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     Volume 6 Issue 31 | August 10, 2007 |

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Cover Story

Unprepared for a Predictable Disaster

Nader Rahman

“And the waters prevailed exceedingly upon the earth; and all the high hills, that were under the whole heaven, were covered”
--Genesis 7:19

Photo: AFP

In most major religions, cultures and societies around the world there is a tale about a great flood. The stories are all slightly different but the moral remains the same, God (or some higher being) is fed up with the people of the world and the ensuing flood is basically to put them in their place. The most famous story is that of Noah and his ark and that is a story Bangladesh can learn a lot from. When the floods come, pack up your stuff and head for higher ground, but in the great delta very few places can be deemed “higher ground”. What we are left with are disasters of biblical proportions, thousands dead and millions homeless.

This year's floods are a mirror image of every great flood this nation has endured. It would be comforting to say that the rains were out of the ordinary and they hit us without notice but it was nothing outside the usual schedule of things. One might say an unbelievably hot month of May put thoughts of drought rather than floods on our mind, but Bangladesh is used to its changeable weather and for every dry spell there will surely be a deluge. The rains started towards the end of June and then they just did not stop. They went on for weeks but even then it was not very alarming. The nation is well versed on all flood related matters and the lessons of '88 and '98 are never far from our mind. One could sense this year was going to follow the typical flood pattern; rains in the north of the country coupled with severe flooding in India could only spell disaster. The rivers were pregnant with water and then finally almost on cue the water broke, the floods of 2007 were born.

The stories of Bangladesh's floods are quite unremarkable depending on their severity they appear every year, and seemingly year after year the nation is left unprepared for them. Why is that the case? We take for granted that every year flood waters will cover one fifth of Bangladesh and every year we are left ruing those floods, rushing to supply food and water for those who have lost everything. It is either gross negligence or a lack of foresight on the part of the government; it is probably a bit of both.

Dr Mohammad Ali Bhuyian a flood expert and a professor at the Water Resource Department of BUET says, “Bangladesh's location makes flooding a natural phenomenon. The truth of the matter is that there is a lack of planning and coordination from the government. Since the floods of the late 80s many studies have been carried out and the findings of those research initiatives were mixed. They did not fully back embankments and there was even a mini slogan “live with floods”. What came out of it all was strategic embankments. And for the first time drainage was brought to the limelight and was to play a major role in saving many areas from floods.” But while strategic embankments were the way to go forward the issue of drainage took a back seat. In fact one might even say it was swept under the rug. There was to be an all-encompassing method to save the country from floods and that was hailed as embankments.

The eastern part of Dhaka City is not protected by embankments and is open to the elements. Photo: Shafiq Alam

Since the floods of the late 80s, aside from the wide scale use of embankments, the flood warning system has been overhauled and now it works quite effectively. But it serves little or no purpose if the forecasting system works efficiently and millions are still marooned when the floods arrive. Something is missing in that sequence; the forecasting system is better and one can predict floods before they arrive; yet people still suffer. This is where the government needs to step in and fill the void between forecasting floods and saving people.

With the population exponentially increasing over the past 30 or so years the simple fact is that now people live where traditionally floods have taken place. Coupled with that is the fact that government and business installations have increased round the country and gone to remote places, even those need to be saved now.

Dr Bhuyian says, “The fact of the matter is that if the water of the Jamuna goes up 20 feet that will not be a major problem, but in Dhaka if the water rises even 2 feet it will be a huge deal. The floods affect us more now simply because we have more people and business to protect. These floods are not uncommon to this region of the world. We should probably expect them every year, but saving our massive population which has encroached onto every part of this nation, that is a real problem.”

Rain water and drinking water side by side. Photo: Zahidul I. Khan

He goes on to say, “The only option for the towns of Bangladesh is to build embankments. But just as important are the drainage facilities. While an embankment will keep out most of the water from the urban areas of Bangladesh the problem is with all the rainfall some water will enter the embanked areas and there will be rainwater as well. All of that water must properly drain out of the urban areas or else they will remain stagnant and cause serious harm as they are doing now. The problem with our drainage system is that it is gravity-based drainage; as long as the water level outside Dhaka is lower than the drains then the water will be drained. When the floods come and the rivers rise then all our drainage stops and we are left with stagnant water within the city, which is very dangerous.”

Cities have been growing around the country for many years, the problem is that now they cannot be miraculously raised a few feet so that when the floods come they can be saved. That time has passed for such measures; we must now learn to live with the major inherent flaws of the cities. This is when the embankments become of prime importance; the cities cannot be raised so their only defence against the floods are the embankments. Water pumping is also an area that could be better utilised in Bangladesh, although water pumping is quite expensive it should be used in some urban areas where there are no options left. It could save many people from the scourge of water borne diseases.

“The road network around Bangladesh has also a lot to blame for our flooding problems" Dr Bhuiyan explains. "In the last few decades the road network had increased hugely around Bangladesh, but the government has gone about building roads without any planning, study and research. The result is that there is little or no drainage around for the roads built around the country. Water, which could have been drained out in a few days, now lasts weeks. All because floodwater cannot be drained out of our extensive new road network. This shows a real lack of foresight by successive governments, they are ready and willing to build new roads but just won't plan for them properly” says Dr Bhuiyan. His worries are all quite genuine and have been voiced for some time. But is anyone listening?

(Clockwise) The Floods in Sirajganj swept everything in its path. Photo: Syed Zakir Hossain

The most basic method of taking shelter from the rain. Photo: Syed Zakir Hossain

The floods have forced millions of people into makeshift housing. Photo: Zahidul I. Khan

Hospitals are crammed with patients suffering from water borne diseases. Photo: Star

Dredging has been proposed although it remains a controversial topic. Dr Bhuiyan advocates this method: “For many years excess groundwater has been used for irrigation and that has led to rivers dying. The result is as soon as the monsoon comes they are flooded. The rivers to the north and west of Dhaka have lost their water carrying capacity. Many rivers are quite dry for the better part of the year and then the floods come and fill them up. Why is that? Because we take too much water out of the rivers. What we need is to do is dredge those rivers and make them deeper and use less water from them. It will increase the carrying capacity of the rivers and when the floods come they will hold more water and they should not overflow as much as they do now.”

There is more than enough evidence to prove his case. The Bangladesh Inland Water Transport Authority (BIWTA) are mandated to maintain 6000km of waterways within Bangladesh and their budget allocation for dredging is a measly 16 crore taka. The other 18000km of waterways are taken care of by the Bangladesh Water Development Board (BWDB) and they have no budget allocation whatsoever for dredging. These figures should be compared to those of the Roads and Highways Department and the Local Government Engineering Department who together spent roughly 10,000 crores for simply the “maintenance” of the roads around Bangladesh! Within these maintenance costs are obviously the costs of roads damaged by floods and those same roads damaged by floods also need maintenance because they don't have proper drainage. It is a vicious cycle. An ex BIWTA official who refused to be named said “The budget given to us is minute compared to that given to the roads and for the 16 crore we get for dredging we had to fight tooth and nail.”

Dr. Muhammad Ali Bhuiyan

Regarding relief efforts Dr Bhuiyan says, “Floods will always occur but there should be a wide network of local community based organisations to look after the poor people. They should provide water and emergency food rations. In this regard the government is simply not doing enough. Clean water is also always an issue and reservoirs of clean water should be built around the country in flood-prone areas. Along with that they should encourage the building of overhead water tanks. One more step we could take would be to encourage the water manufacturers to help out during floods, maybe by giving them tax breaks.”

With health in mind he says “The vaccines and medicines to treat water borne diseases such as cholera, dysentery, typhoid, jaundice and obviously diarrhoea should be available in stocks in flood prone areas, rather than sending them out there after the floods have started. Sanitation is also a huge problem in rural Bangladesh when the floods roll by. Tube wells are used around the country and when the floods come the water comes by and contaminates them. They should be properly taken care of by taking the tap off and sealing the pipe so as to keep the integrity of its water safe.”

Dr Bhuiyan says the problems are by no means insurmountable but a concerted effort needs to be put in by all concerned. His main worry is with regard to the drainage problems of this country but even if that is miraculously fixed overnight our flood related problems would be flushed away. A flood expert who prefers not to be named also pushed the blame of this year's problems onto the shoulders of the political parties. He says “Political parties and their participation is always important to flood management. They have a mobilisation capacity like none other, which they have not used this year. Usually it is always a fight between political parties trying to outdo each other in providing relief and getting the credit. But this year such alacrity from political parties is not so apparent especially since they cannot conduct their relief efforts under any political banner".

Dr. Ainun Nishat

Renowned flood expert, co-editor of Flood Problem and Management in South Asia and country director of the World Conservation Union also known as IUCN Dr Ainun Nishat has an interesting take on Bangladesh's flood problems. He says, “200 years ago there was always efficient water management. The British came and handed down those duties to the landed gentry aka the zamindars and our problems were created. Since then things have not been the same. What has also not helped in the massive increase in population, people have now moved into the flood plains to live. If that happens of course they will be affected by the floods. The floods have been going on since time immemorial the areas that were traditionally flooded the same areas are flooded now, the only problem is that people live there now. Even more interesting is that before the strain of rice grown could handle floods, now we have all these high yield varieties, which cannot take excess water. This causes some of the food shortages. The problems are all very simple to understand.”

Dr Nishat believes that flood management practices need to be reviewed and human settlements have to be protected specifically urban areas. "Above all we should move from a culture of relief to preparedness", he says.” He adds: “For rural areas if we develop a protective measure it must be effective till the design limit of the infrastructure is exceeded. As far as I have seen that limit has never been exceeded, therefore one could say the suffering has been caused by the failure of the structures. This makes it important to carry out regular maintenance of the infrastructure so that it does not give way. Along with that we should alert people properly about the dangers of flooding where protective walls have not been built.”

He also points to the fact that in many places the protection is quite one sided. The prime example is that of Dhaka where the western part of the city is well embanked but the eastern part of the city has no protective measures. Dr Nishat believes there are ways to deal with the flooding problems of Bangladesh, he says “In 1988 a flood policy was constructed and 11 guiding principles were made, which were later merged to make the national water plan. Those documents should be revisited. There is also a standing order for disaster management and it spells out who should do what. It brings it down to the union and village level, even their tasks are mentioned. That should be looked into again. I personally believe flood management should be dealt with from the lowest possible government institution. Then we can have an effective disaster management policy.” He also adds “There is a need to have strong coordination between all the departments of the governments so that they can perform their duties in full harmony.”

(Clockwise) Walking cattle through the floodwater. Photo: Zahidul I. Khan

Roads around the country have given way to the floods. Photo: Syed Zakir Hossain

water in the house is not an uncommon sight in monsoon. Photo: Zahidul I. Khan

Tube wells exposed to flood water could be very dangerous. Photo: Zahidul I. Khan

For Dr Nishat the only solution is to be properly embanked, in fact he believes we are forced to use embankments because there are no other ways. But embankments come with their own hazards they need to be maintained and money needs to be spent on them, something the government does not follow up on currently. The Dhaka Narayanganj Demra embankment is only failing due to human intervention and the fact that it is not being maintained properly. The flooding problems of Sirajganj are all due to the fact that the embankment protecting the area was damaged in 2004 and since then no repairs were done. This year the floods rolled by and it gave way, all due to human negligence. But for every failure there is a success. The Ganges Kobodak project is functioning perfectly. It was done for flood management and irrigation for Kushtia and Jessore and is doing very well. Currently flood management is delivering goods from a central location, that concept needs to be tuned around. It needs to become more community based; help must not come a few days late from the central government, it needs to be immediate and from the local level.

As Dr Nishat says “Floods have happened for a 1000 years and will continue for another 1000, we desperately need to plan for the future. Peoples lives depend on it.”

A photo journalist recently returned from Sirajganj and explained the pitiful situation there. He said people were living on top of their houses and having meals once every two days there was not a sign of relief help anywhere. Worst of all, the entire place was inundated with snakes. With the floods even the snakes needed dry land to live on and amongst the people living on their roofs there was a very real fear of being bitten by a snake. The Chief Advisor has called on people of all sectors to extend their help in its relief efforts. But managing this present catastrophe, one that we knew was coming, needs a great amount of coordinated work. People have to be reached quickly and given food preferably dry food that does not have to be cooked, doctors and medicine have to reach on time, more shelters have to be available and people have to be moved to them as quickly as possible. Already many precious lives have been lost and unless we act now many more will perish from avoidable mishaps such as drowning, starvation, disease or even a fatal snakebite.


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