Dealing with the deluge

Dhaka,  Tue,  26 September 2017
Published : 18 Aug 2017, 20:39:57

Dealing with the deluge

Bangladeshis have developed many strategies to cope with severe floods through their experiences of living with the annual natural disaster. Proper attention should be given to strengthen the existing indigenous coping mechanisms among people living with floods, writes Rahman Jahangir
Victims of natural disasters like floods simply ignore territorial barriers for bare survival. This was true when about 800 flood-affected Indian citizens took shelter in several villages of Lalmonirhat district of Bangladesh on last Monday night. Bangladeshis in bordering villages sought help of Border Guard Bangladesh (BGB) in allowing the Indian citizens to cross Bangladesh border for taking shelter on humanitarian grounds. The Indian flood-affected victims said that they would have been washed away by the floodwaters if BGB men would not help them. They are now staying in houses, open spaces and on roads in two unions of the upazilas.

Menacing floods this year left Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Sri Lanka and China badly battered. As of August 16, the deluge killed 107 and hit 3.3 million people in Bangladesh alone.  Heavy monsoon rains this year have wreaked havoc on people's lives. Television pictures show people wading through chest-deep water carrying belongings and livestock while their houses slipped into flood waters. The situation in Bangladesh could get worse as heavy rain in parts of neighbouring India flow downstream into the low-lying and densely populated country. India's meteorological department is forecasting more heavy rain. The governments in these affected countries are now focussing more on rescue of those trapped in floods and relief distribution. People have nothing to eat and no clothes. 

Bangladesh has already become the worst victim of excessive rainfall since the pre-monsoon period. This has demonstrated unusual behaviour of climate, according to meteorologists. The higher amount of rainfall was recorded during the pre-monsoon time -- March, April and May -- this year for decades. Meteorologists find it a freaky behaviour of Nature. As the monsoon is active over Bangladesh this year, the country has been receiving a high rainfall during the traditional monsoon period as well since June and the trend continues. Heavy rainfall is likely to continue to occur at different parts of the country until August 19, aggravating the current flood situation here further, a meteorologist at the Bangladesh Meteorological Department (BMD), has forecast. He said over 300 mm of average rain were recorded within 12 days of this August, which is higher than the normal rainfall. The country was supposed to receive 403 mm of average rain throughout the month. Around 371 mm average rain was recorded all through August in 2016.

Monsoon in Bangladesh spans over four months--June, July, August and September--while light rainfall usually starts occurring after the Bangla month of Baishakh. This year the rain started before Baishakh. The country experienced downpour even in March, an unusual pattern. Thanks to advanced early warning system developed by Bangladesh, the government could know well in advance a high magnitude flood that is now sweeping the country. Water Resources Minister Anisul Islam Mahmud told reporters last month that since the country experienced rainfall double the amount, the government has been warned of a high magnitude flood and the government has issued necessary preparation orders in this regard. He was briefing newsmen after he addressed a session of the three-day annual conference of district administration heads. Experts have always warned things will take turn for the worst when the water levels in all the three basins cross the danger mark simultaneously as in 1988.   

Of all the disasters, floods are most common and are an annual phenomenon with the most severe occurring during the months of July and August. Regular river floods affect 20 per cent of the country increasing up to 68 per cent in extreme years. Since the independence the floods of 1974, 1987, 1988, 1998, 2004 and 2007 were particularly catastrophic, resulting in large-scale destruction and loss of lives. Approximately 37 per cent, 43 per cent, 52 per cent and 68 per cent of the country were inundated with floods of return periods of 10, 20, 50 and 100 years respectively (MPO, 1986). Floods occurring over last 40 years are not uniform and flood water came from three main sources: the sea, the rivers and rainfall. These together or independently, generate more water than can be drained quickly from the land. 

During 2007 flood, almost all the country (46 out of 64 districts) was inundated. Millions of people were marooned. The flood of 2007 appeared twice and destroyed houses, infrastructure, devastated all types of agricultural activities, crops, livestock, fisheries, forests. Deaths from water-borne diseases, snake bites, drowning, and lack of medical facilities were more than in previous floods. The flood related response in 2007 from different agencies was late during disaster due to the very different nature of the operation of a caretaker government. The relief distribution system and other responses were also delayed due to centralised distribution mechanisms.

The decision-makers, after constant efforts made by scientists and social scientists, have realised that floods of Bangladesh can only be managed, and not be controlled because of the very nature of the fashioning of the delta and flood plain and the livelihood of rural fishing and agro-based communities. Experts say flooding in Bangladesh is not a hydraulic or physical phenomenon for which engineering design can provide a sole solution. It has to be recognised that people in Bangladesh have developed many strategies to cope with severe floods through their experiences of living with annual floods and severe floods. If proper attention would have been given to strengthen the existing indigenous coping mechanisms among people living with floods, the country could have avoided the miseries of millions of marooned people.

The pressing need now is to rescue millions from death-traps posed by the gushing waters by evacuating them to high lands. Provision of pure drinking water and dried foods for the flood victims should be considered a top priority. Lawmakers and district officials must swing into massive relief operation to save these unfortunate victims. Monetary assistance has to be provided to them because floods have made them pauper. After waters recede, comprehensive rehabilitation programmes have to be undertaken in right earnest. Extreme care and caution have to be taken to see that relief materials meant for the victims are not misappropriated.

Editor : A.H.M Moazzem Hossain
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