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How Assam’s Mising tribe uses architectural design to cope with floods

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On a sunny December afternoon in the village of Medhipamua along the banks of the Brahmaputra River in Assam’s Dhemaji district, men, women and a few children gathered under an open concrete structure with a tin roof placed on a raised platform, a few meters above the ground. . They were in this common room to discuss ways to better prepare for the floods that annually disrupt their lives.

  • To adapt and reduce disaster risk, the indigenous Mising community in Assam build and live in traditional flood-resistant houses called chang ghors, which are placed above ground on bamboo stilts.
  • Assam’s Dhemaji district, bordering Arunachal Pradesh, is one of India’s most flood-prone areas. Villages along the banks of the Brahmaputra River are mostly inhabited by the indigenous Mising community, who live with the fear of losing their property and livestock every year. In addition, they also have to deal with problems with health, water and sanitation.
  • The Chang ghor design is a component under India’s Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana (PMAY) scheme, a central government initiative which aims to provide affordable housing to the economically vulnerable. Experts stress the need for a long-term partnership between the government, local agencies and other humanitarian actors to make chang ghors sustainable.

Sunita Doley, a soft-spoken woman from the indigenous Mising community, recalled a night from 2021 when the power of the water suddenly increased within hours. “Fortunately, my kitchen is at an elevation,” Doley said. “Around four families took shelter in this raised local area and the next day we were moved to the neighborhood of the nearby health center.”

The Mising community of 700,000 people, who have lived close to the river for centuries and live primarily in Assam and Arunachal Pradesh in northeastern India, have coexisted with floods. Architectural innovations help society adapt to the annual flood hazard and reduce disaster risk in some of the region’s most flood-prone areas.

Assam’s Dhemaji district, bordering Arunachal Pradesh, is one of India’s most flood-prone areas. In 2022, over 100,000 people in the district were affected by three waves of floods.

“The steep drop in the slope of the Brahmaputra river, which plunges from a height of 3,000 meters in Tibet to less than 150 m at Arunachal Pradesh’s Pasighat, after which it enters Assam, exerts enormous pressure on the immediate flood plains of Dhemaji, ” Luit Goswami. , said director of the Rural Volunteer Center (RVC), an organization that studies the impact of floods on local communities and provides interventions to the community.

This unstable and unpredictable nature of the 26 tributaries of the Brahmaputra passing through Dhemaji district leads to massive floods, sand deposition, debris and river bank erosion, Goswami pointed out.

Like clockwork, these annual floods have a great impact on people, especially the indigenous communities living close to the river in the nearby villages. However, in the face of adversity, the indigenous Mising community has devised architectural structures to adapt and reduce disaster risk. They build and live in traditional flood-resistant houses called chang ghors that is up above the ground on bamboo poles. “If last year there was water up to five feet, we make sure we raise the level to six feet,” Doley said.

Chang ghors as a coping strategy

Medhipamua in Dhemaji District is a typical Mising village located along the Brahmaputra River. “Our houses are built eight feet high, while there are others in the interior that are 12-13 feet high. We keep our bamboo poles stacked before the monsoons arrive,” said Janmoni Doley, a resident of the village. Many families, she said , still prefer to move a few kilometers away from their houses on land boats to a safer raised platform like the village community, where the size of the water is usually smaller as well.

A traditional Mising house in Majuli, Assam. These traditional flood-resistant houses called chang ghor are located above ground on bamboo stilts. Photo by Rumi Borah/Wikimedia Commons

They make their houses with locally available materials such as bamboo, wood and sugar cane. “The communities have a sense of reading the behavior of the river and they have known and seen the previous floods. They remember to what level the flood water rose last year and they have a way of estimating the maximum extent it can rise,” said Partha Jyoti Das, head of the Water Climate and Hazard (WATCH) Program for the Assam-based program. non-governmental organization Aaranyak.

With this estimate in mind, they decide at what height they want to make the base floor. “People make the floor to a height of more than six feet or more. It varies with the local flood history,” explained Das.

The interior of the houses has several specialities. Inside there is a small fireplace and a stove, above there are usually three shelves at different levels and depending on the height of the shelves from the fireplace, store or store the different kinds of materials. For example, they can store on their first shelf grandson-their traditional alcoholic drink, the second shelf can have food, vegetables, and the top shelf can have grains and things that can be preserved for the coming year. They also have a balcony-like extension outside the house.

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The interior of the house is equipped with shelves that have the opportunity to store grain and things that can be preserved for the coming year. Photo by Sanskrita Bharadwaj.

Das pointed out that today many families, local panchayat houses and community spaces use concrete instead of bamboo or wood to construct the pillars. “This is because the floods in recent years have been catastrophic. While the houses are not necessarily flooded because they are built at a height, the water force can damage the bamboo pillars, so they make their columns into concrete using cement, iron rods, etc. It is also another improvisation from that side. of society.” However, he added that this improvisation is not possible for those who are more financially vulnerable. “It depends on the family’s financial situation – the poor cannot afford it.”

While using concrete has become popular, Aakash Vishwakarma, an architect working with the Sustainable Environment and Ecological Development Society (SEEDS), believes society is more adept at using bamboo. “Bamboo, being lighter, bends easily, so even if slightly higher flood flows come, it bends and adapts to that scenario and reduces the impact of the damage on the house. So I think the governments and the local agencies have to promote the availability of good quality bamboo so that it lasts longer,” said Vishwakarma.

Long-term solutions

That chang ghor design is also a component under India’s Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana (PMAY) scheme – a central government initiative which aims to provide affordable housing to the economically vulnerable. “The Government of Assam is trying to adopt this in all Mising dominated areas. It is disaster resistant and does not get submerged during severe floods and it can be dismantled during soil erosion or river bank erosion crises. This concept is now replicated and scaled up by other communities and families who live in severe flood-prone areas along the river basin,” said Tirtha Prasad Saikia, joint director of the North-East Affected Area Development Society (NEADS), a volunteer-based NGO.

High-rise houses are typical constructions to deal with floods in most Mising-dominated villages in Assam. Photo by UNICEF/Adish Baruah.

Assam is among the 12 states in India’s Himalayan region most vulnerable to climate change, an Indian government report says. Climate change projections for Assam indicate an increase in extreme rainfall events by 5–38% and floods by more than 25% by mid-century. Therefore, Das of Aaranyak added that it would be wise to adopt chang ghors at the political level. “We would like to have a policy from the state government that encourages people not to build grounded houses in active floodplains at all.”

Most experts Mongabay-India spoke to pointed that out chang ghors can be dismantled within a short time, the materials can be transported to another location and the structure can be erected again. This feature is particularly important for the Mising community because they tend to move from one village to another due to the changing course of the river and the extent of flooding. “This is part of their settlement habit. People living close to the river require this flexibility because they cannot afford to lose the material as it is expensive,” Das said, adding that if the structures are improvised at all, it is done with this “flexibility” feature in mind. “We have to think about materials other than concrete, which can be easily dismantled, pulled out and removed.”

According to Garima Jain, an urban practitioner who previously worked at the Indian Institute for Human Settlements (IIHS) and is currently a fellow at Arizona State University, the aspect of long-term recovery is missing. Most often, communities are left to fend for themselves, Jain argued. She said: “I will emphasize a long-term partnership between the government, local agencies and other humanitarian actors to understand the problems facing the communities and provide the resources they lack.”

This article was written by Sanskrita Bharadwaj and republished from Mongabay.

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