Home   |  Issues  |  The Daily Star Home | Thursday, August 16, 2007

By Reggie

Floods are hardly new in Bangladesh. Floods aren't unseen natural disasters which strike within seconds and cause destruction on a massive scale. In fact most type of floods, with the exception of “Flash Floods” which does not take place in Bangladesh, are predictable and cause damage over a long period of time. This implies that there is more time for emergency measures to be implemented to reduce the damage caused. Yet in Bangladesh, annual flooding has been causing massive damages ever since our independence. Every year floods leave the entire country devasted.

Hasty emergency measures are taken after the flood already inundates vast areas of land and maroon millions of people. In every case we are left chasing the damage, instead of actively trying to prevent it. It's almost as if, the attitude is, floods will happen. So let's just wait and see when it occurs and then control the damage. Needless to say, that is the wrong approach to follow.

Since independence Bangladesh has seen nine major floods (1974, 1980, 1984, 1987, 1988, 1993, 1998, 2000, 2004 and in 2007). According to Md. Khalequzzaman, Assistant Professor of Geology and Physics in the Georgia Southwestern State University, the general data shows that floods have been increasing in propensity, with the worst flooding seen in 1998 when as much as 68percent of the country was flooded for almost two months.

It is understandable that Bangladesh is a poor nation and so we cannot afford the sophisticated flood prevention system that can be seen in places like the Mississippi Basin, but a small amount of money wasn't spent on our own flood prevention plans. After the 1988 Flood, the government implemented the World Bank sponsored Flood Action Plan (FAP) to find a permanent solution to the recurring flood problem. A large number of studies were performed and it was decided to construct embankments along rivers as a deterrent against major flooding. The BWDB (Bangladesh Water Development Board) spent Tk 1100 Billion or 15.71 Billion Dollars to create a total of 5,695 km of embankments, including 3,433 km in the coastal areas, 1695 flood control/regulating structures and 4,310 km of drainage canals all through out Bangladesh. It seems as if, massive amount of work has been done- but why no results? Why did we, after spending 15 billion dollars in flood prevention, still saw 70percent of the country drowning underwater in 1998? How come that even this year, almost 7 million people are marooned and 38 out of 64 districts in Bangladesh are flooded? How come we still donot have an effective disaster management plan? How come diseases are still so rampant, the people are still marooned and water still in short supply when we had 30 years of experience in the matter? Clearly something is not being done right.

Dr. Khalequzzaman in his study claims that embankments and other physical measures to control flood creates more problems than solutions. Embankments are very prone to failures and this has occurred a various number of times in Bangladesh. Soil based embankments are prone to erosion and during large floods can fail dramatically. Physical barriers obstruct the proper flow of water and often prevent it from draining away. It seems as if in Bangladesh, everything has been done to stop the water from entering. But nothing has been thought of as to how to remove the water, once it did enter. Dr Mohammad Ali Bhuyian, a BUET Professor, in a Star Weekend Magazine interview also echoes this sentiment. He particularly criticized the building of roads in Bangladesh, saying that while the government has shown plenty of enthusiasm into building roads around the country, there has been no central thought process or strategy as to the effect the road network has on flooding. There are precious few drainage around the roads which means often water is obstructed from draining away naturally.

One solution to effectively manage the flow of water to mitigate duration of flooding is to dredge the rivers. Dredging is a controversial procedure where the river beds are removed of sediment to increase depth. This can increase the carrying capacity of the river and lead to improved drainage during annual floods. Another solution is to create buffer zones beside rivers which can act as flood plains to hold residue water during floods. The problem in Bangladesh is that floods while it may be a curse, is economically important. Andrew Gould says floods shouldn't be tried to be prevented but accepted as it is and its harmful effects mitigated, because the subsistence of the farmers depends on it. Hence a variety of other measures can be taken such as the concept of “social adjustment”.

The government can take steps to improving and more importantly broadcasting meteorological forecasts such as when the flood is expected to occur, the level of water etc, so that people can better prepare themselves. A better emergency evacuation plan has to be formulated. High Concrete Structures must be erected in every village where the villagers can be evacuated to. Furthermore a good distribution system is a must to distribute the necessities as quickly as possible. There also has been a talk of educating farmers about how to plant crops properly so that there is minimum damage by floods.

More ambitious plans are to introduce new zoning laws in Bangladesh which can help mitigate the effects of floods. The lack of zoning laws can be seen acutely in Dhaka which suffers from terrible flooding every time one occurs. One needs to just open the TV to see the appalling condition in which flood affected urbanites are now living in. The thought of spending your entire day perched in a bed with black, stinking water on the floor, must be unbearable to most of you. As Bangladesh develops and more cities spring up, it is apparent that if the example of Dhaka is followed, the city dwellers will face acute misery during floods. The problem in Dhaka is that land is being used for development purposes without though to being used as water reservoirs. The drains which are created are ancient and extremely ineffective in both removing wastes and excess water. Dr. Bhuiyan admits that embankments are required but so are better drainage system, such as storm sewers or pump based drains as opposed to gravity based drains to mitigate flooding problems in Dhaka.

This year’s flood has seen that everyone from the ordinary Bengali to the corporations, business bodies, NGOs and Academics to rise up and extend their hands to help the flood victims. Clearly the spirit is there. All we need is foresight and wise planning and only then can we yield the vast power of the annual floods.



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