Once a vast island in the heart of the Brahmaputra River, now Majuli’s days are numbered: Experts have said that it might disappear entirely by 2040 as increasingly violent flooding swells the river, wreaking havoc on the lives of those that live along its banks.
Millions rely on the vast waterway — which rises in Tibet and runs about 2,900km through the Himalayas to the Bay of Bengal — for their livelihoods, but climate change means that the deluge from the annual monsoon has been increasingly extreme.
Human mismanagement has exacerbated the problem and for Majuli’s 170,000 residents the future looks bleak: The flood waters are submerging more and more areas of the island and for longer periods, wrecking crops and rendering land infertile.
The inhabitants — mostly indigenous Mishings who follow a unique offshoot of Hinduism — move to higher ground with their animals when the rains come, but soon there might be no place for them to migrate up to.
“We love the river, but we know it will one day devour all our land. We can only pray that Brahmaputra relents and we can live in harmony like generations before us,” said Sunil Mili, a farmer who grows mustard and rice.
India is grappling with a water crisis on all fronts as global warming creates more extreme weather and poor environmental planning puts millions at risk. The nation is struggling to cope with multiple crises — from severe drought and heavy flooding to rising sea and river levels — all leading to chronic water shortages.
“The water crisis is expected to worsen as the country’s population is set to grow to about 1.6 billion by 2050,” said Pradeep Purandare, a former professor with the Water and Land Management Institute.
Majuli, famed for its historic 16th-century monasteries, was 1,250km2 in 1890, but the Brahmaputra’s fast-flowing waters have eaten away at it.
Now just 515km2 remain — and the island could disappear entirely in the next 15 to 20 years, said the Majuli Island Protection and Development Council, a local nonprofit agency.
It is a reality that Nandiram Payeng knows only too well — his entire village was swept away by the Brahmaputra.
“We had our houses, farms and cattle in our village. We were content and happy, but in 2007 the river came and took everything away,” the widower said.
“Now we do cultivation in other people’s fields and we need to give them half the harvest,” the 55-year-old told reporters, the creases on his weather-beaten forehead deepening.
Islanders began to leave in the mid-20th century, but recently it has become an exodus — about 10,000 families have been displaced in the past 12 years, local officials said.
Named after the son of the Hindu deity Brahma, the river is considered sacred and people place offerings of earthen lamps and flowers to appease it.
“Every year the Brahmaputra is getting bigger. It is losing it depth and is getting wider. It is attacking the banks and eroding our land continually,” local journalist Mitu Khatamiar said.
Experts have said that that fast melting of Himalayan glaciers — two-thirds of which could disappear by 2100 according to a major report in February last year — caused by global warming is a major culprit for the heavy flooding.
The Brahmaputra and many of India’s other major rivers are reliant on snow and ice from the mountains, and while an increase in melting means more water in the short term, its arrival is uncontrolled — and intense.
Climate change has made the monsoons more unpredictable: They come later, the deluges are heavier, but overall total rainfall has dropped.
“There are sudden showers of high intensity, which the region is not used to, which has led to catastrophe,” The Energy and Resources Institute senior fellow on Earth science and climate change Suruchi Bhadwal said.
“Such occurrences may increase in the coming years,” she said, adding that glacier melt would initially lead to fuller rivers and a surplus of water.
However, there are few provisions in place to harness or conserve water when there is abundance and a lack of proper management when there is too little — leaving people still facing water shortages.
“Water management, governance and regulation is lacking at the national level. Once water is available, it should be used efficiently and in an equitable manner,” Purandare said.
While harvesting rainwater is one solution, it is vital that industry, agriculture and communities look at the way they use and can conserve water now, he said.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi last year created the Ministry of Jal Shakti, which is dedicated to looking at ways to better manage water resources and tackles everything from access to clean drinking water to flood management.
Human encroachment along the river has also added to the problem — more people live in the Brahmaputra valley than ever before and protective wetlands have been destroyed to make way for homes and villages.
Environmental expert Himanshu Thakkar said that hundreds of millions of dollars have been spent building concrete river embankments in a bid to mitigate flooding along the Indus.
However, this has instead exacerbated the situation by inadvertently speeding up the flow of the river — making it more dangerous when water levels are high, Thakkar said.
“The Brahmaputra is a flood-prone river, but we are worsening the situation,” Thakkar added.
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