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Floods in Bangladesh: The way forward (Op-ed)

Floods in Bangladesh: The Way Forward

Xian Zhu, Country Director, World Bank

The geographic location makes Bangladesh vulnerable to natural disasters like floods, drought and cyclones.  While floods are recurrent, some normal annual flooding is important to the people and economy of Bangladesh.  To a large extent, communities have adapted and developed resilience to changes brought by normal floods.  However, sever floods of high magnitude can have adverse impacts on the economy and even loss of life. With increase in population, rapid urbanization, growth of infrastructure, other economic development, and poor maintenance flood risks have been increasing.  In fact catastrophic floods can have major adverse consequences for long term development of the country.  Many debate if it is possible to develop a modern economy without properly managing the disaster risks posed by floods.

Major floods have occurred in Bangladesh in 1987, 1988, 1998, 2004 and this year 2007.  During each flood, hundreds of people are killed and damages to crops, small enterprises and infrastructure can be as high as several US$ billion, severely disrupting the economy and reducing potential GDP by a few percentage points.  Over the last several decades, there have been numerous debates and studies on what is needed to mitigate and protect against these flood risks.  Notable are the multi-donor supported Flood Action Plan (FAP) studies launched after the 1978 and 1988 floods.  About 26 comprehensive studies were carried out which covered almost every aspect of flood and every region of the country.  The studies provided a lot of insight into the flood issues and made several recommendations that were supported at the highest level of government.  After the 1998 floods a Water Management Plan and Water Policy were prepared through public participation and approved by the Government.  Similarly, after the 2004 floods, extensive consultations with experts were held and workshops were sponsored by the Government at the highest level resulting in numerous recommendations.

After the 2007 floods, government, flood management experts, and donors are revisiting what can be done to mitigate floods risk.  Why previous analysis is not used and recommendations are not implemented?  Perhaps there are no easy answers.  Recommendations made are often too numerous, elaborate and perhaps not practical.  Lastly, the day-to-day demands on limited available resources are often overwhelming leaving very little for implementation of disaster mitigation plans.  With the prospects of climate change the likelihood of extreme events like floods and cyclones may increase in future making Bangladesh even more vulnerable to these risks.  However, based on past experiences, preparation of elaborate action plans is not the way to go. Rather, the country needs to take a few pragmatic actions which can be implemented and monitored.  A few suggestions are given below:

Short-term

Improve the flood forecasting and warning capacity.  Better lead time in flood warning is proven to reduce economic damages to property and lives.  With available technology and satellite images forecasting can be much improved giving more lead time for moving people and assets to safer locations during floods and cyclones.  For this purpose, the Flood Forecasting and Warning Center (FFWC) should be given a prominent role and its capacity enhanced. 
The Government should also make regular budget allocations for the center for preparing forecasting and issuing warnings to the end users.

Strengthen Disaster Management Bureau (DMB) to provide reliable Damage/Needs assessment quickly that can serve as the basis for restoration and recovery programs.  It currently takes a long time after a disaster event to prepare damage and needs assessment where often various estimates have large inconsistencies.  A standard methodology for preparing damage assessments is needed allowing the DMB to quickly carry out assessments on a regular basis, not only for extreme floods disasters.

The Government should start a disaster response management fund.  Operation and maintenance funds are typically re-directed for restoration and reconstruction of damaged infrastructure.  Thus, due to a lack of continued proper maintenance, infrastructure is increasingly more vulnerable to floods.  The disaster response fund would help to streamline the Government response and help donors to respond more quickly by channeling their funds through the same mechanism and based on a consistent and credible damage and needs assessment prepared by the DMB.

Medium to Long Term

Upgrade the standards of construction for roads, particularly rural roads that serve as a lifeline during the flood period, with proper levels and provision of drainage structures.  These standards should be made mandatory for all roads constructed in future.  A survey initially may be carried out to identify roads lacking these standards.  A systematic program then could be adopted to upgrade these structures instead of restoring in a piece-meal fashion year after year after each flood.  This would help reduce the damages considerably and save lives.  Roads should also be made multipurpose, where possible. 

Invest in protection of major towns where population density and property values are high. Beginning with manageable investments perhaps with the town of Sirajganj where a start has already been made during the late 1990s by constructing a hard point under the River Bank Protection Project (RBPP).  During the 2004 and 2007 floods major damages have been incurred around the Brahmaputra River.  The area on the right bank of the Brahmaputra River was protected against floods by the Brahmaputra Right Bank Embankment (BRE).  The BRE is now dysfunctional at most places thus areas along Brahmaputra River and towns like Sirajganj will continue to suffer damages even under normal floods.  This year Sirajganj town was flooded fully because of shifted river bank line and breaches in BRE which occurred in previous.  The hard point constructed under RBPP survived and performed well.  Indeed that was the only dry spot available in the area during floods.  Using the same methodology that has worked the river bank protection may be extended upwards and by re-constructing a multipurpose embankment the Sirjaganj town can be protected fully.  Investment to fix the river bank line from Sirajganj to Kazipure and protect Sirajgang town from future floods would be not more than US$100 million and could be recovered in just two years.  It will also ensure river alignment to Jamuna Bridge reducing the risk of the river by passing the bridge.

Following the recommendations from the FAP studies, Bangladesh had initiated three programs to mitigate against these disaster risks.  The River Bank Protection program mentioned above, the Coastal Embankment Program to protect coastal areas from floods caused during cyclones, and the disaster shelters program.  Unfortunately, all of these programs have stalled.  Shouldn’t these be revived and made part of the evolving development agenda in the country as management of these disaster risks is a long term effort and not a one time affair?    While reviving these programs would make sense, one should also try to find answers to questions like these: a) why actions were not initiated based on several expert recommendations contained in previous studies? b) what home-grown approaches could be better applied to accommodate river overflow?, and c) why people are not proactively mobilized in the water management process? Soul-searching for answers to such questions will help mainstream floods issue in the evolving development agenda. Bangladesh is achieving over 6% economic growth even after floods and other natural calamities. Just imagine what would be the economic growth outlook had we been able to efficiently manage the floods fall-outs.