Saving haors from disastrous deluge

| Updated: October 24, 2017 01:06:46

Saving haors from disastrous deluge

The catastrophic flash flood in haor (wetland) areas of the country has brought to the fore the fact that Bangladesh is yet to be adequately prepared to face natural disasters. Although flash flood is a usual phenomenon that occurs due to onrush of waters from the upstream as well as unusually heavy rains, early flash flood in Sunamganj, Kishoreganj, Netrakona and other haor areas due to onrush of waters from Indian hill has shown the sheer absence of any plan to get prepared for it. 
It is for the first time in many years that Bangladesh is poised for a less productive rice season owing to a huge loss of Boro crops. Following the first strike of flash flood in Sunamganj and a few other adjoining haor-rich districts, the Department of Agricultural Extension estimated a crop loss of 6,00,000 tonnes with Boro on 2,00,000 hectares gone under water. The DAE, however, is reassessing the Boro losses as new areas are taken over by flash floods.
After an unusually early flash flood struck the north-eastern regions late last month, the government had said Boro output would be some 4,50,000 tonnes less than the targeted 19.1 million  tonnes. But with flash floods inundating fresh haor areas and incessant and early rainfalls submerging many other parts of the country, the probable gap now also has to be re-assessed. The production loss in Boro came at a time when public granaries were having one of the lowest stocks of food grains in six years, according to experts. Total food grain stocks stood at 5,46,000 tonnes, the lowest since fiscal 2009-10, data from the food ministry showed. The failure to reach the government's food grains procurement target and increased food distribution have brought down the rice stock to 3,59,000 tonnes only. A United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) report also noted that Bangladesh's rice stock in the public food distribution system got nearly halved compared with last year's stock of this time.
There are two crucial functions of the wetlands of the Surma basin: they serve as the granaries and fisheries of the north-east. Farmers of the wetlands depend on a single crop -- the Boro. Because of the silt deposited by the floods, the land is extraordinarily fertile. "Any artificial alteration to the 'flood pulse' could affect food security and bring disaster to the region. A 110 per cent increase in dry season flow would more than double the water in the Surma and Kushiara in winter. This would mean the wetlands would not be drained, and consequently there would be no Boro", said the DAE officials.
The fishing community of the haor areas would also be badly hit. "When the water rises in the river during the monsoon, the fish go into the haors to spawn," says Raquibul Amin, programme coordinator of the World Conservation Union (IUCN) Bangladesh. If the wetlands were waterlogged, the seasonal rhythm of the fish would be seriously hampered.
It is also unfortunate that the authorities concerned were negligent of making embankments strong enough to stop swelling waters from damaging huge croplands. Knowing full well that the haor areas are vulnerable to flash floods, the government should have accorded top priority to this aspect as food security is the main victim, finally. 
Early warning is more prompt and precise for cyclone in Bangladesh, but not strong enough for floods. It is true that the country's disaster management regulatory framework is very strong. The Disaster Management Act 2015 called for ensuring such warning through accessible language for dissemination and should coordinate with neighbouring countries. Even the Bangladesh Climate Change Strategy and Action Plan pointed out that forecasts are released through emails and website, there is scope for improvement. 
It is time for introducing a mobile-based early warning system as a test case in cooperation with the Flood Forecasting and Warning Centre (FFWC) and local administration. A post-impact assessment of this initiative has showed that the customised voice message has turned out to be more useful than the text message since many people cannot understand text message. However, there are some challenges running this system because of high cost and lack of proper setup to disseminate in time and a customised way. If the government facilitates reduction of dissemination cost and the local administration plays an effective role, the early warning system could be established to ensure reduction of loss due to floods.
Bangladesh has made significant advancement in the field of disaster management. But there are areas of improvement for the overall management-especially in preparedness and early warning systems. We generally consider cyclone as a disaster and often consider flood as a regular phenomenon, not a disaster. If we look at the policy documents, we will see that drought, salinity and even arsenic are considered disaster but we pay least attention to these so far. If we compare the loss that occurs due to different disasters, the ones caused by floods are the highest while drought scores the fourth among all sorts of disasters. 
There must be capital dredging of rivers coming from across the border to ensure proper navigability in order to save haors from flash floods. Besides, the construction of sustainable embankment is mandatory in this regard. Bangladesh's innovative agricultural scientists should now evolve paddy varieties that can withstand the fury of flash floods in haors.
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