Majuli is one of the largest river islands in the world, located along the banks of the Brahmaputra River, Assam, Northeast India. This iconic island has been slowly disappearing. It has shrunk in size by 60%. Why is this happening? Well, if you want a short answer, you can check out our 2-minute video on it. But if you want a deep dive and explore all the nuances of this topic, then continue reading!
Before we jump in, we first need to know what a river island is and how it is formed. A river island is any land that is surrounded by river water. Majuli island is surrounded by the Brahmaputra River, which is known for its rampant flooding.
River islands form when rivers cut through uneven land surfaces. The Majuli island was created after an enormous flood that occurred in 1750 in Assam, India. Since then, every year floods and erosion have been shrinking the island. However, with the onset of climate change, it is important to ask the question, has global warming accelerated the disappearance of Majuli island, or was the rapid shrinking inevitable?
Why are River Islands Disappearing?
It turns out the primary reason for the island disappearing is climate change. Global warming from climate change is resulting in the melting of the glaciers and rising sea level. The global sea level has risen by 8 inches since 1990. With each year, the sea level rises another .13 inches (3.2mm), and it is projected to rise between 1.5-3 inches by 2100.
The melting glaciers and rising sea levels have been pivotal in the flooding and erosion of river islands. Additionally, climate change and global warming have also led to more intensive rainfall over the years. This creates more risk of disappearance of these islands.
This rampant destruction is not limited to river islands; coastal cities are also affected. As per the Global Risk Report, 2019 by the World Economic Forum, about 90% of all coastal areas will be affected. Some cities will experience sea-level rises as high as 30% above the global mean.
As mentioned above, flooding from the Brahmaputra River plays a critical role in the disappearance of Majuli. While the river’s flooding is normal, the frequency and intensity have increased due to global warming. As temperature rises in the Himalayas, the increased snowmelt causes flash floods along the Brahmaputra River.
Rain and monsoon patterns, which were once relatively predictable, have become more sporadic, intense and frequent due to climate change. From that perspective, it is also important to note that Assam is the most vulnerable state in the Indian Himalayan region, with 40% of the area falling in flood-prone zones.
The erosion and devastating floods over the years have already resulted in the loss of 69 villages in Majuli. The remaining 83% of villages are at a high risk currently of being consumed by these increasing floods. Since 1975, more than 9,600 families have lost their homes due to unprecedented floods and erosion.
Figure 1: Floods in Majuli
Not Just Flood, Erosions Too
Erosion has been a significant problem in the region. Every year flooding erodes hectares of agricultural land along with standing crops. This is devastating news because 90% of the population of Majuli is dependent on agriculture for their livelihood. Adding to this, people in Majuli lost nearly 30% of their household income because of erratic rainfall and floods.
All this compounding impact has resulted in the high poverty rate of the Island. Almost 21.47% of people in the island are living below the poverty line (which is less than $2 per day).
Figure 2: Erosion on the island
A nominee for a world heritage site, Majuli inhabits Satras (shrines) of Neo-Vaishnavite traditions, started by Srimanta Shankardeva. Satras are monastic institutions established for practicing religious discourses in Majuli, bringing people together through art and music. Satras have been the centers of excellence where the tenets of devotion to Vishnu were propagated through studies, song, dance, and drama.
Though initially, Majuli inhabited 65 Satras, now only 22 remain on the Island due to flooding and erosion. A loss of these satras or the holistic disappearance of Majuli island will lead to the disappearance of important culture and tradition of Assam.
Majuli is being threatened with disappearing islands, livelihood, and culture. So, how have the residents of Majuli island responded to this threat?
Figure 3: Kamalabari satra in Majuli
A Resilient Community
The community of Majuli has responded to this climate challenge with resilience.
- Flood Resilient Bamboo Houses (Chang Ghor):
The Mising community, an agricultural community in Majuli, has been building bamboo stilt houses (known as Chang Ghor) on raised platforms to keep floodwaters at bay. As per a UN research report, Chang Ghor’s have multiple layers, from floor to roof, each having a distinct purpose. The picture is an example of Chang Ghor. Here, the sitting space in the ground is built with a fireplace at the lower level, storage space for meat and utensils in the layer above, and the top layer for grain storage and ventilation.
Figure 4: Stilt houses in Majuli
- Alternative Livelihood:
Alternative livelihoods are some of the best ways of mitigating the socio-environmental vulnerability caused by climate change. According to research, some households have embraced pottery or boat making as an alternate means of livelihood. Many inhabitants have also started weaving and mask making.
The Mising households have sought to become sustainable by cultivating vegetables in their home gardens and weaving their garments to reduce their vulnerability to external impacts.
What can be Done to Save Majuli?
Many artists and activists like Jamini Payeng have been working to support families affected by erosion in Majuli, especially women. She supports them by training them in weaving and tailoring to provide alternative means of livelihood. Being someone who worked closely with the community of Majuli, she gave a critical insight in her interview with India Portal on the inefficiency of the state flood control practices, which is leading to erosion rather than increasing fertility of the soil.
Governments need to develop climate adaptation strategies like building watersheds and disaster management plans to save islands like Majuli. As per various researches, risk-proof infrastructure and adequate maintenance are capable of tackling risks associated with climate change. This can lower the risk of loss of land and livelihood. In Majuli, for example, flood risks are caused by breaches, poor maintenance, or improperly built embankments.
Besides disaster-proof infrastructure, developing early flood warning systems will help the people evacuate and prevent the loss of lives.
Disappearing islands are a global problem. Not just in the case of river Majuli island, many islands globally are at an extremely high risk of disappearing. In fact, as per research in 2018, at least eight low-lying Pacific islands have been found to have disappeared as a result of climate change. The Carteret Islanders in the South Pacific Ocean, off the coast of Papua New Guinea, were officially evacuated in 2014, making them the world’s first refugees of global warming.
It is easy to look at these river islands and go, “there is nothing we can do to save them, it is too late”. While it may be true that trying to save every river island in the world is not possible, doing nothing is not an option. It starts with the disappearance of river islands, and then it will be coastal cities. At some point, we must take a stand. And the time to make a stand is quickly running out. Our nations and leaders need to take climate change and global warming seriously and take meaningful actions before we disappear.
- Sustainability | Theories and Principles of Sustainability | SDGPlus
- Political Waterfare – SDG PLUS
- Clean Water | Sustainable Development Goals | SDG Plus
- Guinness world records: https://www.guinnessworldrecords.com/world-records/largest-river-island-
- Usha Dewani, India Water Portal: https://www.indiawaterportal.org/articles/my-disappearing-land-majuli
- U.S Global change research program: https://www.globalchange.gov/browse/indicators/global-sea-level-rise
- NASA: https://climate.nasa.gov/vital-signs/sea-level/
- National Geographic: https://www.nationalgeographic.com/environment/article/sea-level-rise-1?loggedin=true
- WEFORUM: https://www.weforum.org/reports/the-global-risks-report-2019
- UNDRR: https://www.undrr.org/news/indias-mising-community-seeks-expand-its-indigenous-adaptation-practices-response-climate
- Bandung journal: https://bandungjournal.springeropen.com/articles/10.1186/s40728-015-0028-4