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World's largest river island washing away under flood waters

It may be the largest river island in the world but it is steadily shrinking – eroded by the Brahmaputra river in which it is situated. Efforts to preserve the island and halt the erosion, caused by the glacial flood waters of the Himalayas, have been unco-ordinated and – say critics – ineffective.

Now the authorities are staking their hopes that having the island of Majuli listed as a World Heritage Site can bring about the focus and the funds needed to help save the culturally rich island.

"If it is listed as a World Heritage Site, there will be a co-ordinated management plan. The state and federal authorities will be obliged to prevent the erosion," said Diganta Gogoi, project director with the Majuli Island Protection and Development Council.

This week, the Indian government submitted an application to Unesco, requesting that Majuli, in the north-eastern state of Assam, be listed for special status under the "cultural landscape" category. The UN body has in turn asked the Indian authorities to provide them with a risk-preparedness strategy, outlining how it planned to save the island.

The island – formed by a change of course by the Brahmaputra – has a long and rich history and is considered a centre of Vaishnavite Hindu culture, whose followers worship the god Vishnu. The island is home to more than 30 satras or monasteries, many of which house irreplaceable collections of writings, antiques and masks.

But the island is fast disappearing. In 1950 it was around 1,256 sq km but by 1990 it had shrunk to about half that size. Since 1990 up to 35 villages have been washed away and some reports suggest the island could disappear within as little as 20 years.

"The erosion problem is everywhere," said K N Dikshit, general secretary of the Delhi-based Indian Archaeological Society. "There are many historical artefacts and paintings. If the island is not preserved it will all disappear."

Majuli's people are also suffering as the land slowly disappears. Worst affected are those who try to eke out a livelihood on the edge of the river. Most of these people belong to the Mishing clan and, as their land and villages have disappeared, so they have been transformed from farmers into labourers. Reports from Majuli say that many of these communities are living in dire conditions.

"The main problem is that the Brahmaputra is a massive river. During the high flood season the discharge of water is enormous," said S Jagannatana, secretary to Assam's governor, Lt-Gen Ajay Singh. "The soil on the edge of the island is very loose – it's all alluvial silt."

The central government has set aside around £10m to fund measures to try to prevent the erosion. These have included concrete barriers placed in the river to try to divert the water and measures to strengthen the embankments of the island.

But local people say these steps have made little difference and that the land from which they try to survive continues to disappear, sometimes requiring them to move overnight. Their lives have become a constant struggle to find a piece of land that seems stable – at least for a while.