Friendly social media warnings from Bhutan help Assam villagers tackle floods
Warnings sent by friends through social media platforms from across the border in Bhutan have helped residents of several villages in Assam tackle flood-related disasters better.
Last month, several such messages about the likelihood of flash floods, cloudbursts, landslides etc helped many in Assam’s Kokrajhar, Chirang and Baksa districts to avoid severe losses.
Rivers like Saralbhanga, Ai and Manas, which originate in Bhutan and flow downstream to join the Brahmaputra, overflow during the monsoon and cause immense losses in the bordering plains of Assam.
During those times, the government to government mechanism to alert residents doesn’t help much. If there’s heavy rainfall in southern Bhutan, the local administration will have to inform authorities in Thimphu, the Bhutanese capital.
From there, messages would be sent to Delhi, which in turn would be forwarded to Assam and finally to the districts likely to be affected. This could take hours, if not days, which might be too late for the people.
This is where the unofficial and informal channel of communication where NGOs and civil society organizations in Bhutan alert their friends in Assam immediately about any impending disaster proves beneficial.
“If there’s heavy rainfall upstream in Bhutan it could lead to flash floods, erosion, damage livestock and even lead to loss of human lives downstream in Assam,” said Raju Narzary, executive director of North East Research and Social Work Networking (NERSWN), a NGO based in Kokrajhar, Assam.
“Since the official warning system takes long, several NGOs from both sides of the border have started using this system of sending early warnings through social media platforms like Whatsapp, Messenger etc to inform us about likely disasters,” he added.
Warnings sent from Bhutan are immediately passed on to the district disaster management authority and residents in vulnerable villages through Whatsapp groups. The messages reach vulnerable villagers within minutes, helping them to protect themselves and their assets.
“The messages are being sent at an unofficial level. Earlier no warning system existed, but now because of this initiative we also get to know. We are using the warnings to spread information at our level,” said Kamal Kishore Hazarika, project officer at Kokrajhar district disaster management authority.
The warnings, part of an unofficial and informal early warning system, started this year and are benefitting residents in Kokrajhar, Chirang, Baksa, Dhubri and South Salmara districts in Assam.
“The warnings from Bhutan have helped us immensely. We get information within minutes and pass them on to other villagers through Whatsapp groups and calls,” said Shahnawaz Hussain, a farmer from Hatiputa village in Dhubri who is also a member of the village disaster management committee.
Like on the Indian side, several civil society groups, NGOs and individuals in Bhutan are also involved in the initiative. Based on weather patterns in their areas or warnings issued by Bhutanese authorities, these groups send messages across to the Indian side immediately.
“Whatever is happening is based on mutual understanding. Whenever there is heavy rain in Gelephu in Bhutan, we pass on the message to Indian friends through Messenger and Whatsapp that there could be flooding in Saral Bhanga and Ai rivers,” said Ugyen Rabten, secretary general of the Bhutan India Friendship Association (BIFA).
Now there is an effort to cover this informal early warning system as part of a project called Transboundary Rivers of South Asia (TROSA) by Oxfam India which would involve several NGOs in both countries.
“We have selected 500 volunteers from vulnerable villages and have developed an App which would be used to disseminate warning messages as soon as we get a message from Bhutan,” said Dahal Narzary, project coordinator of TROSA based in Kokrajhar.
Last month, representatives of NGOs and civil society organizations from Bhutan and India gathered at Kokrajhar in Assam and adopted the Kokrajhar Call for Action to safeguard against water-related risks.
The 7-point action plan includes promotion of people-to-people ties, strengthening trans-boundary cooperation for early warning systems and engagement with local and national governments for transparent, accountable and inclusive water governance.