management authority.

Members of Fire and Rescue Services evacuate people to safer places after heavy rains caused flooding in a residential area in Bengaluru, India, on Nov. 22. | REUTERS
Members of Fire and Rescue Services evacuate people to safer places after heavy rains caused flooding in a residential area in Bengaluru, India, on Nov. 22. | REUTERS

In an effort to minimize the destruction, Besemora residents raise the floors of their traditional stilted bamboo homes depending on the level of the latest flood, Pegu explained.

The villagers also try to break up the force of the flooding with a network of bamboo “porcupines”, triangular structures made of intersecting poles built along the riverbanks.

But those measures are often no match for the overpowering water.

“On our return after floods, we often find that the very appearance of our village has changed. Patches of riverbanks or mid-river islets on which our homes exist … may just get dragged away by the withdrawing river,” Pegu said.

When that happens, said Binud Doley, an elder from Salmora village, about a kilometer north of Besemora, the area’s indigenous communities face yet another problem: the inability to reclaim their land once the flood-waters have receded.

With no title deeds to prove ownership, the Mising traditionally settle on unused riparian land, Doley said.

But the effects of flooding and riverbank erosion, along with the spread of farming and the region’s growing population, mean available land is becoming scarce, he added.

A fisherman holds a fishing net in a village of Nalbari district, Assam, India, in 2019. The Assam region has experienced severe erosion and flooding in the past decade. | BLOOMBERG
A fisherman holds a fishing net in a village of Nalbari district, Assam, India, in 2019. The Assam region has experienced severe erosion and flooding in the past decade. | BLOOMBERG

Gojen Paw from Majdolopa village, in Assam state, said abrupt climate swings are also destroying the farming and fishing the Mising people depend on.

Historically, Assam has often experienced some flooding during the annual monsoon season, Paw said, with the waters leaving behind nutrient-rich alluvial deposits that would naturally fertilise its fields of rice, mustard and vegetables.

But these days, “frequent floods erode away the fertile topsoil from our fields and leave behind coarse sand, debris and rounded pebbles,” he said.

Villagers say fish populations are decreasing as the bloated river and crumbling riverbanks disturb their habitats, and even the centuries-old Mising tradition of handmade pottery is under threat.

“The texture of clay has become coarse and sandy. We would earlier discard this kind of earth, but now we are compelled to use it,” said Sarumai Chamuah, from Salmora, who has been making and selling pottery for the past 20 years.

Sand reduces the binding capacity of the clay, resulting in weaker pots that fetch lower prices, Chamuah said.

Long-term solutions

After heavy flooding, the government steps in to help villagers like Chamuah get back on their feet, said Sisuram Bharali, president of the gram panchayat of Bongaigaon, the village-level governing agency that oversees Salmora.

A river embankment construction site at the bank of the Brahmaputra River in Salmora, India in 2013. The river, a critical laboratory in climate studies, has been eroding the island of Majuli in Assam for decades. | .ENRICO FABIAN / THE NEW YORK TIMES
A river embankment construction site at the bank of the Brahmaputra River in Salmora, India in 2013. The river, a critical laboratory in climate studies, has been eroding the island of Majuli in Assam for decades. | .ENRICO FABIAN / THE NEW YORK TIMES

Some families are offered daily wage work, if capable, with pay of up to 347 rupees ($4.65), he noted, while others might receive 10 kg (22 lb) of rice per month for a limited period.

The Assam government, meanwhile, notes on its water resources website that it has been raising and strengthening embankments, building flood walls and improving village drainage, helping protect more than half the state’s flood-prone areas.

But it emphasizes that “no long-term measures have been implemented so far to mitigate the flood and erosion problems”.

Such long-term fixes are essential, said Tuhin K. Das, an expert on disasters and migration and former chair professor of the Planning and Development Unit at Jadavpur University.

To deal with the climate-induced displacement of indigenous communities, who make up nearly 9% of India’s population, the government should create policies to re-house them, restore their livelihoods and offer job training, Das said.

Authorities also need to better tackle the lasting consequences of flooding on living conditions, health and education, he added.

“The long-term socio-economic impacts of riverbank erosion are rarely assessed from a policy perspective,” he said.

For now, Besemora residents can only make sure they always have essentials — rice, cash, clothes and school records — bundled together on their roofs, ready to grab when the river bursts its banks again, said Purnima Doley, Pegu’s neighbor.

“We have no choice then but to flee our homes with these meagre belongings to safer, higher ground, when this otherwise serene river swells up,” said Doley, who has had to move her home six times in the past 10 years.

“Its water level keeps rising and its fierce currents charge at us, tearing through our homesteads and drowning everything that stands in its way,” she said.

A horse crosses a water-logged road after rains ahead of Cyclone Yaas at Digha in Purba Medinipur district in the eastern state of West Bengal, India, on May 26. | REUTERS
A horse crosses a water-logged road after rains ahead of Cyclone Yaas at Digha in Purba Medinipur district in the eastern state of West Bengal, India, on May 26. | REUTERS

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