The Brahmaputra is sacred to the Assamese, even though the river lashes out with angry waves every monsoon and washes away their homes and cattle. The people appease it with love and compassion.

This year, however, the State is on tenterhooks like never before. Covid-19 cases are steadily rising at a time when the monsoon has announced its arrival and waves of flooding that result in annual devastation are a matter of days away.

Golaghat district was one of the worst affected in the aftermath of the 2017 floods. Nikori village, which lies at the confluence of two tributaries, Gelabill and Dhansiri, is severely impacted by floods and also soil erosion. In 2016, erosion destroyed over 40 shelters, including two schools. Besides damage to property, it brought with it a host of health problems. Villagers were compelled to defecate in the open, over the flood waters. The same water was used for drinking and daily needs, leading to the spread of cholera, typhoid, malaria and dengue.

Moreover, as villages became water-logged it was impossible for people to navigate 15 km by boat to reach the health centre. Education too was disrupted with schools closed.

SEEDS of change

But this time around, the region’s traditional wisdom holds out hope, and its famous bamboo-based culture symbolises the resilience of its people.

SEEDS, a non-profit with expertise in architectural design in accordance with local culture and resources. has been working with affected families to provide housing support, community sanitation and drinking water since 2016. In Golaghat, it partnered the North-East Affected Area Development Society (NEADS) to build 80 bamboo houses as part of a community-driven flood-response programme.

The idea to design and build houses with contemporary vernacular architecture came from several studies, assessments and interviews to understand the pattern of recurrent floods and native knowledge systems to combat them.

The lure of fancy advertising, celebrity endorsements and herd mentality had created a web of aspirations that drove housing choices — giving them a modern identity but not one that could safeguard them from natural calamities.

The vernacular architectural typology of stilt houses built with bamboo was a project supported by local leaders even though not all residents signed up immediately. Dimbeshwar Bori, 55, emerged as a local champion in the Goromari community. One of the first “converts”, he worked closely with the SEEDS team to build his house after it was ravaged during the floods. Being physically challenged, his biggest issue was the toilet. He had taken to open defecation since his toilet was rendered non-operational. There were times he took his boat to cross over to a higher surface to find a private spot for defecation. Bori was forced to relocate to Kamargaon village to stay with his brother for some time. Any step that would reduce his anguish was hope for him. The new shelter resolved the issue and became a lifeline. He is now a volunteer and influencer, working with the on-ground team, helping with cutting and splitting bamboo and building thatch walls for those signing up for the programme.

As they like it

A participatory approach ensured that homeowners had a say in the whole process. A team of architects worked with local families to come up with a hybrid housing design combining modern technology with traditional architecture. The layout of the house was simple and multi-purpose, supporting their lifestyles and the stilts high enough to provision for day-to-day activities like weaving, rearing livestock and storing boats. A semi-open verandah provided for social interaction, food preparation and basket weaving.

Homeowners added their own aesthetics and customised spaces. Families slowly started stepping forward to extend support in construction work and contribute labour in the actual building of the houses. Each house was built through a long-standing ‘hariya’ system under which all villagers come together to contribute labour to whoever’s house is being built and the homeowner family feeds them. Also, materials are sourced from within a 6-km radius, making the entire structure truly local. As part of the plan, a 23-sq m core house built atop stilts was designed following sphere humanitarian standards for disaster response. Its high stilts helped cope with the annual flooding while its flexible joinery system facilitated homeowners to shift the floor higher, in case of over-flooding. Bamboo grows abundantly here and specific species suitable for construction were chosen.

As communities began to live in the new houses, their experiences were observed and modifications made. For example, stilt bamboo columns were waterproofed with rubberised coating; cross-bracings were introduced and indigenous tying techniques with rattan (a fibrous climbing plant, the stems of which are used to bind pieces of furniture) and bamboo dowels made the structure resistant to lateral forces during floods and earthquakes. The stilts were reinforced with concrete to provide a firm foundation to stay strong if submerged for a few days.

According to Dr Manu Gupta and Dr Anshu Sharma, Co-Founders of SEEDS, “This is exactly how things were done centuries ago. We have only brought back indigenous construction techniques, creating a built-environment exclusive to the terrain. Unfortunately, due to haphazard development and aspirational values, this got lost, leading to an unsafe environment, loss of lives and livelihoods.”

The writer is a freelance journalist