A Contemporary Threat to the “Gateway to the East”: Managing Climate and Disaster Risk for India’s City of Guwahati

By Justin Fung

It has been said that during conflicts in the 17th century, the Kingdom of Assam — whose multi-ethnic citizens co-existed in harmony for over six hundred years — defended the eastern border city of Saraighat from the aggressive advances of the Mughal Empire on no less than sixteen different occasions.  As war waged for nearly a century in the far reaches of the Himalayan foothills, the fertile Brahmaputra river basin served as a battleground of magnificent naval fleets, cannon-adorned fortifications and a cadre of legendary war heroes.  The prospects of Saraighat (the present day city of Guwahati) waxed and waned in this way for millennia and the city managed to outlive every transition of fortune, every new conquering and every new surrendering.  In doing so, the city of Guwahati demonstrated a resilience of spirit becoming of India’s epic history.

Brahmaputra River from the banks in Guwahati

Brahmaputra River from the banks in Guwahati

The present-day city of Guwahati, in the enigmatic and geographically isolated northeast region of India, is sometimes overshadowed by the vast socio-political affairs of its mother country.  Regardless, at a distance of less than two hundred and fifty miles from Bhutan, Bangladesh, Nepal and China, Guwahati is often referred to as the “Gateway to the East”.  While doubling in population every ten years, the city has retained the inclusive, multi-ethnic culture of its history and as a result, the city today is peppered with bustling bazaars, heavenly temples, electrifying mosques, friendly paanwalas (the assiduous local betel leaf sellers) and glistening shopping malls- often in the same neighborhood and all under the ancient allure of its incredible natural endowment.  It is this synthesis that grants Guwahati one the highest quality-of-living distinctions in the nation, as well as one that separates it from its westerly peers.  Thoguh the city is no longer subject to classic warfare, Guwahati now finds itself battling the unconscious threat of its increasingly volatile climate as it attempts to once again realize the economic dynamism and strategic precedence of antiquity, propelling the region into the geo-political forefront of India’s future.

It is with this humility of history and context that the CGSD team developed the “Disaster Risk Reduction, Including Climate Change Adaptation of Guwahati in the Context of Dynamic Growth” project with its partners at Sustainable Urbanism International (SUI) and the Indian Institute of Technology – Delhi (IIT-D), with funding from the Assam State Disaster Management Authority (ASDMA).  As a project at the early stages of its on-going evolution, I was tasked this summer with engaging our colleagues at SUI in their cozy offices in Bangalore to assess the existing capacity of Guwahati to combat their climate extremes and associated risks.  Working with the SUI team, whose expertise spans the fields of architecture and urban planning, we set out to answer basic questions such as, “What maps are available that show climate induced hazards in Guwahati?” and “What tools could we use with the available data to inform project stakeholders of the risks of urbanization?”  In pursuit of the answers, my colleagues and I were able to compile the skeleton of a database containing the extant spatial characterization of the city.  As with any project grounded in quantitative analysis, objective data was and will remain paramount to the success of the project.

However, information culled electronically can only go so far in regards to the geography of urbanization in a developing context, and we were eager to glean supplementary local knowledge through interfacing with local partners in a visit to Guwahati at the end of July, 2013.  On-the-ground surveys of the effects of climate extremes on the local population and infrastructure supported this goal, as did liaisons with staff in the ASDMA offices on the campus of Assam’s central government secretariat.  These two activities clarified the nature of Guwahati’s climate risks, and they appeared to be more dynamic than previously thought.  While Guwahati derives enjoyment and livelihood from the presence of one of the holiest and mightiest rivers on the planet – the Brahmaputra – it is also threatened quite significantly by the forces of water, at inopportune times and in unwanted amounts. We observed the results of this on-going threat in the over-burdened drainage systems, encroached wetlands, breached embankments and quarried hills – hazards arising from urbanization yet at the same time inhibiting further urbanization.

CGSD researchers engage in a "climate extremes tour" with ASDMA.  Pictured is drainage infrastructure obstructed by sedimentation

CGSD researchers engage in a “climate extremes tour” with ASDMA. Pictured is drainage infrastructure obstructed by sedimentation

At the end of our stay in Guwahati, an exciting moment for all was had at the project workshop, in which several high-ranking ministers granted their auspices under the curious eyes of the press and an assemblage of professionals, all united by their social and civic investment in the project.  The atmosphere was one of guarded excitement, in which prominent stakeholders expressed both the severity of the issue as well as their optimism regarding the project’s evolution.  Individual researchers at CGSD, SUI, and IIT-D, along with those of the Columbia Water Center (who are engaged in a parallel project with ASDMA), presented their preliminary research, catalyzing spirited discussions regarding the past, present and future efforts at addressing the issue.  The conclusion of the workshop in Guwahati launched a new phase of the project in which CGSD will craft a suite of tools and decision support methodology primed for use by stakeholders in preparing the city of Guwahati for a dynamic and changing climate.  The interaction of CGSD with ASDMA and partners in both SUI and IIT-D has contributed immensely to the conceptualization of the intricacies of the issue at hand, and will continue to do so as the project progresses.

CGSD, SUI, IIT-D and ASDMA join government and academic stakeholders in a workshop hosted in Guwahati

CGSD, SUI, IIT-D and ASDMA join government and academic stakeholders in a workshop hosted in Guwahati

Guwahati stands on the edge of a climate-induced precipice, on the other side of which sits its rightful place as a cultural and economic hub of South/East Asia.  The successful triumph over this new conflict is not only demanded by the historical precedence set by the ancestors of Assam, but necessary for the geo-political equipment of India in its “Look East” policy, a vision representing the country’s efforts to cultivate extensive economic and strategic relations with the nations of Southeast Asia. CGSD is more than excited to support the city’s efforts to make this a reality by combating the great contemporary adversary of a changing climate in the region.

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