By Ranjit Barthakur, Founding Director of the Balipara Foundation
In recent years, there has been a steep increase in the frequency and intensity of environmental disasters across the world. These disasters pose a great threat to not only human existence but also complex ecosystems with high levels of endemism. Cases of forest fires, heat waves, extreme winters, erratic rainfall, prolonged droughts have been increasing every year.
India with its diverse geography and fragile ecosystems has been facing the brunt of environmental disasters too. According to a report titled India 2022: An Assessment of Extreme Weather Events published by the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) in 2022, India recorded extreme weather events on 241 of the 273 days between January 2022 to September 2022.
This accounts for 88 percent of this nine month period wherein there was an extreme weather event occurring across the country. The report estimates that these events have claimed 2,755 lives, affected 1.8 million hectares of crop area, destroyed over 400,000 houses and killed close to 70,000 livestock.
The North East Indian Region has been particularly vulnerable to the impacts of such disasters. According to this report by CSE, Assam reported the highest number of damaged houses and animal deaths and the North East Indian Region is estimated to have accounted for 783 human lives lost as a result of these environmental disasters/extreme events.
Further, the report also suggests that in 2022, Eastern and northeastern India saw its warmest and driest July in 121 years.
The ecological richness of the North East Indian Region is unparalleled. From the snowlines of Arunachal Pradesh and Sikkim, to the rainforests of Meghalaya and Assam, the region harbors an array of unique flora and fauna living in dense natural forests.
However, this ecological diversity also renders the region susceptible to the disruptive effects of environmental disasters. Take, for instance, the devastating floods that have become an almost annual occurrence in the region. The Brahmaputra River, a lifeline for millions, often transforms into a ruthless force of nature during the monsoon season.
The resulting floods can wreak havoc on both human settlements and ecosystems, leading to soil erosion, sediment deposition, and alteration of river channels. Such alterations disrupt the delicate balance of ecosystems, displacing species and compromising biodiversity.
Forest fires, another recurrent environmental disaster, have been plaguing the North East Indian region as well.
The 2019 fires in the Dzukou Valley on the Manipur-Nagaland border highlighted the dangers posed by changing weather patterns and human activities like slash-and-burn agriculture. The fires not only devastated vast tracts of forest cover but also released massive amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, exacerbating climate change.
Ecosystems that have evolved over millennia to withstand and adapt to natural disturbances find themselves ill-
equipped to cope with the intensified frequency of such disasters.
Rampant mining and deforestation for extracting construction materials has made the mountain ecosystems fragile resulting in frequent cases of landslides across the region.
This year we have seen unprecedented rainfalls causing massive landslides in Nagaland, Meghalaya and part of Assam. During the monsoon, such events become deadly and affect thousands of people by either displacing them or taking away their means of livelihood.
Soil erosion has threatened the existence of Majuli, world’s largest riverine island located in Assam. Every year during the annual floods, large tracts of land get washed away and people lose their lands and livelihoods.
The magnitude of loss is unfathomable for the communities who totally depend on agriculture for sustenance. These instances call for looking into the critical role of disaster preparedness and mitigation strategies.
Building resilient ecosystems requires a multi-pronged approach that integrates scientific research, community involvement, and policy interventions. The disastrous landslides in the Darjeeling region in 2017, triggered by heavy rainfall and rampant deforestation, demonstrated the importance of understanding local ecological contexts.
In this case, the landslides could have been prevented or mitigated through better land-use planning and reforestation efforts.
Furthermore, the North East Indian region underscores the transboundary nature of environmental disasters.
The region shares borders with Bangladesh, Bhutan, Myanmar, and China, making it imperative for nations to collaborate in disaster management and ecosystem preservation.
Climate change, deforestation, and pollution know no borders, and the effectiveness of any intervention is limited if not coordinated on a regional scale. Platforms for cooperation and information-sharing are essential in ensuring the holistic health of ecosystems in the face of disasters.
Lastly, the importance of raising awareness and fostering a sense of ownership among local communities cannot be overstated. The indigenous communities of the North East have coexisted with their ecosystems for generations, often possessing knowledge that is crucial for maintaining ecological balance.
Integrating their insights into disaster preparedness strategies not only respects their traditional wisdom but also enhances the chances of building resilience against environmental challenges.
In conclusion, the North East Indian region serves as a powerful case study on how environmental disasters impact ecosystems and the lessons that can be drawn to address these challenges.
The rich biodiversity, combined with the vulnerabilities of the region, highlights the interconnectedness of human and ecological well-being. Disasters like floods, industrial accidents, and forest fires disrupt ecosystems, endanger species, and exacerbate climate change.
However, the region also showcases the resilience of ecosystems when met with well- informed and collaborative approaches. Disaster preparedness, ecosystem restoration, transboundary cooperation, and community involvement emerge as crucial pillars in building and sustaining resilient ecosystems.
As we navigate the complex landscape of environmental challenges, the lessons from North East India remind us that protecting ecosystems is not only a necessity but a collective responsibility that requires us to work together for the health of our planet and future generations.