Water resource management in Northeast India

 Jan 06, 2016 13:51

Water resource management in Northeast India

The North East region comprising the states of Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland, Tripura and Sikkim covers a total area of 2, 62,179 sq. km is endowed with an enormous water resources potential that accounts for about 34 percent of the country’s total water wealth and about 37 percent of its total hydropower potential although the region represents only 7.9 percent of the total Indian landmass. The per capita and per hectare availability of water in this region is the highest in the country. However, less than 5 percent of the existing potential of the region has so far been tapped for societal use. Due to this the region is already witnessing a lot of hue cry regarding water issues. These issues include annual flood havoc in the Assam valley, the unprecedented rise in hydropower construction in Arunachal Pradesh, the threat of water diversion by China in the upstream of Brahmaputra, shortage drinking water in towns and hill areas etc.

The northeastern region is surrounded by international boundaries and linked to mainland India though a 27 km wide Siliguri corridor. The Brahmaputra and Barak Rivers, two of the major rivers in the region along with many of their tributaries are international rivers. Therefore water related conflicts in the region carry a lot of geo-political importance. The NE region is acutely prone to multiple natural hazards like earthquakes, flood, erosion and landslides due to its peculiar geophysical setting vis-à-vis the eastern Himalayas, further accentuated by unsustainable and wrongful human activities. The region is equally unique and diverse in its natural ecological endowments and sociocultural milieu. The Brahmaputra, Barak and their tributaries create a mayhem of devastations almost every year with their ravaging floods and massive erosion.

Quality of drinking water is another area of growing concern where conflicts are building up slowly. In the face of increasing contamination of ground water with fluoride and arsenic and resulting health hazards, Government actions have proved to be too ineffective. Transboundary issues like building of dams by China and alleged attempts of China to divert the Brahmaputra River within that country have given rise to serious apprehension and concerns in the region. The upstream-downstream interactions within the region and with respect to the contiguous Himalayan areas are also contributing to the conflict scenario. Landslide dams getting breached or diffused in Bhutan or Tibet have caused catastrophic floods in downstream areas in Arunachal and Assam. Unwarranted release of water to rivers from dams both in Bhutan and within the region has caused devastating flash floods in the plains. Lack of coordination and cooperation between countries sharing the river basins is a major obstacle in resolving these problems.

The region receives an average annual rainfall of 2500 mm with variability ranging from 1200 in parts of Nagaland to 2125mm in Kamrup district (Assam) to 4142 mm in Tirap district (Arunachal Pradesh) to 11000 mm in Cherrapunji (Meghalaya).The monsoon rains from June to September account for more than 70% of the annual rainfall.

Utilization of water resources

The NE Region drained mainly by the Brahmaputra and the Barak systems of rivers possesses about 34% of the total water resources potential of the country while it covers only 7.9% of the total Indian landmass. Besides having the highest per capita and per hectare availability of water in the country, the NE region carries about 37% of the country’s total hydropower potential of which only 3% has so far been tapped for human use.

While it is true that the present utilization of the colossal water resource potential of the NER is dismally poor, the policies and practices for the utilization of these resources in the future need to have a broader outlook and a changed paradigm and philosophy of development. As against the ad hoc, piece-meal, short-term structural measures that are being adopted now, an integrated basin management approach for the rivers based on the principles of soil and water conservation as well as sustainable development needs to be adopted. Agriculture being the mainstay of most of the basin dwellers, the region suffers the most as a result of gross underutilization of existing water resources and the devastating impact of ravaging flood and erosion hazards.


There is growing concern about the possible negative impact of proposed mega dams in terms of their viability and sustainability visa-vis the delicately poised geo-environmental base, ecological balance, ethno-cultural heritage and the extreme dynamism of geophysical processes in the region. In view of the inadequate knowledge base, lack of systematic data over an adequate time span and across diverse terrains and considering the intense dynamism and immense scale of the geophysical processes of the Himalayas, the wisdom behind constructing series of big dams in the Himalayas raises more questions than can possibly be answered at the present stage of our knowledge and development.

Flood, river bank erosion and sand deposition are three serious water induced hazards that have significantly affected people’s lives, livelihoods and agriculture and economy of states like Assam. Floods are also disasters for Tripura and Manipur. The state’s approach to flood management has left a lot to be desired. Right from adopting short- term measures like embankments for flood mitigation, lack of proper and culturally acceptable rehabilitation and resettlement(R&R) package, to inadequate efforts to save riparian areas from collapsing in to the rivers, it has been a story of poor governance and inefficient management of flood mitigation. People are not only unhappy with inadequate rehabilitation and relief, they have started protesting against inappropriate structural interventions and the financial corruption of vested interest groups in the Government.

What is most needed, of course, is a strong political will both at the state and national levels and a sustained popular zeal to convert the water resources of the region into a force for sustainable development of the region through an integrated, multi-disciplinary approach that covers not only technological aspects but also social, economic and environmental aspects. What bothers one the most today is the level of tradeoff between a multitude of seemingly valid concerns raised by critics and the apparently legitimate societal needs that some of the structural measures are capable of satisfying in an underdeveloped region like the Northeast. Under the existing circumstances, modest interventions with minimum impact on the environment appear to be the safest option for this region. Any deviation from this is fraught with uncertainties that may lead to grave consequences.