|Bhutan’s Sarbhang Chu river is called the Saralbhanga after it crosses into India to meet the Brahmaputra river|
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.
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