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20-yr big flood in water-hungry, dry Bangladesh floodplains

Columns 2022-06-28, 4:04pm

mostafa-kamal-majumder-7feb53abd0234b2763b5101a54ec57621656410667.jpg

Mostafa Kamal Majumder



Mostafa Kamal Majumder

The current floods in Bangladesh have been described as the worst in the last 20 years. But local contribution to the deluge is little and almost all the water has come as flash floods from the Indian States of Meghalaya and Assam in the northeast. The entire northeastern and northern parts of Bangladesh have been affected, marooning millions of people damaging homes, livestock, crops and infrastructure. Flash floods have also hit Chittagong and the Hill District of Rangamati. Weather experts have reported that Meghalaya has experienced the heaviest downpour in at least 27 years and Cherrapunji about 2500 millimetres of rainfall in just three days. One can easily imagine the volume of the runoff that came down at great speed and inundated the Sylhet region. (1) 

Water hungry Bangladesh is overwhelmed by the sudden onrush of water. Unplanned development activities both in Meghalaya and Assam in India and the Sylhet region in Bangladesh are the main factors that have turned the floods into a cataclysmic disaster. Trees have been felled from the slopes of Meghalaya where many mines have also been dug to collect Uranium. (2) As a result the huge volume of rain water from Cherrapunji faced no barrier on the way and came down at a violent speed. Structures constructed in the Sylhet region on the other hand obstructed the quick flow of the water to the haors (depressions) and rivers and thus made the floods devastating. 

The worst affected districts are Sunamganj, Sylhet, Moulvibazar, Netrokona, Kurigram, and Habiganj. Kishoreganj has also been affected as recently constructed structures blocked the discharge of flood water. The Dhaka-Delhi Joint consultative Committee (JCC) which was in session in New Delhi called for strengthening cooperation in the water sector. (3) Such a statement should have better come from the Joint Rivers Commission which has not been functioning. 

Apart from dozens of barrages on rivers in the Assam region, all the 27 rivers that feed the Barak-Meghna river system in Bangladesh have been embanked. As a result, for more than a decade now the Meghna river system does not overflow their banks and their huge floodplains in the Sylhet-Cumilla regions remain dry throughout the year. Same is the condition of the floodplains of the Jamuna (Brahmaputra) and the Padma (Ganges) in Bangladesh. In olden days annual rainy season (Barsha) floods used to inundate one-third of Bangladesh enriching the biodiversity of the flood plains. Drying up of these floodplains has led to devastating impacts on the indigenous fishes that used to breed naturally and feed on the algae and other aquatic plants. The algae and other aquatic plants of the flood plains have started disappearing and the indigenous fishes now have become mostly extinct. Deprived of normal flow, the rivers have formed shoals, become shallow and have lost their water conveyance capacities. This is the main reason behind the exacerbation of floods. 

Planners and policy-makers make little mention of this serious degradation of the natural environment of Bangladesh on which her estimated 200 million people rely on for food, shelter and everything else. Some people in the country have even started speaking like least unconcerned aliens who call the water flowing through the rivers of Bangladesh to the sea as excess water wasted. The fact is, in nature there is nothing in excess. All resources exist and function in a perfect equilibrium giving us life and livelihood. 

 A journalist friend of mine of our big neighbouring country, India, and I visited the stall of the Swedish International Water Institute at the Johannesburg Sustainable Development Summit. (4) An enthusiastic supporter of the idea that water is wasted into the sea, he in front of me sought to know from the man in charge of the stall how the water wastage can be avoided. The water expert without taking a pause answered, this is no wastage of water which is performing its equilibrium function. Shocked, my friend stared at me because I was from Bangladesh. I said so you have got the answer. In reply he said, 'maybe, I asked the question for you!'  

Those of us who are concerned over the deltaic environment of Bangladesh should instead of murmuring the words of least concerned aliens should take a little trouble of consulting our engineers at the Institute of Water Modeling to know how much adverse impact the country and its people are taking just for as little as one-inch less height of seasonal floods, not to talk about normal floods. During the monsoon season - due to withdrawal of water from three sides – flood plains must now have shrunk to less than one-fourth from the once normal one-third. It has become necessary to make a fresh assessment of the remaining flood plains. (5) It is urgent to assess the economic and environmental costs.      

The water sharing issues of Bangladesh with India must be viewed from this context. Diversion of Ganges water has rendered one-third of Bangladesh in the South-West into a region of serious water stress and threatened the Sundarbans the Heritage Site for Mankind due to excess salinity in water created by the stoppage of the flow of fresh water from upstream. Sundarbans is also suffering from acidic rains from coal-based industries around our country. (6) Prof. Jasim Ahmad former Vice-Chancellor of Jahangirnagar University has supervised a number of researches on the quality of surface water air and rainfall in the Sunderbans and has come up with these findings. There have been more studies in the Department of Chemistry, University of Dhaka which indicate that water salinity has intruded more than 200 kilometres north of the seashore of the country.

Now the Rangpur region is being rendered dry by diverting the entire water of the Teesta from the Gazal Doba barrage in West Bengal. It is to be noted that in the event of big floods both the Farakka Barrage and the Gazal Doba Barrage open all their sluice gates increasing flood devastations in Bangladesh. The Indian state of Bihar has demanded demolition of the Farakka Barrage due recurring floods caused by it. (7) Similar is the functioning of the dozens of barrages constructed in the Assam region.

Despite there being a 30-year treaty on the Ganges, Bangladesh has made little headway to ensure basin-based management of the Transboundary Rivers to keep those alive and with those Bangladesh. All international fora on water advocate for ensuring the flow of rivers from their origins to the sea not only to keep those alive but also to sustain their services to food security, health security, ecosystem and above all good relations between upstream and downstream neighbours. 

It will be interesting to note here that seeing the helpless situation of Bangladesh from the point view of global warming and sea-level rise, Connie Hedegaard, then Denmark’s minister for Climate and Energy told a global conference of editors in 2009 in the presence of our then Environment Minister Dr. Hasan Mahmud, "I don't understand why Bangladesh doesn't cry". (8) At a Dhaka seminar I later requested our Environment Minister to tell the developed countries that they should shelter the people who are becoming environmental migrants in Bangladesh due to climate change primarily caused by them. This point has been taken note of.

The 1996 Ganges Water Water Sharing Treaty proved useless that very year when only 6000 cusecs of water was available for Bangladesh against a quota of 30,000 cusecs in the lean season. The flow continues to go down because under the treaty there is no reference to water management activities upstream of the Farakka Barrage from where water is diverted by over a dozen structures. But in the event of less availability of water at Farakka, Bangladesh is told ‘how can we give water if snow doesn’t melt up in the Himalayas’. The treaty was faulty for not having guarantee and arbitration clauses and would expire in four years, but no efforts for a remedy are visible. One worse development is that aliens have started saying there is no existence of the Ganges in Bangladesh which falls into the Bay of Bengal via the Bhagirathi from the Farakka Barrage in West Bengal. Some of our people have also started calling even the Ganges Part of the River Padma which actually begins from its confluence with the Brahmaputra (Jamuna) deep inside Bangladesh down Rajbari.

A treaty on the Teesta was supposed to be signed way back in 2011 when former Indian Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh visited Bangladesh. Signing of the treaty remains stalled. More severe is the diversion of all Teesta water from Gazal Doba Barrage in India. What Bangladesh, during the lean season, gets from the Teesta is the seepage from that Barrage. Policy and decision makers don't look alarmed by the damage it inflicts on the flora and fauna and the life of people living on its two Banks. The Water Development Board has signed a Memorandum of Understanding with a Chinese Firm on ‘Teesta River Comprehensive Management and Restoration Project’ to protect the people of Rangpur from the worsening Teesta floods and ensure availability of water through dredging. (9) The move is being opposed by some quarters.

A delta created by the great Himalayan Rivers, Bangladesh cannot survive if it is cut off from their flows. Conversely, the rivers cannot remain alive if they are cut off from their floodplains which sustain them during the lean season. Indian water experts are against the construction of big structures on rivers and are in favour of ensuring their environmental flows. They successfully campaigned against the Tipaimukh Project on the Barak River and subsequently the Forest Advisory Committee of India’s Union Government stopped it. As against this some of our people had aerial flights over the project site to speak in its justification while one politico-military leader had demanded a share of its electricity. The Indian establishment still remains firmly in favour of structural interventions on rivers.Sunamganj flood, second round 

There is no shortage of literature to establish the fact that gone are the days of constructing structures on rivers. Around the world, 5000 such structures have been demolished to restore rivers. The Aral Sea which remained dry for more than 30 years has started getting back water. (10) Bangladesh should agitate its position in line with the international resolutions and recommendations and ‘should cry’ and cry loudly to get water issues resolved. 

We should keep in mind that the concept of water sharing has now changed to integrated water resources management from the origins of rivers to their outfall into the sea. Rivers are natural systems and cannot be divided at political borders that are man-made. In a joint basin-wide management of rivers basin states would know what is happening at different stages of rivers. The basin states should join hands to keep the rivers alive to get their services. If this is not done natural disasters like floods and droughts that have become more frequent and disastrous would turn catastrophic. On the other hand if rivers continue to flow to the sea all basin states will get the economic, environmental and ecosystem services, plus there will be an era of peace between upstream and downstream neighbours. 

Finally, one note of caution, people move when they find life and living difficult due to environmental degradation. They migrate not only within a country but also beyond borders. We should therefore not degrade the environment and not force the people to move elsewhere for livelihood.        

1.       Devastating floods hit Sylhet after highest rainfall in 122 years in Cherrapunji | Prothom Alo 

2.       Exchange of opinion with water expert and former UN Adviser on Environment, Dr. S.I. Khan

3.       India, Bangladesh agree to expand co-operation on water resources | India News, The Indian Express

4.       The Johannesburg Summit on Sustainable Development was held from Aug 26 to Sept 04, 2002. 

5.       Exchange of opinion with water expert and former UN Adviser on Environment, Dr. S.I. Khan

6.       Webinar on Farakka Long March Day 2002 on USANewsOnline.Com, 17 May, 2022

7.       https://thewire.in/environment/demolishing-farakka-barrage-solve-bihar-flood

8.       Connie Hedegaard, Denmark’s minister for Climate and Energy hosted the UN Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen in 2009.  She said this at the Global Editors’ Conference called ahead of the Climate Change Conference.

9.       https://www.thefinancialexpress.com.bd/trade/dhaka-moves-ahead-for-implementing-teesta-project-with-chinese-assistance-1623204947

10.   https://www.inform.kz/en/aral-sea-30-years-later-hopes-for-restoring-the-lake-rising_a3920978

11.   Ref: Disputes Over The Ganga. ISBN 99933-766-4-7, Panos Institute South Asia, 2004.

(Paper presented at the roundtable on ‘Water Sharing Issue between Bangladesh and India: The Way Forward’ organized by South Asian Youth Research Centre at the Tofazzal Hossain Manik Mia Hall, National Press Club, Dhaka on 28 June 2022. The writer is editor, GreenWatch Dhaka online daily.)