Today, an increasing trend of floods globally threatens human settlements and is a challenge to planners and architects alike. A flood refers to an excess of water (or mud) on land and is caused due to overflow of water in an established watercourse as observed in the case of riverine floods or the inability of a system to drain out the excess water as often observed in the case of urban floods and flash floods. An increase in the global population has resulted in the occupation of flood plains for human settlements and activities, making the repercussions of a flood situation direr. Poor environment management, increased soil erosion, degradation of the catchment, and siltation, to name a few, are contributing factors.
Although a flood-like circumstance can affect anyone in the area, marginalized communities and those whose livelihood is dependent on natural resources are most vulnerable to risk. Historical patterns of political, economic, and social exclusion of these some communities further increase their vulnerability, making them develop practices of their own, which have evolved over generations. Exposure to climatic and environmental changes helps further evolve these practices and are now the coping strategies for these communities. Modern flood mitigation and rehabilitation solutions often do not reach these settlements and communities in their time of need, pushing them to rely on traditional and indigenous practices. Some of these indigenous practices have demonstrated their value time and again for coping with floods and hold potential lessons for modern times.
The discussion around floods in the Indian context often brings up the example of the state of Bihar, specifically its northern parts. Located in the Ganga flood plains in the foothills of the Himalayas, about 76% of northern Bihar is affected by floods annually. Traditional settlements in Bihar are made of bamboo, reeds, straw, grass, or leaves. Wattle and daub constructions are also common. Although unaffected by stagnant water, bamboo begins to decay upon contact with mud in footings, which is a common occurrence during a flood. To ensure that the structural integrity of homes is not compromised, bamboo is covered with tar and plastic wraps, preventing its decay. Further, building on high plinths and constructing attic spaces within the homes allow protection in extreme circumstances. Stocking dry food and grains in the bamboo loft is also a common technique to ensure survival. In the case of wattle and daub construction, the mud plaster washes away, and one is left with exposed, bamboo-woven wall panels. Such systems that are lightweight and easy to dismantle, are removed, and often carried on boats by homeowners for relocation to higher grounds. Since community participation is a large part of Bihari culture, homes of friends, relatives, and neighbors act as areas of refuge in case one loses their home in case of a disaster, making it one of the most prevalent rehabilitation practices.
The eastern state of Assam in India provides similar insights. Assam is known for its massive network of rivers, making it prone to floods. Damages due to erosion and flash flood further aggravate the problems in the state, leading to loss of infrastructure as well as human lives. As part of the practices required to ensure adaptation to the flood conditions instead of fighting them, indigenous houses in Assam are built on stilts. These stilted habitats are constructed with wood and have mud foundations with bamboo and thatch roofing. Bamboo is also used extensively for flooring. Since the construction of such homes takes less than a month and has a lifespan of about five years, these structures can be customized periodically based on the predicted flood levels. More specifically, settlements of the ‘mising chang’ tribe are multistoried, each serving a specific purpose. The ‘meram’, which is the first level has a fireplace. Above it, are two bamboo shelves, called ‘perab’ and ‘rabbong,’ used for storing fish, meat, and ‘apong’, a type of traditional beer. The ‘perab’ is also used for smoking meat, which helps in the preservation process. The ‘kumbang’, which is the level close to the ceiling, is used for the storage of vegetables. These food supplies also prove to be useful in case of floods. Featuring large front porches, these homes can be accessed through bamboo ladders and have wooden rafts which help in transportation during flood times.
Since a large part of the population in Assam is dependent upon agriculture and animal husbandry for its livelihood, protecting food grains and cattle during floods is a necessary practice. Stilted structures are constructed separately in advance for cattle, where a stock of their food is also stored, which may be used in case of emergencies.
Bihar and Assam are just a few examples of the wisdom that is embedded in the traditional human settlements in flood-prone areas in India. Globally, such practices exist in the delta regions of all large rivers from Niger to the Mekong. However, such strategies can be leveraged even more effectively with access to efficiently developed early warning systems, and emergency management strategies that are backed by science and public policy. In the meantime, the shear grit of these communities, combined with their indigenous strategies are often the only ways for them to survive. These tried and tested strategies offer much-needed guidance on actionable solutions for managing and mitigating flood risk to human settlements in such vulnerable locations.
Resources from various governmental agencies and NGOs in Bihar
Indigenous knowledge helps fisherfolk cope with floods | India Water Portal
|Article title:||11 Bihar districts face flood threat as rivers in spate | Patna News – Times of India|
|Website title:||The Times of India|
|Article title:||Assam flood: Over 54.5 lakh people hit, death toll rises to 101|
|Website title:||Zee News|
|Article title:||Understanding the floods of Bihar – Book review of “Bagmati Ki Sadgati !” | India Water Portal|