Floods catch Bangladesh unprepared

Bangladesh, lauded for disaster preparedness, reels as dozens of deaths occur in "non flood prone" areas
<p>This year the monsoon flood has inundated most of the parts of the country [image by: Zobaidur Rahman]</p>

This year the monsoon flood has inundated most of the parts of the country [image by: Zobaidur Rahman]

Long considered one of the global leaders in disaster management, the deaths from this year’s floods have been traumatic for Bangladesh – with many happening in areas not considered to be “flood prone”. The department of disaster management said that as of August 17, 61 people, including many children, died in the floods that affected 26 districts.

At least 42 people drowned in the northern districts of Dinajpur and Kurigram alone as vast swathes of the two highland regions was inundated by the Brahmatputra, the Teesta, the Punarbhaba, Atrai, Tangon and other rivers entering Bangladesh from India. The weeks of torrential rain inside Bangladesh aggravated the ongoing flood that has been invading the northern tip since August 12.

“In less than two days, water crossed through the windows of our house. We are not used to floods [here],” said Mozammel Hossain (55), a resident of Dinajpur, most of which has been under at least five feet of water for days.

“I waded through the flood dragging my motorcycle under water. As Dinajpur is not flood-prone, we could not find even 10 boats for shifting people, especially women, children and elderly people, to safer places,” he said.

Mohammed Golam Rabbi, an additional deputy commissioner of Dinajpur district, told that the ongoing flood had claimed 28 lives, the highest from any region, including babies and elderly. In another northern district, Kurigram, 14 people died, including some children. “Most of them (in Dinajpur) drowned. At least three people died as the earthen walls of houses collapsed,” said Rabbi.

Many of the people died in the recent floods could not swim, ASM Ferdous Khan, Kurigram deputy commissioner, told He said that is people could swim, many lives could have been saved.

Iqbalur Rahman, the MP elected from Dinajpur town constituency, told “We do not have a big river. Dinajpur is a highland district and most of the people are not used to flooding. The majority of the people here do not know how to swim. They couldn’t cope with the sudden onrush of water from upstream. I collected some boats from other districts to shift people to the safer places and shelter homes.”

The flood affected people in the Haor region. They do not want any relief or food support. They want a permanent solution so that every year they do not have to move from one place to another for shelter. [Image: Zobaidur Rahman]
Punarbhaba, Tangon and Atrai crisscross the greater Dinajpur district are considered the country’s food basket.

A continuing disaster

According to the department of disaster management, 4.8 million people in 26 districts would see inundation as waters recede from the northern regions.

Saiful Hossain, a superintendent engineer at the flood forecasting and wrangling centre, told that the flood situation in the north was likely to improve, while the situation will worsen in the central, southern and southwestern parts of the country. “The flood will continue for at least four days,” he said.

The deaths in Dinajpur and other northern districts could have been prevented if forecasts of severe incoming floods were communicated to the people, as has been done in previous years, water expert Ainun Nishat told

History forgotten

“Dinajpur is not flood-prone,” said Nishat. “There was a flood there 30 years ago [in 1987 and 1988]. People in the district have forgotten the memory of it, their capacity to cope with floods is lost. The depth of the major river in the greater Dinajpur such as the Punarbhaba, the Tangon and the Atrai has also come down; the water holding capacity of the rivers has been reduced.”

The 1988 flood was the worst in Bangladesh history. The two spells of floods affected around 45 million people across the country including in the northern region, according to the disaster management department. At least 1,470 died in 1987 while 1,621 died the following year. The disaster management department said that 347 sub-districts in 50 districts were affected in 1987.

But in the following 30 years, flood protection embankments in Dinajpur were not maintained as the area was not affected by flooding.

“The rivers (in the greater Dinajpur) carry bulk waters from upstream in India that experienced heavy rains this year, putting extra pressure on the rivers. The embankment collapsed due to huge pressure of waters,” said Nishat, who added that the latest flooding in the northern region is a lesson for Bangladesh.

“All flood protection embankments must be maintained every year, no matter whether flooding is happening or not. If the embankments are maintained properly, people could get enough time to move to safer places. Such loss of life could be prevented,” he said.

Shawkat Ali, an engineer who used to be in charge of hydrology and flood forecasting wings of the water development board, told that unlike in the northwestern parts of the country, people in the southern and central districts are used to floods, river erosion, cyclones and other natural calamities and there are very few deaths despite severe floods.

Transboundary cooperation

After the 1987 flood, the government developed a comprehensive plan to develop a flood forecasting and warning system, with the help of the international community. In order to improve the flood forecasting and warning system, Bangladesh reached out to India, China, Nepal and Bhutan – the countries sharing the Brahmaputra, the Ganga and Meghan river basins.

“Sharing data on transboundary rivers helps us better prepare for floods and reduce damages and loss of lives,” Saiful Hossain, an engineer at the flood forecasting and warning system of the water development board, told

There is a need for a trans-boundary management of flash-flood between Bangladesh and India. The people of the north-eastern districts of Bangladesh believe that of the two governments work together, the heavy loss of life and property will reduce drastically [image by:Zobaidur Rahman]

Urbanisation forces the poor into floodplains

Shantu Miah (65), a farmer in Birol, Dinajpur, said that the death tolls and damages caused by the floods would have been reduced if the government would stop constructing houses on the floodplains.

The rural poor have been continuing the practice of building houses in low-lying countryside areas, because the price of land in the floodplains is lower. Many people sell their homesteads in highlands to rich clients hungry for land as the pace of urbanisation increases. The people then shift their houses to the low-lying floodplains and the become victims of floods. This practice has been pervasive across the country. For instance, the DND (Dhaka-Narayanganj-Demra) project in the outskirts of Dhaka was originally developed on a low-lying land for agricultural purposes. But the people made it a residential purpose. The area now faces severe waterlogging and frequent flooding. “If we build houses on the low land and ditches, flood is sure to damage the houses and kill people,” said Miah.