Bangladesh is once again in the grip of a flood. By now, about 27 northern and central districts have been engulfed with flood water.
According to one estimate about a third of the country is currently affected by flood and has marooned about 5.7 million people to date. In the past weeks, monsoon rain continued pouring in and consequently overflowing the rivers in Bangladesh as well as the upstream hilly regions of neighbouring countries. Flood at the individual level always have devastating effects on peoples’ lives, livelihoods and assets. On the other hand, at the national level, it creates havocs with infrastructures, institutions (by now 3000 educational institutions have been closed down) and establishments of national importance. All these have cumulative adverse affects on the national economy as a whole and the livelihoods especially of the flood affected people.
Bangladesh is a delta and well known for prone to flooding due to being situated in the midst of the three of the world’s mightiest river systems. Historical records suggest that in the 19th century, six major floods were recorded: 1842, 1858, 1871, 1875, 1885 and 1892. Eighteen major floods occurred in the 20th century. Those of 1951, 1987, 1988 and 1998 were of catastrophic consequences. The floods of 1987 affected 57,300 km of land. The 1988 flood inundated about 82,000 km of land. Rainfall together with very high flows of all the three major rivers of the country aggravated the flood situation. In 1998, over 75% of the total area of the country was flooded, including half of the capital city. It was similar to the catastrophic flood of 1988 in terms of the extent of the flooding. A combination of heavy rainfall within and outside the country and associate peak flows of the major rivers were also responsible for such severe flood. However, there are several types of floods that occur regularly in Bangladesh, affecting different areas in their own distinct ways. These are flash floods, monsoon floods during monsoon season, normal bank floods from the major rivers, and rain-fed floods, etc.
Over the years, several initiatives including researches and studies were undertaken to study the causes and nature of flood in Bangladesh and to prepare guidelines, programmes and projects for controlling it. The most elaborate and comprehensive was Flood Action Plan (FAP). The FAP was initiated based on several earlier studies of different development partners. The FAP included 29 different components of which 11 were regional, with some pilot projects, and the rest were supporting studies on issues like Environment, Fisheries, Geographic Information System, Socio-economic studies, Topographic Mapping, River Survey, Flood Modeling, Flood Proofing, Flood Response, etc. The aim of the FAP was to set the foundation of a long-term programme for achieving a permanent and comprehensive solution to the flood problem. The World Bank coordinated the preparation of a flood action plan. For long-term comprehensive flood control programme six broad principles for flood protection were adopted and for all future planning 11 guiding principles were developed by the of FAP. These were (1) Phased implementation of a comprehensive Floodplain aimed at: protecting rural infrastructure and controlled flooding to meet the needs of agriculture, fisheries, navigation, urban flushing and annual recharge of surface and groundwater resources; (2) Effective land and water management in protected and unprotected areas; (3) Measures to strengthen flood preparedness and disaster management; (4) Improvements of flood forecasting and early warning; (5) Safe conveyance of the large cross border flows to the Bay of Bengal by channeling it through the major rivers with the help of embankments on both sides; (6) River training to protect embankments and urban centers; (7) Reduction of flood flows in the major rivers by diversion into major distributaries and flood relief channels; (8) Channel improvements and structures to ensure efficient drainage and to promote conservation and regulation; (9) Floodplain zoning where feasible and appropriate; (10) Coordinated planning and construction of all rural roads, highways and railways embankments with provision for unimpeded drainage; (11) Encourage popular support by involving beneficiaries in the planning, design and operation of flood control and drainage works. However, widespread controversies exist among water resource planners for finding a solution to the flood problems in Bangladesh including those suggested by the FAP.
In spite of the implementation of many of the recommendations of the FAP, in recent times, the frequency of devastating floods has increased than before. The heavy monsoon rain and over flowing of the major rivers are overwhelmingly looked at to be the primary causes of these floods. But some other factors need to be considered as well. Some of these include change in the base level of the rivers, sediment accumulation on flood plains, decrease of the depth of river beds due to siltation, deforestation in the upstream region, and faster rate of growth and development including population growth putting pressure on the natural resources and global warming and climate change. All these and other factors have changed the nature, commencement and duration of floods in Bangladesh causing immense human sufferings and also derailing the process of development to a great extent.
In the realities mentioned above which also include the associated phenomenon of climate change it is perceived that now we need to accept the fact that Bangladesh needs to live with flood. However, minimizing human sufferings and loss of lives and assets at the individual level as well at the national level for continuing the faster pace of development by protecting important infrastructures well conceived ensuring inclusiveness mitigation measures are to taken. Increasing flood preparedness is another measure that will ensure minimum loss of lives and assets and reduce human sufferings. In this area, regional cooperation is also essential as the rivers flowing through Bangladesh are international rivers and it is a lower riparian country.
The writer is Professor and Chairman, Department of Public Administration, University of Dhaka, and Member, National Human Rights Commission, Bangladesh.
Information sources are acknowledged with gratitude