The Brahmaputra is like no other river on earth. Traveling nearly 3000 kilometers, across three countries — China, India, and Bangladesh — and over lands of several religions, it falls over 2500 meters from the high plateau of Tibet to the plains of India. Here it travels flat and wide — 18 kilometers (12 miles) at its widest, as it wends its way to the meet the Bay of Bengal at the mangrove delta of the Sundarbans.
When the river exits the mountains into the plains of Assam and broadens, floodplains flank its banks. These areas are the food bowls of the state of Assam in northeast India. The region is flooded each year as the Brahmaputra swells with monsoon rains. These floods bring essential silt and sediment down from the mountains to fertilize the fields, replenish natural fish stock in the river, and refill lakes and wetlands. But lately, these same floods have been branded a nuisance and the river is seen as something to be “tamed.” Through misguided engineering and building on floodplains, the original cycle of flood and food crop has been disrupted. Fish-stocks have plummeted 85-90% in the river, upstream deforestation, and riverine dykes have cause the river to change behavior, devastating instead of replenishing the food bowls.
As a result, this region now sees a massive out-migration due to lost livelihoods and environmental degradation.
I had been on the road for two weeks, following the river through a narrow gorge from the point at which it entered India from China to where it exited the mountains and opened out onto the plains.
I woke at 4AM that morning for a long cab drive to a ferry that would take me across the river. From there, I would pile into a communal cab that would take me to the airport in time for my flight home. A low mist — a gleo — hung in the pre-dawn-light, obscuring almost everything except its ghostly white glow. As the sun was about to break over the horizon, the sky turned from an indigo to a stunning fiery tangerine, silhouetting a few trees above the wispy blue-grey mist. I gawked, rubber-necking as the road curved away from the scene and towards the river. On a whim, I asked the cab driver to halt. I jumped out, ran back, and set up the shot over a turnstile. A man, huddled under a traditional loom-woven shawl gave me a quizzical look as he passed me by, making his way across the field. I waited till he came into my camera’s field of view.