Bangladesh is one of the most disaster- prone countries in the world. Natural hazards have been a part of climatic realities of the country. The people of hazardous areas, particularly the poor, live with extreme uncertainties, risk and multifarious vulnerabilities. Bangladesh has a long history of facing hazards such as floods, landslides and river bank erosion in monsoon. Lives, livelihoods, livestock, infrastructures and property are lost in these disasters.
Flood refers to any destructive movement of water on a large scale. It may include flash floods, particularly in higher reaches, inundation resulting from heavy rain, dam collapse, embankment breaches, etc. Every year floods affect the vulnerable areas that go under water 3-4 times. The floods damage property, assets, roads, community affairs, shelter, livestock, crops and trees adding new miseries to the poorest people.
The Bay of Bengal trail of southwest monsoon flows, moves towards northeast India and Bengal, picking up more moisture from the sea from June through September. The winds arrive at the eastern Himalayas with large amounts of rain. Bangladesh and certain regions of India thus frequently experience heavy floods during this season. Given the hydrology, climatic factors and the geology, it is naturally prone to floods. Most of the lands form a delta from three major rivers – Ganges, Brahmaputra and Meghna – and 25 per cent of Bangladesh is less than 1m above sea level. The normal seasonal flooding is beneficial as it provides water for crops in the country. It also helps keep the soil fertile.
Floods are an annual phenomenon with the most severe ones occurring during the months of June to September. Floods cause huge devastation affecting the most impoverished who live on the fringes. For example, the 2007 flooding made 9 million people homeless and approximately 1,000 people died from drowning and diseases. Now-a-days, flooding in urban areas is an unavoidable problem for main cities in Bangladesh. Daily activities in the cities are nearly paralysed and heavy traffic congestions occur due to stagnant water on the streets and unplanned settlements.
Riverbank erosion often accompanies floods which is also a chronic problem in the river basin. It causes families to lose lands leading directly to poverty and forced migration. It increases vulnerability significantly.
Riverbank erosion is a perennial problem in Bangladesh. It displaces over 100,000 people annually with devastating social and poverty impacts along major rivers where poverty is heavily concentrated.
A 1991 study found that 100 of the country’s 462 administrative units were subjected to some form of riverbank erosion and of those, 35 face severe erosion affecting about 1 million people every year. Around 10,000 hectares of land are eroded annually by rivers.
Interestingly, 8,770 km of flood embankment system developed over the last four decades was targeted to control flood but it had no provision for protection against erosion, resulting in reconstruction of about 39,500 km of embankment.
Riverbank erosion is experienced every year by the riverine people. It causes massive loss of lands, settlements, roads, embankments and other infrastructures. Flood and river bank erosion affect livelihood assets such as agriculture and fishing. In the same way, crops, vegetables, fish, water resources and livestock also become vulnerable. Housing is also disrupted by flooding and river bank erosion. Heavy rainfall and sand deposition affect agriculture and damage crops including paddy, jute, sugarcane, maize, potato, wheat, peanut, mastered seed, vegetables, species and onion.
However, Bangladesh has learnt many lessons from its experiences of last 40 years in disaster management. It has developed capacities in flood management and demonstrated some successes in this regard. But there are still gaps, limitations and challenges such as resource mobilisation and its effective utilisation, sustaining community efforts, replicating good practices and ensuring regional and international cooperation to reduce overall monsoon risk of the country. Some recommendations are given below for an improved monsoon hazard management system in Bangladesh.
In Bangladesh, many aspects of vulnerability to monsoon hazards are observed arising from various physical, social, economic, and environmental factors. These include poor design and faulty construction of infrastructure, lack of resources, poor health, inadequate protection of assets, lack of public information and awareness education, limited official recognition of risks and preparedness measures. Vulnerability varies significantly within a community and over time. Wide-ranging and well-coordinated steps are needed for sustainable monsoon hazard resilience for Bangladesh and its people.
Early warning system has to be strengthened with active participation of community leaders. Proper linkages among Bangladesh Water Development Board, community-based organisations and local government authority are needed to get periodical data on river water rise/fall relevant to the areas as soon as the monsoon sets in. Selected and interested persons of vulnerable community might be involved in sharing the same with the community at large to assist in their alertness and over-all preparation. Direct intervention of the local NGOs in conjunction with local government might be encouraged in this respect. Existing cross-country cooperation on early flood warning systems should be strengthened.
Contingency planning at different levels for emergency response should be developed and updated at least once a year, focusing on (i) risk areas and vulnerability status and (ii) availability of resources and capacity, apart from other requisite elements of such a plan. Emergency fund mobilisation needs to be encouraged in this area by relevant actors particularly NGOs with proper management and plan. Emergency stores need to be established and maintained by local government organisations, NGOs and social organisations to ensure prompt and effective disaster response. These stores should contain emergency housing materials (quality polythene sheets), tents, life jackets, water purifiers, alum, medical supplies (including intravenous fluids and oral rehydration salts) and sufficient equipment for emergency personnel to leave without luggage in an emergency and also latrines for emergency installation, processed bamboo for the rebuilding of houses, megaphones, kerosene lanterns, hachaks (large kerosene lights) and pipes and other equipment for raising tube- wells.
Capacity building courses on monsoon risk reduction are needed after a proper analysis and planning for volunteers, managers, workers, government officials, local government representatives and media personnel of whom 50 per cent should be women. Specialised training sessions are needed for relevant personnel in the respective areas.
Flood management must be a combination of both structural and non-structural measures. It is needed for making embankments and taking river protection initiatives with appropriate feasibility and cost-benefit analysis of independent authorities. A public hearing and consultation is important in this regard. Extensive river dredging programme should be taken with proper technical and economic analysis along with community participation to remove sediments from river bed, deposited during flood, to increase water-holding capacity of the drainage systems and to increase the water flow capacity. The dredged sediments may be used to raise the level of land with proper planning. Technical considerations in flood risk management should not exclude socio-economic aspects.
Disaster Management Act, Standing Orders on Disasters (SOD) of the government should be understood and exercised by all concerned with appropriate resources, planning, and monitoring and accountability mechanism.
Integration of monsoon hazard management in existing development works and future initiatives of different government departments and others working in the flood- prone areas is a must. Concerned authorities should develop disaster data base which is very important to carry out detailed study and planning. The government organisations and NGOs need to redesign their development programmes with the active participation of the most vulnerable communities to ensure that they maximise hazard mitigation potential and incorporate traditional community coping practices. Adequate resources from central government and development partners should be ensured by the authorities and policy-makers.
Ensuring sufficient livestock and poultry vaccine as well as extension support of agriculture in the flood-prone areas, particularly in remote places, is important.
Replication of tested hazard preparedness interventions can reduce vulnerability of the most flood-prone communities to floods and river erosion, The media should play a more sensitive and effective role in highlighting the vulnerabilities and potentials risk of most poverty and flood-stricken areas and tested flood risk reduction initiatives for appropriate attention of policy-makers and implementers.
Big river systems like the Ganges and the Brahmaputra do not recognise territorial borders as they flow across Nepal, India and Bangladesh. A cross-border approach to flood management is very much needed to protect development gains and most vulnerable communities of Bangladesh and neighbouring countries. Monsoon hazard management should directly contribute to sustainable poverty reduction in Bangladesh and resilience to the negative consequences of climate change.
Written by Farid Hasan Ahmed and published by the Financial Express.
The writer is a disaster risk reduction and climate change adaptation expert.
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