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Ephemeral Islands: Access to energy in the char regions of Assam

It is the monthly immunization day, and Salma Khatun is waiting for the boat to come take her across the Brahmaputra to Ramhari Char. She holds in one hand an ice box, filled with vaccines she will be administering later that day, and on the other, an umbrella, to protect herself from the fierce summer sun. Salma is a nurse at the only health center in Ramhari Char, an unelectrified island village, one of the many scattered throughout the vast Brahmaptura. In the absence of electricity and storage at the village, health workers like Salma travel to the mainland on the first Wednesday of every month to collect vaccines for immunizing children back at her health center.

Chars are riverine islands in the Brahmaputra formed through silt deposits. Life in the char is defined by the mighty river. People depend on the river for food, water, livelihoods and transportation. Most households depend on the river for their daily fish, cultivation of crops like sugarcane and vegetables, and for growing, soaking and drying jute.

Jute Harvest being transported by boat.
Jute Harvest being transported by boat. Photo by Auro Shashwat/WRI India

Farmer harvesting reeds
Farmer harvesting reeds. Photo by Amala Devi/WRI India

Sugarcane harvest transported by boat
Sugarcane harvest transported by boat. Photo by Amala Devi/WRI India

During monsoons, many chars get partially or fully submerged by the flooded river, forcing their residents to move to higher ground. To cope with this, most houses are made of materials like bamboo that can be easily dismantled or are built on stilts. The monsoon floods also affect all infrastructure in its path, including buildings like schools and hospitals. Most char villages remain unconnected to the electric grid as their unique terrain makes grid extension unfeasible.

A pair of buffaloes watch as the char land washes away
A pair of buffaloes watch as the char land washes away. Photo by Namrata Ginoya/WRI India

The river Inches closer every year
The river Inches closer every year. Photo by Namrata Ginoya/WRI India

The lack of electricity brings with it a lack of access to the most basic services - be it lighting after dark, electric fans for the hot and sultry afternoons, or running water for toilets.

Handheld Pankhas (fans), the only respite from the sweltering heat
Handheld Pankhas (fans), the only respite from the sweltering heat. Photo by Amala Devi/WRI India

Ramhari char Subcenter: Handpump inside the kitchen for easy access.
Ramhari char Subcenter: Handpump inside the kitchen for easy access. Photo by Amala Devi/WRI India

Nurses like Salma look after their patients in dark and dingy health centers, managing with limited supplies as they are unable to stock essential medicines and vaccines that require refrigeration. During monsoons, when health centers get submerged, medical emergencies must be transported to the mainland via boat.

Ramhari char subcenter
Ramhari char subcenter. Photo by Amala Devi/WRI India

Ice box for storage of medicines and vaccines
Ice box for storage of medicines and vaccines. Photo by Auro Shashwat/WRI India

The situation, however, is changing slowly, with the arrival of decentralized renewable energy solutions. Markets in the mainland have started selling small solar panels, that can power lights, fans and mobile chargers.

Bahati char: Solar panel for household lighting.
Bahati char: Solar panel for household lighting. Photo by Amala Devi/WRI India

Small solar panels have also been installed in some schools, providing students the much-needed lighting and fans.

Bahati char: Madrasa with solar power.
Bahati char: Madrasa with solar power. Photo by Amala Devi/WRI India

Some larger char villages are even investing in microgrids. Farmers donate a part of their land for the setting up of solar panels, the electricity from which is then transmitted to every house and establishment in the char through local distribution poles and wires.

Micro-grid in Dhubri.
Micro-grid in Dhubri. Photo by Amala Devi/WRI India

Solar powered boat clinics are being introduced by Centre for North East Studies and Policy Research and National Health Mission serve the health needs of the char population. These boats carry medical professionals and supplies to remote char villages for regular check-ups and vaccinations.

Boat Clinic.
Boat Clinic. Photo by Amala Devi/WRI India

While decentralized renewable energy provides many opportunities for villagers in the region, the remoteness and inaccessibility result in inadequate maintenance. There is a need for innovative implementation and financing models that learn from the local adaptation mechanisms of the char people.

Char residents crossing the river with their motorbikes.
Char residents crossing the river with their motorbikes. Photo by Amala Devi/WRI India

Please note: Names and identifying details have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals.

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