Bangladesh is one of the most flood-prone countries in the world. Flood refers to any damaging movement of water on a big scale. It may include flash floods-- inundation resulting from heavy rain, dam releases, embankment breaches etc. In Bangladesh, haor areas of the North-Eastern part of the country face flash floods caused by sudden flow of water from the surrounding hills during the period late March to May.
Haor is a very low lying river basin area below the flood plane level, which is similar to swamp land and is covered by water for almost a half of the year starting from the monsoon season. It is a bowl-shaped large tectonic depression and receives surface runoff water, and consequently becomes a very wide water body in the monsoon. Haors are considered the most productive wetland resources of Bangladesh.
Flash floods take place more frequently and less unpredictably. These floods cause quick damage to crops and property and are followed by relatively rapid recession. Haors in Bangladesh are important source of livelihood for a large number of the rural poor. During winter, cultivated lands of the haors produce paddy with minimum efforts while during the monsoon the same become breeding places for open water fishery hosting a wide range of water biodiversity. Haors are important areas for boro rice cultivation (a rice variety cultivated from December to May). But early flash floods often wash away standing crops and people lose their harvest.
PROTECTION PRACRICES: In the early days of the past century, landlords used to construct earthen embankments of low height along the periphery of the wetlands with drainage canals to protect boro crop from flash floods. Construction of earthen embankments is a conventional practice for protecting people's lives and homes, agriculture and infrastructures. The practice is still on, but cases of both effective and ineffective embankments were found across the country. Over the last few decades, nearly 13000 km of flood and river embankments have been repaired in Bangladesh including 4,500 km of low-lying embankments along the small rivers, haors and canals. But, earthen embankments are facing problems like erosion, breaching every year.
SHORT TERM ACTIONS: As a short term measure, immediate actions are needed by respective authorities to make and complete the repair works of earthen embankments/dykes in vulnerable spots of haor regions in conjunction with community members and local government bodies. Appropriate allocation of fund, quick release of fund and effective monitoring and supervision should be ensured at different lavels. Role of local government bodies and community members at different stages of the work and flash flood situations needs to be emphasised, supported and ensured by the authorities.
LONG-TERM STEPS: Some long-term suggestions that may be found useful in strengthening protection practices during flash floods are:
l Earthen embankment is an economically smart intervention. However, limitations such as difficulties of physical works and weak management set-up for operation, maintenance and protection, including lack of engagement of community people in the process needs to be addressed effectively involving all key actors.
l Impact minimising strategies such as the use of cropping patterns which minimises exposure to loss and setting up of non-agricultural income-generating activities need to be promoted. Crop type and pattern should be selected according to susceptibility of flood; if possible, effort should be taken by concerned agencies to find new variety of crops resilient in combating flash floods.
l Any livelihood initiative in the haor areas has to take into consideration the flood history so that the initiative does not give in, rather yield some amount of benefit to the target people. Involvement of the community and enlisting their inputs in the any kind of programme design and relevant issues affecting their livelihood will make the intervention process easier and impact-bearing.
l Mainstreaming disaster risk reduction and climate change adaptation in the existing development works and future initiatives of different government departments and NGOs working in the areas is a must. Concerned authorities should develop disaster data base which is very important to carry out detailed study and planning. Government and NGOs need to redesign their development programmes with active participation of the most vulnerable communities to ensure that they maximise flood mitigation potential and incorporate traditional community cropping practices which are fit technically, environmentally and economically.
l Well organised and coordinated effort is needed to strengthen local level planning, expedite decision making process and allocation of resources to local government bodies.
l Suitable steps, particularly structural measures in haor areas should be taken considering various studies and recommendations on floods/flash floods management. Facilitates for fresh studies and action research for more durable solution in protecting boro crops and properties of people in haor areas might be a worthy step.
l Measures for forecasting flash floods should be geared up. Improvement of present forecasting system is very much needed. Cross boarder steps should be explored by political and technical authorities in this regard.
The writer is disaster risk reduction/ climate change adaptation expert and a development lawyer.