On the days when it is calm, the Brahmaputra resembles an impossibly wide silvery sheet of water, rippling mile after mile through the northeast Indian state of Assam. But when it rages, the world’s fourth-largest river by volume of discharge, is a savage horror, swallowing up entire islands, submerging villages, and wreaking havoc along its meandering course.
This year alone, nearly two million people have been affected by the worst floods in over a decade. The Brahmaputra has swept away 2,800 villages and inundated 200,000 hectares of farmland. More than 30 people have died.
The flooding has become an annual ritual for many—in particular, the three million people who live on the riverine islands known as saporis. In remote settlements, with little or no access to basic services, these sapori-dwellers live and die by the Brahmaputra.
In recent years, however, a small fleet of 15 boats has been bringing basic healthcare services to some of these saporis. In June, I spent two days on one of these boats, the MV Akha, travelling upstream from Dibrugarh.
This is what I saw of Assam’s shifting islands.