The Freshwater Trail

Smothered By Sand

Devastation from floods induced by increasingly severe weather events are only half the story. Swollen rivers carry sand displaced by river-bed mining and deforestation and dump it on fields, rendering them inert

Arati Kumar-Rao
Photographer & Journalist

You move a boulder in the mountains and you change the course of a river in the plains.

The Butterfly Effect is, unfortunately, a grim reality for the people in Upper Assam.

Boulder extraction for dam-building and road-building — government sanctioned businesses — has infected the hills of Arunachal Pradesh.

Rivers born of rain in those hills race down to the plains of Assam. When it rains, these rivers come alive.

If a boulder is removed from a river bank, sand is let loose. The river moves in, as it is in the nature of water to find space. The erosion of the bank carves a path of least resistance for the river.

Gradually, a new path glistens with river water. This one small diversion grows and spreads with each boulder eased away, each ton of sand released.

The river, sans resistance, rushes and races to the plains.

In Upper Assam, lush with paddy fields, the farmer traditionally knows to look to the mountains for rain, for a semaphore of the flash of the monsoon-river. He knows it takes six hours for the river to reach the plains. In that time he can get to higher ground, move his chattel and cattle in time.

Not any more.

He now knows not what boulders have been moved, removed. He knows not what path the river will take. He knows not how much time he has.

Maybe the river will not come his way this year.

Maybe a mile away, his brother’s paddy will be washed away.

And so it was with the Simen River this year. It took one hour for the rains in the mountains to flood the plains. Just one hour, not six.

At 1pm one monsoon day, Simen river wandered a kilometer off its normal path bursting a weak embankment, and flooded some of the choicest paddy of the land.

It did something else, way more devastating.

Each boulder moved releases five times its weight in sand. The river carried this sand and dumped it on the plains (the JCB at work in the fields, in the photo above, had no time to move out of the way), rendering them useless for cultivation. While this has not been proven by science, people and organizations working in the area hold this to be true.

True or not, the desertification of Upper Assam is on in full swing. Livelihoods are wiped out in one swift dusting dump.