Vol. 5 Num 1137 Fri. August 10, 2007  

Straight Talk
Ten thousand whispering and nobody listening

The flooding that we periodically suffer and are in the midst of right now are a poignant illustration of both the best and the worst in us as a people and as a nation.

The courage and strength that is shown by those unfortunate souls who see their homes and possessions washed away, leaving them penniless and empty-handed, as they migrate to higher ground desperately in search of food and shelter is one of the wonders of the world.

Bangladeshis are at our best at times of adversity (possibly a good thing, seeing that facing adversity seems to be our default condition) and never is this more apparent than when witnessing the fortitude and resilience of the flood refugees.

The quiet dignity with which the legions of the dispossessed set about uncomplainingly rebuilding their shattered lives is a heart-breaking and extraordinary lesson to the rest of us and a reminder of the steel that runs down the spine of the country.

The floods bring out the best in almost all of us. People from all walks of life work together to raise money and provide food, clothing, and shelter to the distressed. The way Bangladeshis typically pull together at troubled times such as these shows what we can accomplish when we are all working hand in hand for the common good.

Everyone from political party workers to government officials to NGO workers to the men and women of the armed forces plays their role. The civil administration is busy day and night. The business community steps up to the plate. The NRB community is second to none in raising funding and awareness.

We pull together and the worst is averted. In the past decade there have been two major floods, in 1998 and 2004, and the nation has pulled together and survived them both. In both cases the government of the day did a good job.

No, in many ways, despite the opportunists and predators who exploit human misery to enrich themselves at the expense of the dispossessed (and there are sadly, enough of them in the country, too), and who are thick on the ground at times such as these, floods bring out the best in us as a nation, and I have no doubt that the Bangladeshi people will all rise to the challenge again.

But floods also bring out the worst in us as a nation and as a people.

There are those, as I have just mentioned, who see these and other kinds of human tragedies as nothing more than an opportunity for themselves. Relief is snatched, lands are grabbed, and the homeless and hungry find themselves further dispossessed and taken advantage of.

However, the actions of a predatory few who feed on tragedy and exploitation is not what I am referring to, principally.

The noble and unstinting relief work that is done after the fact notwithstanding, the mere fact that floods of this magnitude continue to occur every few years and that we have no long-term national policy in place to avert -- not deal with or handle or manage -- such catastrophe tells us volumes about our priorities as a nation.

Now, we can say that Bangladesh is a victim of its geography and climatic conditions and that there is nothing we can do to avert flooding during seasons of heavy monsoon rainfall, and to a certain extent this is true.

Much of the problem is not of our making and there are limits to what we can do to avert massive flooding every few years. But, that said, there is much more that we could do that we have not done and are not doing.

Yes, we are a low-lying delta, and, yes, we are irretrievably flood prone, but there is much that we can do to so that it floods less frequently and much that we can do to minimise the fallout once floods do happen.

There are many reason for the flooding, and many are beyond our control. There is not much we can do about logging and deforestation in upstream countries, and there isn't much we can do about climatic changes that mean more rainfall every year.

But we can do something about the network of canals and waterways that have been filled up over the years so that the natural drainage channels for river water are clogged up and the water levels keep rising.

There is plenty we can do before the monsoon season to ensure that excess silt does not build up -- another factor in rising water levels.

We can devote serious resources to beefing up embankments and cutting channels to ensure that the river waters can flow rapidly down to the sea with a minimum of overspill.

There is plenty we can do to build affordable housing so that the poorest of the poor do not find themselves with nowhere to seek shelter other than the most flood-prone and vulnerable plots of land.

How much of our resources have we put into this kind of effort? What money have we spent on solving the flooding problem when we compare it to the money we have spent on other things such as beautification of Dhaka city? What steps have been taken to bring to book and outlaw the activities of rapacious developers and their collaborators in the administration who are responsible for the drainage and filling in of wetlands and water bodies the length and breadth of the country?

The very least we can do as a people, surely, is to ensure that the poorest among us are saved the misery and degradation of having their meager worldly possessions swept away every few years, leaving them with nothing.

And it is the poorest among us who get hurt the most. The landless who have to build on embankments or the flood plains or in areas adjacent to waterways because there is nowhere else for them to go.

And therein lies the real reason we have done so little. These people have no voice, no power, no rights that any government has ever seen the need to respect, nothing.

And so we forget about them. Every few years or so there is a flood and the dispossessed come streaming into the cities to seek shelter and sustenance. Like I said, we do a tolerable job of dealing with the crisis, but then, when the flood waters have receded, and with them the crowds of homeless camping on the city pavements, we cast them from our minds until the next catastrophe hits.

Zafar Sobhan is Assistant Editor, The Daily Star.