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Living with floods – Adaptive strategies of local communities

Local communities have always found ingenious ways to overcome adverse conditions like floods, which affect not only farming but also lives and livelihoods. Over centuries, people have evolved ways and means to adapt to this natural phenomenon and have learnt to live with flooding situations.

Recurring floods
Recurring floods

The geography of eastern Uttar Pradesh makes the region naturally sensitive to floods. Spread along the terai region, there is a wide network of rivers, which originate in the mountains of Nepal and are known for their inordinate temperament. Heavy rains in Nepal result in a sudden rise in water level in rivers here. The rushing waters from the mountains slow down and spread out on reaching comparatively gentle gradient of the slopes and the low lying land in Purvanchal and induce water retention which becomes a menace as flood. Changes in the climatic conditions have only worsened the problem.

In the last several decades, the ferocity and frequency of floods in Purvanchal has considerably increased, recurring every 3-4 years. At places, it has even become a regular, annual feature, which greatly affects the livelihood of the people. The people inhabiting the flood-affected regions attribute this to climate change.

Indeed, the climate of eastern Uttar Pradesh has undergone a definite change in the last few years. For example, it has now become normal for the temperature to cross 45°C and remain so for long periods during the summers. Such temperature rise causes rapid melting of glaciers which is increasing the water level in the rivers. On the other hand, there has been a significant change in the monsoon period. The timings of rain have become very unpredictable. While earlier, August-September was the usual period of flood, today it is not. In 2007, there were heavy rains in July itself causing sudden floods here, for which the people were ill prepared, had very little time to respond and there was considerable loss of life and property.

The Amba panchayat in district Bahraich is a living example of strength in collective action, whereby the people got together to physically clean and clear the drainage in their area.

Large parts of eastern Uttar Pradesh are regularly affected by floods, which not only disturb the livelihood of the people but have a deep psychological impact on them as well. During the monsoon period, in flood prone regions, people get traumatized even before the floods actually come. Government and development organizations have tried to deal with the situation, but their initiatives have been more relief oriented and short period targeted. As a result there have been no long term solutions to the people’s problems nor have such initiatives had a positive impact on the people’s coping mechanisms and capacities.

Drainage improvement work in progress
Drainage improvement work in progress

Over centuries, local people have developed their own ways and means to deal with floods. These measures and techniques are local specific, require no external help and are inherently scientific. These ways and means have shaped people’s lifestyles in these regions and strengthened their adaptive capabilities. Today such adaptive capabilities of communities are being seen as extremely important in dealing with problems of flood, water logging and climate change.

Documenting local adaptive strategies

There are a number of practices which local people have developed or adopted. The technologies and practices, developed by some resource organizations are tested, tried and adopted according to the suitability and local relevance. There are several other practices and techniques which have been developed and evolved, over a period of time, by the local communities in response to flooding situations. Such practices are locally developed and practiced for a long time. GEAG, an NGO active in the region along with 20 associated organizations have documented 100 such practices.

All the cases together bring out the fact that people have been adopting both agricultural and non agricultural practices, which can be classified as pre-flood, during flood and post-flood practices. There are a number of practices which help the communities to harvest before the advent of floods. This is generally managed by appropriate varieties and advancing the cropping period. Another way is preparing for disasters. This includes ensuring food and fodder security during the flood period by establishing grain and fodder banks, taking collective action to lessen the impact of floods by clearing drainage channels etc. After the floods, people are resilient enough to come back to normal life by pursuing whatever is possible to make a living. This is normally done by choosing right kind of crops and harvesting two short duration crops compensating for the loss during floods.

This article presents two cases wherein communities have taken up activities as a disaster preparedness measure.

Case 1: Improving Drainage

The Amba panchayat comprises three Tharu tribe dominated villages Bartia, Vishunpur and Fakisuri. These villages are surrounded on three sides by forests and in the north by the Gairuwa river.

Orai nallah in Amba panchayat (Block Mihinpurva, District Bahraich) carries rainwater from the mountains which works like nectar for agriculture, but with the coming of the monsoons, it gets over flooded and takes on disastrous dimensions, waterlogging the entire area and destroying the crops. In the absence of any maintenance, the soil from the adjoining land washes into the nallah and chokes the drainage, so that even a little excess water spreads all over. Every year, the area faces the wrath of floods, affecting over a third of its area. Paddy and maize perish completely, while the sowing of rabi crops (wheat, peas, khesari, masoor lentils) is seriously affected.

To overcome the problem, Bhartiya Manav Samaj Kalyan Seva Sansthan (Bahraich) organized the people, held frequent meetings and sought to develop local leadership to find a solution to the problem. The organization provided the people with requisite information and contacts, and set up pressure groups in villages to plan the work strategy.

As a result, now every year in the month of May, 50 farmers from Bartia, 150 from Vishunpur and 95 from Fakirpuri collectively clear the nallah in their respective areas. This dredging allows the water in the nallah to harmlessly flow on to the main river and the kharif crops remain unharmed. Besides, in June and July, the nallah is the main source for irrigation. Earlier, people would contribute their labour. However, since the last five years, this regulation has changed, and anyone not physically participating in the labour has to contribute Rs 60. This goes towards meeting the cost of dredging the nallah, and any shortfall in monetary collection is met through contributions. On the other hand, if there is a surplus, it is spent on community feasting. Such collective work has also promoted goodwill, unity and self-reliance among the people.

Fodder storage on bund
Fodder storage on bund

Case 2: Deep tillage for aeration

Village Raghunathpur lying between Rohin and Basmaniya rivers, is a victim of both floods and drought, as the silt and sand spread over the fields by the overflowing rivers do not allow any cultivation. Extended duration of waterlogging and moisture retention in the fields not only delays the next sowing but causespoor seed germination as well.

Over a period of time, this has seriously affected land fertility, rabi crop cultivation and people’s livelihood, forcing the 30-35 farming families living alongside the river to undergo severe deprivation and give up farming. Consequently, the fields are left fallow and are overgrown with weeds and other plants.

In flood prone area, deep ploughing of fields is seen as an appropriate land and water management methodology, whereby the nutrient rich silt arriving with floods is retained on the field and the humidity of the soil is maintained. The ploughed back weeds and plants lend further fertility and porosity to the soil. Post-flood, deep ploughing is done to turn the soil up and minimize the moisture in the field, to enable timely sowing of the next crop. However, sand deposition does not make such ploughing easy.

Shri Mohit, son of Shri Prabhu, of Raghunathpur village owning a mere one and half acre land, was constantly faced with economic hardships. In 2000, at the instance of Vikalp, before sowing the kharif crop, he deep ploughed his land thrice between May and June. The fields were deep ploughed (to a depth of 9 em) twice by either the local plough and left the field to dry. In June-July, he ploughed the field once more and took up sowing of paddy. It was very hard labour, but Mohit persisted. The money and labour saved in weeding compensated for the extra expenditure of double ploughing.

On 50 decimal land, Mohit was able to obtain 5 qtl paddy yield, which at the current market price worked out to Rs 2500. More importantly, it provided his family of six, food security for three months. Mohit says that he is satisfied, even though the deep ploughing of flood affected land is not easy. He strongly believes that this intensely laborious process if followed every year will result in one and half to two times more yield.

This is an adaptation of the original document “Adaptive
Capacities of Community to cope up with flood situations” (in
English) brought out by Gorakhpur Environmental Action Group
(GEAG) comprising 43 practices. The original version of this
compilation is in Hindi with 100 documented practices.

GEAG
224, Purdilpur,
M.G. College Road,
Post Box # 60,
Gorakhpur- 273001 (U.P.) India