The water started rushing in on 28 March. Unprecedented pre-monsoon rainfall and increased flows from the upstream Meghalaya hills in India flooded six districts of northeast Bangladesh. The water breached already-damaged embankments and over 200,000 hectares of nearly-ready-for-harvesting rice was destroyed.
Flash floods are a yearly phenomenon, but this year the water came 2-3 weeks ahead of schedule. The locals had no time to harvest the crops. Experts are still baffled. The haor region has a single agricultural season and locals rely on winter rice plantations for their year-long supply of staple food. In a completely new twist, and a triple blow for farmers, an estimated 2000 tonnes of fish and 3844 ducks also died.
Approximately 90 million people could be in danger of a severe food crisis, according to the Haor Advocacy Platform (a coalition of local and international NGOs in Bangladesh). The floods will undoubtedly also have a damaging spillover effect on the national economy. The region produces 18% of the nation’s rice and accounts for 6% of GDP.
Bangladesh’s prime minister has downplayed all mounting uncertainties involving a food crisis. “There is nothing to be worried, and there will be no food crisis.” she said, referring to the government’s stored food stocks. The government has started providing relief to families in the area and promised to distribute all necessary agricultural inputs free of cost for their next crop.
At Baniachong, one of the worst affected places, the shock of the flooding was so great that one woman died of shock. Tarabanu, mother to three children and wife to a physically challenged man, had cultivated rice crops on 2.5 acres of land after taking a loan from a non-government organisation. She was so horrified when she found out that flash floods had inundated most of her crops that she passed away.
80% of Bangladesh is classified as floodplain. Experts are saying that flash floods may grow and embankments are not the solution. A recent study by the Bangladesh University of Engineering Technology (BUET) shows that pre-monsoon rainfall is likely to intensify. Changes in weather and increasing extreme weather events are being observed all across the world, although the contribution of climate change on flash flooding is yet to be established.
The Bangladesh Meteorological Department recorded the highest rainfall in 35 years this April. It is almost double the usual; 8,904 mm of rain has been recorded in the first three weeks of the month compared to the average 4,053 mm.
Many are saying that this is the worst flood in recorded history.
We have launched an emergency relief effort worth BDT 150 million (USD 1.8 million) to support families in northeastern Bangladesh to cope with the immediate impact of the flash floods on their crops and livelihoods.
We started by identifying 59,000 families needing food and cash support. We noticed that people were selling off their livestock at significantly reduced prices as they could not afford to feed them – so we are distributing fodder to 6,500 families. We are also facilitating vaccination camps for the livestock in coordination with government authorities. Continuing fodder support will be needed at least until Eid ul Azha (end of August/early September).
School attendance has plummeted drastically. We are looking at introducing midday meals in schools to improve attendance and ensure that children have adequate nutrition.
Flooding is not new to the world. Nor are embankments/levees, in terms of making or in terms of breaking. It is even enshrined in the music we listen to.
In 1929, two musicians from USA wrote a piece of music called When the Levee Breaks, made universally famous via a rendition by the British rock band Led Zeppelin. The song is in reaction to the upheaval caused by the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927. The first stanza of song goes:
If it keeps on rainin’, levee’s goin’ to break
If it keeps on rainin’, levee’s goin’ to break
When the levee breaks I’ll have no place to stay
After the American Civil War, many former slaves moved to the fertile land surrounding the Mississippi River to rebuild their lives as farmers. A lot of little shanty towns sprung up on the banks of the Mississippi, and it became necessary to build levees to protect them. The levees later collapsed under the pressure of flooding.
Around that time, the earth was in a very different state though. The habitat of the polar bear was much colder than it is today.
Forward to 2017, we are still relying on man-made flood defence mechanisms, and they are still proving to be insufficient, while flooding continues to worsen. And we will continue to build them, as the last remaining polar bears watch their last remaining ice sheets dissolve.
On a brighter note, we have never been so equipped to extricate ourselves from this quagmire. A better world is only a handful of actions away.
Photos and text: BRAC/Kamrul Hasan and Jonathan Anindya Das