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Dear all,

I owe a bit of an email as well, having had an eventful week.

The first thing was a 2 day trip to 'island chars' in the Brahmaputra river
running about 2 hrs. to our east. A 'char' is basically a glorified
sandbar, some 'surviving' 1-2 years, some 5-10. All are impermanent, as one
we saw testified: drawing up to it in a boat, from a distance we could see
what looked like thicker and thinner columns coming up out of the water
about 10-15 ft. out from the shore. I thought they were the remains of an
old dock. We also saw a 3-story school perched seemingly quite precariously
on the edge as well.

When we got closer, we saw that the columns were in fact the remains of
latrines, about 6 concrete rings stacked on top of each other, on top of
which is set the 'toilet' (Asian squat toilets, if you must know). But they
were just sticking up out of the water because the land around them had
eroded away in the past year. It turned out that when we got off our boat
transport onto a mud road, we found out the road used to run in the middle
of the island, but was now just next to the 10 ft. 'cliff' of mud where the
island continued to wash away.

The school is currently surrounded by sand bags, but actually empty of

children because of the unsafeness of its location on the cliff as well. We
found out about 1 km of land had eroded, so the school was previously in the
middle of the island, but now on the edge. In another spot we saw 2 little
peninsulas, one of which still had a house on it, the other just had a
haystack. The haystack site used to have a house too, but people told us
they had packed up the tin for the walls and roof of the house, along with
all their belongings, and moved to another char, since the one they were on
(the one we were visiting) was eroding too fast.

We visited three chars in all, (pronounced* chohr *as opposed to chahr, from
the British influence of spelling everything that sounds like aw as 'a',
since they is how they pronounce their a's). We stayed one night on a
hospital boat moored on one of them. It moves around to different ones,
depending on the current and the status of erosion of wherever it is. It
was quite the nice boat: 2 operating rooms, 2 small wards of 4 beds each,
which they only use when visiting groups of surgeons have surgical 'camps'
(meaning doing lots of cases right on top of each other). They did eye
camps and cleft lip camps, and sometimes burn scar release or other plastic
surgical cases. But the rest of the time, they just have regular medical,
pediatric, and antenatal, together with eye and dental clinics, all in
separate nice little exam rooms. There was 1 doctor, 1 paramedic, 1 nurse,
1 each eye and dental techs. Quite a well run ship, providing completely
free care courtesy of Emirates Airlines!

We visited another, and took a walk, during which we discovered the reality
of living on a sandbar (depending on size, the average char has about
1200-1500 people living on it--most of whom were born on some one or other
char). That reality was having to wade through water on a regular basis,
because during the monsoon season, now, there are canals running here and
there throughout what looks from a distance like dry land. Then we heard
then when it is the dry season, there still aren't roads, because the
connections between the sandbars are yes, you guessed it: more sand.
Apparently it gets wicked hot during the hot times of year, so it is even
harder for people to get around, because they have to walk for several
kilometers to get to the remaining water so they can get on boats.

People told us, very matter-of-factly, that their trip to get places are
'not long': usually from 1 1/2 to 4 hrs. to go to the clinic, or to go
shopping! As I mentioned above, their houses actually looked to us
relatively 'pukka' (solid) because they were almost all made out of tin (as
opposed to the more common mud or woven bamboo more common around us). The
people around us who have tin are relatively well-off, but in these river
chars, there has been so much relief work because of the annual flooding
being particularly bad there, that the relief organizations always give away
tin, since it is durable and portable. So they aren't rich, but kind of
looked rich to us, with different perspective of what is 'normal' around us.

They lease farming rights from local political powerful people, who control
the very fertile sandbars. These are supposed to be by constitution and
local law, kept for common good, in particular for the use of the poorest.
It IS used by the poorest, but they have to pay leasing rights, or
share-cropping. They are more or less (on at least a few years by few years
basis) in constant state of transition of everything to some new char
growing up out of the river--and when they move, they then have to get to
know completely different local power-brokers.

We were there because in our new project, part of the Char Livelihood
Project, is to help NGOs set up health services for the char population.
The places we visited were part of 'Phase 1', while LAMB will be working on
Phase 2, extended the work up the river closer to us. We saw some of the
challenges when we visited: they need better birth attendants (as the ones
who have already been trained live on the mainland, rather than the chars,
hence are rather too far away to be available for household deliveries--and
the women rarely leave the chars), better clinical protocols (we gave them
ours), and better follow-up of actual changes being made (there is lots of
activity data, but not as much 'so what?' data about % of population with
low birthweights, # of maternal and infant deaths). So the challenges just
keep coming.

Speaking of which, I am going to Dhaka again to discuss a couple of other

UNICEF projects, one tomorrow (Sunday) one Monday-Wed. We aren't really
sure how contentious the negotiations will be, but I am trying to be
prepared by reading through the documents we already presented. I will also
pick up a new short-term obstetrician from Australia, and have a meeting
with Interserve leadership team. It will be a packed week, and I only found
out about all the potential meetings on Thurs., after being gone Mon. night,
Tues., and Wed. at the chars. So Thurs. I ran around to change the call
schedule, plan travel, and organize a place to stay (phone calls, texts,
emails, etc.). Such is life...
love, Kris

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At a Glance: Status of Brahmaputra River Island (Char)

Posted Thu, 12/24/2009 - 08:09 by admin

Table 1

Subject Information

01. Total Char 02,089 Numbers

02. Total Char Areas 02.39 Lakhs of Hactres

03. Total Char Village 02,089 Numbers

04. Total Char Family (Farmer) 02,66,787 Numbers

05. Total Blocks (Cover) 56 Numbers

06. Total Sub-Division (Cover) 21 Numbers

07. Total District (Cover) 14 Numbers

08. Total Population 21 Lakhs

09. Total Population Below Poverty Line 08,00,591 Numbers

10. Total Educated/Literate 02.86 Lakhs

11. Total Un-educated/Illiterate 18.14 Lakhs

Table 2

District No of Chars Population Literate Iliterate

01. Dhubri 313 02,33,206 25,885 02,07,321

02. Goalpara 187 01,30,007 11,960 01,18,047

03. Bongaigaon 150 01,10,215 14,658 95,557

04. Barpeta 351 02,75,525 36,333 02,39,192

05. Kamrup 148 01,05,687 17,966 87,721

06. Nalbari 58 62,892 04,968 57,924

07. Darrang 121 01,35,876 19,450 01,16,446

08. Jorhat 210 01,41,901 45,266 96,635

09. Morigaon 41 55,581 04,112 51,469

10. Nagaon 29 45,161 03,793 41,368

11. Dhemaji 95 68,898 09,783 59,115

12. Sonitpur 118 92,061 12,888 79,173

13. LAKHIMPUR 182 01,10,200 15,317 94,883

14. Dibrugarh 86 33,034 04,690 24,344

Total 02,089 16,00,242 02,27,069 13,69,195

Source: Char Area Development Authority, Government of Assam State (India)


1. Mantri, Neta, Palinetar Bhua Pratisrutit Pratarita Charbashi : Namani Axomar Char Anchalar
Abastha Etia Somaliar Lekhia by Shib Shankar Chatterjee – Dainik Asam, The Assam Tribune
Group, dated 04th January, 1999, (Page One).

2. Charar Chakulo : Pratibedan-2 : Matabbarar Nirdexote Chale Charar Jiban by Shib Shankar
Chatterjee – Dainik Asam, The Assam Tribune Group, dated 09th February, 2000, (Page One).

3. Charar Chakulo : Pratibedan-1 : Bolia Bane Bhange, Pate Char Baxir Jiban by Shib Shankar
Chatterjee – Dainik Asam, The Assam Tribune Group, dated 08th February, 2000, (Page One).

4. Char people Bears the Brunt by Shib Shankar Chatterjee – Northeast Sun, dated April 15-30,
1999, (Page Number 15).


One of the peculiar features of the
Brahmaputra river in Assam are the Chars
(riverine silt islands). Chars develop over a
period of 10‐20 years in the channels of
the Brahmaputra River as a natural
process. Over a period of time these can
eventually become habitable and go under
occupation (some chars are upto 40 years
old). Once some of the channels get silted
the river changes it course and starts
eroding old chars thus entailing
displacement of the inhabitants and loss of
In realization of the urgent need for Char
Stabilization in some of the char villages in
Assam, CASA, after internal discussions and
dialogue with the affected communities,
initiated char stabilization work under the
ECHO/DCA funded flood rehabilitation
programme in Barpeta district of Assam.
The objective was to protect the habitated
chars from erosion with cost effective
measures by adopting local knowledge and
encouraging people’s involvement in the
whole process. Government models for
erosion control were studied, but the
people rejected these models due to their
technical sophistication, high cost, very
limited scope for community involvement
and also limited scope for local level
In consultation with a technical expert, CASA adopted the strategy to
develop a people’s
model of Char Stabilization using a combination of A‐Type bamboo
spur, bamboo tripod
and sand bags which was further strengthened through plantation of
deep rooted local
varieties of trees along the banks of the river. This was a technically
feasible model
developed from a traditional design and could be easily replicated with
locally available
Fig: Char areas in Assam
Fig: Erosion of Chars in Assam
resources and little involvement of technocrats. These structures help
in diverting water
current, reducing the speed of undercurrent and also helps in inducing
sand deposition.
These models were implemented on three char islands in Barpeta
district and are
proving to be successful in controlling erosion. There was a high level
of community
involvement and ownership in the char stabilization intervention, which
was extremely
heartening and remarkable.
Michael Gowen ‐ Deputy Head of Unit, Brussels & Yassine Gaba ‐
Technical Assistant,
India Office, who were members of the ECHO mission to the field
areas of CASA’s flood
rehabilitation programme in Assam said …
• The flood rehabilitation intervention was well justified
• The quality of the work undertaken was found to be good
• Community contingency plans developed as part of the DRR initiates
extremely impressive and felt that the overall model could be
• Community mobilization and participation was extremely good
• The lessons learnt workshop organized by DCA & CASA was a good
concept and
could be tried with other ECHO partners.
Fig: Char Stabilization structures in Assam under the DCA-ECHO flood rehabilitation
In the year 2007, 25 out of 27 districts of Assam were affected by the
floods. The large
scale erosion of land, due to the changes in flow of the river
Brahmaputra and its
tributaries in various districts such as Guma and Mandia Block in
Barpeta, left people
with no shelter or livelihood base.
During the post flood situation, the poor and marginalised families
were finding it hard
to recover from the losses, restore houses and livelihood without
external support.
There were serious concerns for basic survival among the beneficiaries
and the grief
over losses of valued and meaningful possessions was tremendous.
Apart from this fear
and anxiety about personal safety and the physical safety of the family
members was
significant. Concerns about relocation and the related isolation had
psychological pressure among the beneficiaries and hence increased
their vulnerability
to diseases and resulted in increased spending on health.
In the absence of concrete Government plans for rehabilitation of the
affected people
CASA planned a rehabilitation project to link the people to
opportunities for restoration
which was supported by ECHO / DCA.
Conscious effort was taken to ensure that, the people who were most
marginalized and
excluded from mainstream development programs and post disaster
relief interventions
and had very limited capacity to claim their rights and entitlements,
were given top
priority. These beneficiaries were mainly from the Muslim community
and many were
migrants from within and outside the region who had no recourse but
to eke out a living
on the flood plains and riverine islands. In most cases they lacked
proper identity
documents and were exploited on account of their lack of legal status.
From within this
group preference was given to marginal and landless farmers, women
households, aged, infirm and people who were recently displaced and
people with very
minimal access to basic services.
The majority of the existing houses were made of bamboo splits,
reinforced mud walls
with bamboo pillars and straw roofing on bamboo frames, which did
not have enough
height and ventilation. These houses were not durable and vulnerable
to floods and
constant soil erosion. The people living on the banks of the river
Brahmaputra and its
tributaries such as the Manas, Beki in Barpeta district were under
constant threat of
erosion. The local situation did not permit shifting to safer places.
There was no other
option for most of them but to continue living in that area. In view of
this peculiar
situation, a very innovative housing design was planned and
implemented by CASA
under ECHO/DCA funded flood rehabilitation programme.
Before commencing the project, CASA sponsored a DCA funded study
in partnership
with Sphere India to explore various shelter designs, appropriate in the
prone areas of Assam, and also suitable for the absolute poor. The
study was
undertaken with active consultation of the communities.
The shelter design of this ECHO/DCA
project was based on the recommendations
of the study. The materials provided were
meant for improved traditional houses.
These materials consisted of pre‐cast
concrete pillars, bamboo mats for flooring
and bamboo rafters with CGI sheet roofing.
There was provision to raise the floor level
during flood with bamboo rafters and
bamboo mats (Gadhoi) which in normal
time served as ceiling. The ceiling had the
provision to be lowered to required height
as per the flood level to enable shelter for
the family.
The houses were constructed in such
fashion that in the case of severe
flooding or imminent erosion, they could
be dismantled easily and temporally
shifted for safekeeping and put back
when it was feasible on a location that
was available without significant
involvement of cash or without going to
local vendors for loan. This has greatly
reduced the recurring financial burden of
the beneficiaries who are now diverting
the savings to take up secondary
livelihood activities.
A total number of 530 families were assisted with house building
materials and 20
person‐days of Food and Cash for Work for the labour component
under this ECHO/DCA

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