The sufferings of the people in the flood-hit areas are not over. From Kurigram to Sunamganj, from the west to the east of Bangladesh’s northern regions, thousands of people are affected by the floods. Their homes have been washed away, cropland destroyed and livestock in danger. On 6 July 2022, UNB reported that 110 people had died in the floods in Bangladesh. Floods have also put Shilliguri, Assam, Meghalaya and Tripura into a precarious state. A total of 173 persons died in the floods in Assam. There have been such deaths in other places of India too.
Record rainfall has been primarily blamed for these floods. In a short span of time there was massive rainfall in the hilly regions of Bhutan, Cooch Behar, Assam, Meghalaya and Tripura. That rain flowed down to the downstream plains, to Bangladesh.
In India too, hills and forests are being destroyed for settlements, construction and agriculture. So there too there are landslides and also the soil is losing its ability to retain water. The soil from these landslides is flowing into Bangladesh with the water. Silt is piling up on the riverbeds and floodplains of Bangladesh. The capacity to retain and carry water has also decreased here. Then there is the construction of roads and embankments. This blocks water from receding naturally. And so the people say they have never seen floods as bad as this time.
Any structure will affect the environment in one way or the other. Even if we set up a corrugated tin house, that will have some sort of an impact. It will reflect the sunlight and heat the atmosphere. It will lessen the space for rainwater to be absorbed by the ground. So any form of development project by humans will have an impact on the natural cycle of things.
In our childhood there were two bullock carts and two boats in our village home at Gobindaganj, Gaibandha. In winter when we went to our home in the village, we would go by bullock cart, and in the rainy season, by boat. Water would also rise in our yard during the monsoons, sometimes even entering the house. Then an embankment was set up along the river and there were no floods every year anymore. Crops grew in abundance. But silt gathered along the embankment. The river is losing its capacity to carry along the water. If there is suddenly excessive rain upstream, the embankment breaks, there are floods. People feel extremely insecure when there are floods. After all, they are now not used to floods every year and so our people do not have the habit, preparation or experience to deal with floods.
All over the world there are campaigns against dams. Dams are being built in China, India and Bangladesh. But in India, in face of agitation from the environmental activists, work on the Tipaimukh hydroelectricity project has been halted. To the apparent eye, the Tipaimukh project may seem quite beneficial. It will retain water in the rainy season and this can be released in winter. But environmentalists say this will destroy the thousands of years old natural environmental cycle. There is no saying what the outcome will be if this cycle is destroyed. And Tipaimukh is an earthquake prone area. If the dam collapses in an earthquake, there will be a massive deluge.
People have to be at the core of development. The people will say what problems they have. They will demand solutions. The people’s representatives will highlight their demands
Another problem is the lack of coordination among the departments and the ministries. The agriculture department is cultivating rice in the haors (wetlands) and there were no plans to harvest the rice before the floods. They will say, why didn’t the Water Development Board make an embankment? The railway division will lay down railway tracks and construct bridges. In the Desh Rupantor newspaper on 21 June, Dr Md Khalequzzaman wrote about “three bridges including the old railway bridge at Bhairab. It must be noted that the water from upstream flows down through the haors and joins up with Meghna. But a bottleneck has been created there. When constructing these bridges, the river mouth has been narrowed. A river isn’t just the main stream of water, the expanses of land on either side of the river, the floodplains, are also a part of the river.”
Speaking on BBC Bangladesh on 18 June 2020, professor of BUET’s water and flood management institute, AKM Saiful Islam, said, “We have made roads in various pockets of the haors. This has obstructed the flow of water. As houses have been constructed in the towns, the water cannot seep into the ground. That is why we face extreme floods. That is why there are early floods and intense floods.”
BBC Bangla wrote: Professor Islam does not agree with the social media posts which blame the Itna-Mithamain road for the floods. He says, “Water comes from upstream and flows north to south in our country. This road has also been constructed north to south. It may be causing some degree of obstruction to the water flow, but this is not the only reason for the floods.”
Climate change is a reality. There are frequent floods and cyclones, droughts and tidal surges. Nature is behaving strangely. Does that mean we will stop all development and sit tight?
People have to be at the core of development. The people will say what problems they have. They will demand solutions. The people’s representatives will highlight their demands. The policymakers will then tell the experts, “The people want a solution to these problems. Look into what can be done.” In other words, the policymakers won’t say that there will be a dam here or a bridge there, a railway line here or a road there. They will ask for a solution to the problems from the experts. The experts will speak to the people and prepare a plan. The feasibility of the project must be studied from all angles. Its impact on the environment, impact on biodiversity, and on people’s lives – all these aspects must be actually taken into consideration before preparing any project.
A leader will say, ‘build a stadium here’ and the engineers will rush to draw up a stadium project – things can’t be like that. The Osman Ali Stadium in Narayanganj, Fatulla is now half submerged in water and abandoned. There are power plants, no transmission lines. That’s the situation that has been created. Vehicles don’t want to use a flyover in Chattogram. When I asked the people there why, they said that there had been no need for a flyover there.
We can’t just take up any project and megaproject at the drop of hat. Technical decisions can’t be taken politically, these must come from the experts and with the inclusion of the local people. Rabindranath Tagore’s poem ‘Juta Abishkar’ (The Invention of Shoes), pointed out that scholars often fail to implement the king’s orders. It is the experienced common people who have the answers.
Prime minister Sheikh Hasina took a good decision that there would be no more roads in the haor regions. If roads had to be constructed, these would have to be elevated like flyovers. We must thank the prime minister for this decision.
There was this old joke. A leader declared, “I will construct a bridge for you all in this area.” The people said, “There’s no river here, what will we do with a bridge?” The leaders replied, “No worries, I’ll dig a canal first, then make a bridge over that.”
There’s another joke. Funds were allocated for a canal to be dug. The contractor made off with the funds without doing the work. The inspector came to inspect the work. A letter was sent to the authorities, the canal is creating a lot of problems for the people, it should be filled. Another project was taken up. The inspector came and saw the landfill was perfect. It hardly seemed as if there was ever a canal there!
We are well aware of why there is so much interest and enthusiasm in projects and mega projects.
We have to change our development vision. Our vision of development must be sustainable, giving consideration above all to people, environment, climate, life, biodiversity and economic benefits.
* Anisul Hoque is associate editor of Prothom Alo and a writer.
* This column appeared in the print and online edition of Prothom Alo and has been rewritten for the English edition by Ayesha Kabir