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Bangladesh Needs to Shore up Its Flood Defence

The premises of a school inundated by floodwater. Shibaloy in Manikganj district, Bangladesh. Credit: Farid Ahmed/ IPS

DHAKA, Sep 20 2017 (IPS) - Bangladesh is a disaster-prone country with floods hitting almost every year, leaving a trail of destruction despite having early warning systems. Now experts say it is time for the delta nation to think more seriously about how to deal with the recurring onslaughts of floods more effectively by strengthening its flood defence.

The recent severe floods in the country have killed over 140 people and displaced nearly 8 million and damaged some 100,000 houses. It also caused colossal damages to crops, forcing the government to go for the import of huge rice. Many flood-affected families in temporary shelters in the country’s northwest are still hesitating to return to their homes as hunger looms large.

On August 28 last, the Food Minister Quamrul Islam informed the country’s cabinet that 2 million tonnes of rice and wheat need to be imported to keep the market stable until January next year as the same amount of rice has been damaged by the floods in haor areas, creating an ‘unusual situation’ in the rice market.

The government has already started importing rice. Over 600,000 metric tonnes (mts) of rice have been imported from India under private arrangement, 250,000 mts from Vietnam. Besides, a process is underway to import 250,000 mts from Cambodia.

More than 5.7 million people in 27 districts have been affected while crops on 468,000 hectares damaged in the floods, according to government data.

The United Nations has said long-term food supplies are at risk in Bangladesh with so much farmland now ruined by floods.

Now experts say Bangladesh must take the flood issue more seriously as it is affected by climate change.

While talking to IPS, AKM Saiful Islam, a professor of the Institute of Water and Flood Management (IWFM) at Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology (Buet), said, “As a flood vulnerable country, Bangladesh should take this issue much more seriously than the past. Due to global warming and climate change, flood peak magnitude will be much higher in the future (at the end of the century) with respect the historic peak floods.”

These humble homes, located on a ‘char’ in northern Bangladesh, were half-submerged by severe floods in August that left many river island-dwellers homeless. Credit: Naimul Haq/IPS

He says human interventions in natural river systems, and the changes in the land-use pattern of their catchments make the hill slope steeper, and Bangladesh rivers are now carrying large amounts of sediments than ever before, causing frequent and destructive floods. “Urbanisation generates more runoff while encroachment of wetlands and embankment confine flood water inside the river channel which raises the flood peak. Moreover, excess sediments raise the bed level and further exacerbate the flood conditions,” Saiful added.

Citing a recent study of Buet conducted under a collaborative research project entitled ‘High-End Climate Impact and Extremes (HELIX)’ funded by the European Union under the Seventh Framework Programme FP7/2007-2013, he says the floods in the Brahmaputra river basin of having 100-year return periods will carry more than 10%, 17%, and 24% more discharge during the 2020s (2011-2040), 2050s (2041-2070) and 2080s (2071-2100) than the pre-industrial periods (1851-1880).

“We’ve already observed that the 2017 floods broke the historic record crossing the danger levels in several stations of many tributaries of the Brahmaputra-Jamuna river systems such as Bahdurabad in Jamuna, Mohadevepur in Atrai, Badarganj in Jamuneswari, Kurigram in Dharala and Dalia in the Teesta. Due to sea level rise, the flood conditions might be prolonged in the future. As the water holding capacity of the atmosphere will be increasing with the rise of temperature, it is expected that more intense rainfall and flooding will be observed in the South Asia in the future under the changing climate,” he said.

Bangladesh has its own flood forecasting system. At present, Flood Forecasting and Warning Center (FFWC) of Bangladesh Water Development Board providing five days’ deterministic flood forecast and early warnings. Early warning messages were delivered by FFWC through email, SMS, website, fax to the concerned Ministries and government organizations like the Department of Disaster Management (DDM), Deputy Commissioners offices and Department of Agricultural Extensions. DDM has a role to disseminate flood warnings to the district, upazila (sub-district) and union levels through the heads of respective disaster management committees.

The current forecasting system is helpful in some ways, said Prof Saiful. He, however, stated that there is scope to improve this system and make the early warning user-friendly to the flood vulnerable communities.

The flood forecasting and early warning, he said, can be improved in a number of ways:
Establishing a High Computing National Centers like National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) in the USA composed of both meteorologist and hydrologist as an Independent Entity of the government; the signing of hydro-met data sharing protocol during flood season with neighboring countries; developing basin-wise flood forecast modeling including China, India, Nepal, and Bhutan; and developing a community-based early warning system in which warnings will be provided in a language which local people can understand.

Echoing Prof Islam, Mohammad Harun Ar Rashid, Deputy Secretary, Management and Information Monitoring (MIM) said, “Bangladesh has to think seriously about the long-term strategy regarding floods. Its flood control programme has been so far dominated by the embankment approach. According to this approach, it’s necessary to cordon off areas in order to protect them from flooding. Therefore, under this approach, the goal of flood control gets transmitted into that of flood-prevention.”

A classic example of this approach, he said, the Dhaka, Narayanganj, and Demra project, popularly known as DND project. Under this project, a tract of flood plain with Dhaka, Narayanganj, and Demra has been cordoned off from the adjoining Buriganga and Shitalkhya rivers by constructing embankments.

Aiming to deal with the worsening situation, the government in collaboration with the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) has chalked out a six-year Climate Resilient Community Development (CRCD) project in the country’s northwest region with a greater focus on building flood defences for rural communities.

The potential range of interventions of the project include early warning about floods; strengthening community preparedness about floods and climate change by providing information; temporary floods shelter for people and livestock during severe floods, improving productivity and diversity of crops within the limits of quality of soil.

The project also looks for the construction of pre-fabricated modular houses so that they can easily be disassembled and transported; other public structure such as schools and markets can be built in similar fashion, construction of climate resilient rural roads both all-weather and submersible depending on specific locations; developing planned markets, providing irrigation services; promoting public-private investment when issues of natural disasters and connectivity issues are resolved.

With 230 rivers flowing over the country into the Bay of Bengal, Bangladesh is a delta of about 144,000 sq. km. of area and most part of which is low-lying plain land made up of alluvial soil with hills in the southeastern and northeastern parts. Its main rivers are the Padma, the Brahmaputra and the Meghna.

As a world leader in adapting to living with floods, it is time for Bangladesh also explore some newer technologies developed in other parts of the world to shore up their flood defences. “There is a need to think about a long-term solution to it for building a more resilient Bangladesh,” says Prof Saiful.

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