Save lives and minimize losses

A woman wades through a waterlogged street during a heavy monsoon rain in Chennai, India on November 11, 2021. Photo: AFP

Giridhar Pegu shuddered as he remembered the day in July 2020 when raging floodwaters trapped him, alone, in his home in northeast India.

More than a day of heavy, uninterrupted rain had caused the Brahmaputra River to overflow in Assam state, sending water rushing into Pegu’s hometown of Majdolopa.

“I kept screaming for help as water began to flood my stilt house. I was prepared for the worst that day, without a few young people rescuing me,” said the septuagenarian. at the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

These young people were volunteers from the disaster management committee of the village of Majdolopa, one of hundreds of local groups that have formed in flood-prone Upper Assam to help their communities weather storms and floods in the region. more and more frequent.

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

“Same [for us] River mood swings are hard to predict. So the least we can do is help our fellow villagers, especially the elderly and children who are caught in its unpredictable floods, ”he said.

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

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

Feni Doley, of the committee’s early warning team, explained how her team taps into a mix of traditional knowledge, radio news and weather applications to anticipate when flooding could occur.

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

When Doley and other volunteers saw dark, stormy clouds gather over distant mountains in July 2020, “we knew the floodwaters were going to fall on our village soon,” he said. .

The team quickly spread the word to the rest of the committee, who began to bring the villagers to safety.

“As water flooded the village over the next few hours, there was absolute chaos… The floodwaters seemed to be chasing us from behind,” said Dilip Paw of the search and rescue team.

On makeshift boats and rafts, Paw and his team of six picked up a stranded woman, a few young children and several elderly people, as well as calves, pigs and goats that day.

Training and supplies

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

The unusually heavy rains that began 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. .

Although the 2021 floods were less extreme, they still affected more than 647,000 people, according to the Assam State Disaster Management Authority.

To prepare for the river’s flood, the Majdolopa committee and others in the state are receiving supplies – including first aid kits, boats, and megaphones – as well as training from the North-East Affected Area Development Society (NEADS), a popular nonprofit organization.

NEADS conducts simulated exercises and hands-on sessions with experts from the district authority’s civil defense department and the local national disaster response force unit, its co-director Tirtha Prasad said. Saikia.

The organization also supports local committees to provide drinking water and sanitation after the floods, helping volunteers to set up water filtration systems using sand, pebbles and bamboo charcoal, and to build hand pumps and toilets on the heights to protect them from future flooding.

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

“Bottle belts”

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

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

“Such basic disaster management units, providing localized interventions, can also prove to be the basis of other climate-affected regions. Thus, more lives can be saved and losses minimized, ”he said.

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

“We can swim through the choppy torrents of flood waters using inexpensive, traditionally made life jackets,” said Bhupen Borah, committee head in Sumoni Chapori village.

Volunteers secure at least eight 10-liter plastic bottles side by side with a cord to create “bottle belts” that they tie around their chests to stay afloat, Borah said.

And in two hours, they can assemble several sturdy banana stems to make a raft as an alternative to expensive boats, said Mintu Neog of the village rescue team.

At Majdolopa, Pegu is grateful that a group of young volunteers had the right mix of modern training and traditional solutions to ensure that his memory of that day in July 2020 was a relief, not a disaster.