WhatsApp messages from Bhutan save lives in Assam

Early warnings passed on through community social media networks on the Bhutan-India border save lives when official channels take far too long
<p>Bhutan’s Sarbhang Chu river is called the Saralbhanga after it crosses into India to meet the Brahmaputra river [image by: Shailendra Yashwant]</p>

Bhutan’s Sarbhang Chu river is called the Saralbhanga after it crosses into India to meet the Brahmaputra river [image by: Shailendra Yashwant]

In the last few weeks of June 2019, a series of WhatsApp messages were sent from Bhutan to India to warn “cross-border friends” downstream of the Aai, Saralbhanga and Manas rivers about cloud-bursts, swollen rivers and possible flash floods affecting people in the Indian state of Assam.

Although originating from officials, these messages were not sent via official channels. That would involve the dzongdag – the administrative head of the dzonkhag, or district – in Geluphu passing information to the officials in Bhutan’s capital Thimphu, who would then inform officials in New Delhi, the capital of India. They would, in turn, inform officials in Guwahati, the capital of the Indian state of Assam, who would pass the warnings on to Kokrajhar district headquarters. In the final stage, these messages would be relayed from there to villages along the India-Bhutan border.

In most cases this circuitous channel would take too long, with information either critically delayed or unclear, and of little use to most river bank communities in downstream Assam.

Now, though, the communities are relying on these “WhatsApp early warnings” routed through members of Bhutan-India Friendship Association (BIFA) to friends in NGOs like the North East Research & Social Work Networking (NERSWN), who pass the information to their network. Messages are forwarded within minutes, giving the villagers precious lead-time to prepare and escape the wrath of the suddenly rising rivers.

“It is difficult to predict when the flash floods will occur. In case of water released from dams the Bhutanese government sends early warning to New Delhi but even then some times, by the time we receive the information and pass it onto villages along the border it is too late. The challenge is lack of communication infrastructure in the area. There are no cell towers on the Indian side and most villagers on the border surreptitiously use Bhutanese SIM cards. Those WhatsApp messages probably save lives of hundreds,” said Kamal Kishor Hazarika, project officer at the District Disaster Management Authority (DDMA) in Kokrajhar.

These small rivers that start in Bhutan or Tibet flow into the transboundary Brahmaputra River in India.

“It’s costly, using internet, but for emergency all the villagers depend on WhatsApp,” agreed Aniram Basumatary of Saralpara village, while speaking to thethirdpole.net. “Communication is important, especially in monsoon season. Anything can happen, and getting advance warning will help us to be ready. We have suffered enough because of lack of warning.”

Decades of militancy in this corner of India has led to a complex situation, where communications infrastructure is seen as both a threat and an opportunity, making it a politically challenging decision to strengthen communications in the area.

The cost of no warning

Manas river in spate, near Geluphu. Bhutan
Manas river in spate, near Geluphu. Bhutan [image by : Shailendra Yashwant]
Banglajhora is a small village on the banks of Saralbhanga river in Kokrajhar district of Assam. The village faced three devastating floods in 2012, 2014 and then again in 2016. Since then, every monsoon the fear of floods is palpable among its residents, who belong to the Bodo indigenous community.

Satyaraj Narzary recalled the floods of July 16, 2012, “When I woke up in the morning, there was no water. Nor were there any signs of flood. But around 8 a.m., the water started rising and before we realised what was happening, the whole area was flooded. About 10-12 houses were washed away. Many families lost their cattle in the floods, their standing crop of paddy was destroyed and considerable amount of land was lost due to erosion. We have not been able to farm on that land ever since.” He said that the floods happened following heavy rains in the foothills of Bhutan when the Saralbhanga river broke a temporary embankment.

In August 2014 Banglajhora was inundated again without warning, when the gushing waters of Saralbhanga eroded the Saralpara-Patgaon bund and several hectares of paddy and private properties in the area were destroyed. The local residents had to take shelter at a relief camp for over a week.

The floods of 2016 were the worst. Heavy rains caused flash floods in most of the tributaries of the Brahmaputra. Nearly 1.8 million people were affected in 22 districts across Assam. Lower (western) Assam’s Kokrajhar and Bongaigaon districts were the worst affected, and the villagers of Banglajhora faced the brunt of it all.

Kamal Basumatari at Banglajhora village in Kokrajhar [image by: Shailendra Yashwant]
Kamal Basumatari at Banglajhora village in Kokrajhar [image by: Shailendra Yashwant]
“We had to run with our children and the few belongings we were able to gather. One contingent of the Army rescue team was deployed to rescue us with lifeboats but the force of water was such that the first lifeboat turned turtle in the middle of the river and the villagers ended up rescuing the soldiers,” said Kamal Basumatari.

“After that we made a raft with few tyre tubes and bamboo to ferry women, children and a few belongings across the river with great difficulty. I have never seen Saralbhanga so furious. The water was also very cold,” he added.

WhatsApp for disaster warning

“Floods, both riverine and flash floods, are the most common hazards in the Hindu Kush Himalayas and account for 17% of people killed and 51% of the damage. Unlike riverine floods, flash floods occur rapidly with a very short lead time for warning. They can arise following intense rainfall events, or as a result of breaching of natural dams formed by landslides or from glacial lakes formed behind end moraine dams (glacial lake outburst flood or GLOF),” Neera Shreshta Pradhan of the International Centre for Integrated Mountain development told thethirdpole.net.

“In recent years, increasingly erratic and unpredictable monsoon rainfall patterns and increased climate variability have led to severe and frequent flood disasters in the region. There may be some information sharing between governments on major rivers, but tributaries are largely ignored. This is where social relations between transboundary communities are critical for any early warning systems to deliver. Clear and timely communication, proper functional network and preparedness reduces human casualties. Even a short lead time will save lives,” she added

“Bhutan is in a high rainfall zone but in the last 15-20 years, there have been more and more cloudbursts, resulting in severe flash floods that destroy everything in their path with alarming regularity in Bhutan and then downriver in Assam. The floods of July 2016 in Saralbhanga river wiped out the entire Sarpang town in South Bhutan before unleashing havoc in Assam. Bhutanese experts have said that this is due to climate change and is in line with IPCC reports,” said Kripaljyoti Mazumder, state project officer at the Assam State Disaster Management Authority (ASDMA)

While the Bhutanese have responded by building mitigating structures and preparing their populations, the downstream communities along the border in India can only hope for timely information, seamless evacuation and minimum damage to their homes, cattle and crops.

NERSWN staff and volunteers standing around a table meeting to address building early warning networks
Building early warning networks, NERSWN staff and volunteers at Banglajhora village [image by: Shailendra Yashwant]
For this the key elements of disaster risk reduction like risk knowledge, monitoring, analysis, warning generation, dissemination and communication of warning and preparedness for timely response have to work in sync.

“Getting timely early warning is not enough; the preparedness of the communities is important as well. Already NERSWN has begun a Hazard Risk Vulnerability Assessment (HRVA) mapping of the river basin villages and identified volunteers in all villages to ensure that the early warnings from our friends in Bhutan reach the last mile families, even those who do not have access to WhatsApp or mobile phones,” said Raju Narzary of NERSWN.

“Already this year, the WhatsApp warnings from BIFA to the last mile family has travelled within 10 minutes of being sent out. The delay was due to the fact that the last family ran out of phone batteries, so when we didn’t see the ticks going blue, I borrowed a motorcycle to alert the family. Mobile phones are warning systems but you need motorcycle for sure, as there are always those without mobile phones,” said Aniram Basumatary, who does not own a motorcycle but is saving up for one.

Kokrajhar call for action

Building on these relationships between BIFA and NERSWN, 14 civil society organisations from Bhutan and India, including the Bhutan Transparency Initiative and Aaranyak – a leading NGO in Assam – under the stewardship of Oxfam India’s Transboundary Rivers of South Asia (TROSA) programme came together on June 20-21, 2019 in Kokrajhar. These consultations were designed to strengthen people-to-people ties, and help safeguard the rights of riparian communities upstream and downstream by supporting community-led cross-border ecosystem management and conservation practices.

former prime minister of Bhutan, Kinzang Dorji  standing on a podium
Kinzang Dorji, former Prime Minister of Bhutan, addressing the two-day conference on “Transboundary cooperation for effective management of water risks between Bhutan and India” [image by: Shailendra Yashwant]
 “The biggest threat to peace is lack of effective management of our water resources, especially along our borders. Some of the poorest people live on transboundary waters of little known tributaries in remote parts of the Indo-Bhutan region, easily the most vulnerable to vagaries of climate change unfolding in these parts. Awareness, empathy, people-to-people networks supported by appropriate technologies, and timely and quality early warning information will go a long way in reducing risks to these communities,” said Pankaj Anand, programme director of Oxfam India, during his inaugural address.

“Early warning is the moral responsibility of people living upstream towards people living downstream. What you are seeing in Kokrajhar district goes beyond the official friendly ties between Bhutan and India. In fact this informal but friendly collaboration for early warning and sharing of our water resources between border communities of Bhutan and Assam is a model for peaceful relationships between countries at a time when peace around the world is threatened by the scarcity of water and climate change induced disasters,” said Kinzang Dorji, who served twice as Prime Minister of Bhutan, and is now the chairperson of the Bhutan Transparency Initiative.