We failed Sylhet

A woman with children wades through the water on a flooded street during the monsoon rains in Sylhet on 18 June 2022AFP

Just a few months ago Deutsche Welle published a documentary titled, ‘How Bangladesh beat Europe at fighting floods’. The same news outlet is covering the devastating floods that have submerged most of an entire division now. More than 70 per cent of Sylhet city went under water leaving thousands stranded and suffering from shortage of all types of basic supplies. Adjacent Sunamganj district has been the hardest hit so far. This fury of nature is inevitable and might not be stopped, but couldn’t it be tamed? Torrential rain or fierce water coming from upstream is nothing new in that area. What turned it this bad?

A senior journalist Hasan Mamun wrote on his Facebook (roughly translated here): “Don’t say or write ‘Water's coming down from upstream’. It is natural that water will flow down. The main problem is not that the water is flowing down from upstream. The problem is that the water cannot flow towards its destination. This issue should be the centre of all discussion. What have we done that made this rain water and upstream water inundate more than 80 per cent of the division?”

Yes, what have we done to exacerbate the situation or what we did not do that we needed to? This should be the big question of all questions. There are theories and meteorological jargon of accumulating moisture and humidity incursion from the Bay of Bengal and excessive rainfall due to that. What about boosting our capacity? Several Indian media have been raising questions on deforestation, cutting hills and illegal and excessive river-bed mining to trigger this catastrophe.

Illegal mining and deforestation cause river erosion and landslide resulting in flooding low lying areas as well as excess siltation and narrowing outfall. Boulders and sand in the river-bed work as a natural cushion but these have been being destroyed by indiscriminate mining. The question is, is there any joint agreement or effort signed with neighbouring India to curtail the factors that cause such devastating calamity. If yes, why aren’t they effective enough? If not, why not? This is not the time we become divided on social media over whether humanity prevails or not judging by a rickshaw-van driver or boatman demanding excess money to help distressed people.

Hundreds of news reports for the past few years have been crying out to save the river Surma that remains dry for seven to eight months of a year. Illegal encroachment and pollution is killing Surma. People from Sylhet have been demanding excavation and dredging of the river for years, but to no avail. The Water Development Board and all authorities dust off their responsibility sometimes by putting blame on neighbouring countries for not releasing water in the dry season. I wonder did they ever take any initiative centrally to harvest rain water? And who is responsible for not being able to make an agreement with the counterpart? These areas being first victim of rainwater reel under severe shortage of water during dry season. A big 'Why?' again.

Researcher Mostofa Kamal of the School of Environment and Sustainability of University of Saskatchewan said in an interview with Prothom Alo said, “I have mentioned that the navigability of the rivers of Sylhet has been greatly reduced due to destruction of natural forests and cultivation in the mountainous region of Meghalaya. Added to this is the All Weather Road at Haor in Kishoreganj. This road is a major obstacle to the normal flow of rain water and mountain slopes from the Meghalaya mountains. Due to this road, the silt or sedimentary water has not been able to drain for three years. Due to which the navigability of rivers in Haor area has decreased.”

We are saddened, shocked and flabbergasted by both the damage caused by the flood and response by the higher authorities in this time of disaster. When no less than billions funds are allocated to organise or celebrate most unessential programmes, the authorities announced a most paltry sum to help the people affected by the century’s worst disaster and we citizens have zipped our mouths to this mockery.

It is the need of the hour to ask why there has been no sustainable and durable measure to combat the recurrent flood in the area rather than showy and exorbitant stopgap solutions and expensive embankments and infrastructure? Sustainable measures would reduce the loss of lives and property, but of course will prevent certain quarters to make money from bigger projects every year.

Rather than asking for accountability or the right questions we are condemning the rickshaw puller or boatman for taking advantage of people’s helplessness, as if these people have caused this flood. We were gossiping about an actor couple’s private life, while the price hike ravages people’s lives. We kept our mouth shut when several national thieves including PK Halder siphoned out millions. We did not lament when a segment of people of our country were losing jobs and living destitute another segment was amassing wealth in Swiss banks.

We failed Sylhet with our selective morality that sleeps like Kumbhakarna. We failed ourselves. If there is one thing we lack, that is we don’t question. To question the executive we appoint through election is our constitutional right and for that power to question we need to realise our self-worth as a citizen. Otherwise we will remain the slave to the self-proclaimed monarch we voted once. We must see the difference.

The water will recede; the people of Sylhet, Kishoreganj or Sunamganj will rise again like every year. But will our sense of self-worth ever wake up?