Fighting floods

Published : Sep 10, 2004 00:00 IST

Rowing on the road, in Dhaka, on August 1. - FARJANA K. GODHULY/AFP

Rowing on the road, in Dhaka, on August 1. - FARJANA K. GODHULY/AFP

Floods in Bangladesh this year claim 800 lives, leave more than 30 million people homeless and result in the outbreak of waterborne diseases.

THE floods came this July too, as it does every July in Bangladesh, but it was of a severity never experienced before, inundating two-thirds of the country, claiming more than 800 lives and affecting more than 30 million people. That it would be bad was clear from the severe dry spell in May-June: such dry spells usually bring a jet stream of moisture from the Arabian Sea and the Bay of Bengal leading to heavy rainfall. Flooding is inevitable as Bangladesh is an active delta at the confluence of three major rivers, the Ganga, the Brahmaputra and the Meghna.

This year almost half of Dhaka, including some parts of the diplomatic zone in Baridhara and Gulshan, was inundated. The lanes and bylanes around the offices of at least 10 foreign missions were under ankle- to knee-deep water. Water had to be pumped out of several buildings, including the one housing the Indian High Commission's cultural section.

The deluge forced millions of people out of their homes, wrought extensive damage to crops and roads, embankments and other infrastructure. While more than 800 people died, there is no estimate yet of the heads of cattle that have perished. Many areas, particularly in the north-northeast and central regions, remained under water for three weeks, with only treetops and roofs of structures visible.

The floodwaters, which started receding from the first week of August, brought with it the fear of outbreak of diseases. Diarrhoeal and other waterborne diseases have infected more than 100,000 people since July 1. Many doctors felt that the steps taken by the government were "inadequate" and warned of a diarrhoea epidemic if preventive steps were not taken.

"Diarrhoea has claimed many lives and could claim many more as people in the flood-hit areas are drinking contaminated water," said a doctor at the International Centre for Diarrhoeal Diseases Research. However, Prof. Mizanur Rahman, Director-General of the Health Directorate, claimed that the government had taken a series of measures to fight waterborne diseases. "We think the measures the government has taken are enough, and it is ready to take further steps if needed," he said.

The Health Directorate said a total of 3,681 medical teams, including 102 for Dhaka district, were deployed and 447 makeshift medical centres were set up in 234 flood-affected upazilas (thanas) falling in 37 districts.

In addition, 60 medical teams, each consisting of a doctor, a nurse and an assistant, were working in 209 flood centres in Dhaka. In Dhaka city, the situation worsened in mid-July and slum-dwellers were the main victims; boats replaced rickshaws and other vehicles at many places. The Dhaka City Corporation said 2,10,329 people took refuge in 219 makeshift shelters as floodwaters mixed with sewage inundated 55 of the 90 wards.

The birth of Bangladesh in 1971 was preceded by floods - caused by a severe cyclone in 1970 - and followed by a famine that took thousands of lives. The people were disenchanted with the administration for its failure in disaster management and the `anti-liberation' forces branded the liberators of Bangladesh `failed managers'. They declared the independence heroes incapable of governance and even questioned the viability of an independent Bangladesh.

The floods of 1974 devastated large areas of the country, as did the floods of 1988, which were thought to be more severe than the one in 1974. However, in 1988 the number of deaths was far lower than the millions that the foreign media had predicted. Influential Western media estimated that at least two million people would die of starvation during the floods in 1998, but the number of deaths was negligible. Subsequently, the government's efforts to combat the floods and its rehabilitation work earned praise from the world media. In fact, after the 1998 floods, Bangladesh, for the first time, claimed self-suficiency in food and since then food aid from foreign sources has dropped to nil. This was no mean achievement for a country that was plagued by food shortage from its birth and was dependent on food aid from foreign donors.

This year, as the floodwaters started receding, the focus shifted to post-flood management and rehabilitation of the displaced millions. The United Nations has made a `flash appeal' to the donors for $210 million. U.N. Country Representative Jorgan Lissner warned that "millions of people are facing grave food insecurity and helplessness" owing to one of the worst floods ever in Bangladesh. The United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) issued a global appeal seeking $13 million for emergency medical services. "Bangladeshi children living on the edge urgently need attention to save them from the worst ravages of flood. It is important to provide them with safe drinking water, adequate sanitation, nutritious food and lifesaving medicines," said a statement by A.P.B. Sanagama, UNICEF's representative in Bangladesh. The World Food Programme (WFP) has also sought $70 million for emergency food aid.

While effective post-flood management is the main concern, the involvement of various political and socio-cultural organisations, including non-governmental organisations (NGOs), in the relief and rehabilitation process is reportedly minimal. Opposition parties and others alleged that the government instead of welcoming them was creating obstacles for them. Many believed that the government's attempt to raise and distribute relief materials on its own, through administrative channels, would prove counterproductive.

A study of several decades of floods has led experts to reach an alarming conclusion: the interval between two severe floods, caused by heavy rainfall, is reducing. Abnormally severe floods were recorded in 1955, 1974, 1988, 1998 and 2004. If this trend continues, severe flooding may become an annual feature in Bangladesh in the not-too-distant future, opine water experts. However, the problem calls for wider research and regional efforts.

Bangladesh, in which lies 7 per cent of the Ganga-Brahmaputra-Meghna basin, takes the burden of 92 per cent of floodwater flow as a result of rainfall occurring outside the country: an area 15 times larger than Bangladesh. Therefore, Bangladesh has to take the initiative in calling for regional and international cooperation to identify the problems and suggest remedies to cope with recurrent floods or drought, say experts.

S.I. Khan, a former United Nations expert, called for the issue to be included on the agenda of the next summit of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) due in Dhaka in January. Said Khan: "Future floods will cause ever-increasing damage and loss of life unless action is taken to dredge some 54 common rivers flowing through Bangladesh from India."

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