Engineering projects can sometimes fail spectacularly or turn out to be faulty. Take, for instance, the Moghbazar-Mouchak flyover in the capital city Dhaka.
It was mistakenly designed for right-hand traffic, while Bangladeshis drive on the left side.
The error means the vehicles getting on the flyover have to use a steeper ramp compared to the vehicles getting off the flyover.
The mistake stemmed from foreign engineers designing the flyover without consulting the locals. Now, we have to live with the faulty design at the heart of the city.
However, we are here not to discuss the construction of flyovers, rather how a foreign-led engineering solution led to a series of events that contributed to the haor area's increased vulnerability to flash floods and resulting crop loss.
When the British built the railway bridge on the river Meghna in Bhairab, they contracted the width of the river and choked it during river training works.
Why did they do it? A friend said the other day that it saved them a lot of steel as the length of the bridge was shortened. Jokes apart, the technique is still applied to date to achieve a variety of goals.
While river training techniques used during bridge construction may or may not work for the bridge itself, messing with the rivers' flow can have other impacts too.
Choking Meghna was a mistake, and just like the design faults of the aforementioned flyover, locals were the first to identify and suffer for it.
A friend from the haor area once told me that his grandmother, a self-educated homemaker, used to say that because of the bridge work and the contraction of the river, the water level at the haor area permanently rose in the monsoon as natural drainage was affected.
In the following nine decades or so, no measure was taken to right the wrong. Over time, the riverbeds in the haor area rose because of continuous siltation and got clogged. Also, when a river's flow is impeded, the natural process of siltation gets accelerated. And now, there are three bridges on the same segment of the river in Bhairab instead of one, making any correction harder.
As the drainage is severely impacted, the first heavy rains pouring in Meghalaya and Assam states of India now tend to enter the haors, breaching the embankments or overflowing them, instead of draining out through the river system.
The Water Development Board now spends hundreds of crores of takas building and repairing embankments to temporarily block the monsoon water from entering the haors to protect the crops, but the failure is apparent.
According to the Department of Agricultural Extension, boro paddy of 9,600 hectares of land has been damaged by flash floods this year. In a press conference, Paribesh O Haor Unnayan Sangstha, a local organisation, said at least 50 thousand families had been affected.
Also, a total of 18,749 fisheries, including enclosures and fish farms, in 11 upazilas of Sylhet were inundated by the flash floods, amounting to a loss of Tk2,173 crore, as per the Department of Fisheries.
Yet, this is pretty small compared to what the country endured in 2017.
In late March and early April of 2017, the haor region underwent unprecedented early flooding that caused severe crop loss and damage to livestock and fishery. This early flood reportedly destroyed between 80% and 90% of the boro rice crop. To put things into perspective, around 20% of the country's boro crop is produced in the haor area.
A study styled Underlying Causes of the Haor Flood in 2017 in Bangladesh by Professor Md Khalequzzaman, Department of Geology and Physics, Lock Haven University (US), concludes that an average of 342 mm of rain fell over an eight days period in Assam and Meghalaya, which generated an average of 10,000 cumecs of surface water flow.
"Geomorphic analyses of stream cross sections in the haor region indicate that water carrying capacity of these streams are critically insufficient to effectively discharge the generated flow without causing flooding," the study reads.
The locals cannot be any surer. They have been demanding rivers be dredged for years. This year, an organisation named Haor Advocacy Platform (HAP) said in a press conference that embankment construction had become a business for some people. Every year, embankments breach and more funding flows in.
Another local organisation, Paribesh O Haor Unnayan Sangstha, in a programme titled "Budget expectations of haor people," demanded that a Tk20,000 crore plan be taken for the next five years to dredge the rivers. They, too, dismissed the current concentration on embankment-based crop protection programmes.
Even the permanent embankments are often breached. The embankments protecting the haors are supposed to be cut down in the monsoon to allow water in. Hence, they will always be fragile. This year, the embankments were not only breached in some places but also overflowed in others, indicating a clear drainage problem.
Floods, even flash floods, can be predicted a few days early, and early warnings can be issued. In early April this year, agriculture officials urged the farmers of the haor areas to harvest their paddy as they were afraid of floods after heavy rains in Assam and Meghalaya. The problem is that the ripening of paddy cannot be sped up, and finding labour has become hard these days. There is no alternative to prevent these early floods from damaging crops.
Early floods damage crops in haor areas at regular intervals. With looming climate variability, this damage is expected to grow.
According to UNFPA estimations, Bangladesh's population may reach up to 22.6 crores by 2050 (as per the high variant fertility assumption). Also, the country is seeing a decline in the cultivated area at an annual rate of 0.73% as the pressure on agricultural land has been increasing for housing, roads, etc. Furthermore, the country is already losing a lot of arable land due to rising salinity.
Thus, by 2050, we will have six crores more mouths to feed with much less cultivable land. This makes it imperative to give full efforts to prevent every preventable hazard that might culminate in disaster.
It is the local people who bear the brunt of natural or human induced calamities. It is they who are supposed to be the first to identify what is wrong and what needs to be done to address that.
Well-planned dredging is one thing that must be started soon. And it is easier to expect that to commence at some point. What, however, is difficult to imagine is that we would be courageous enough to undo the bottlenecks under the bridges by widening and deepening the rivers anytime soon, which appears to be a long-overdue task to ensure future food security in Bangladesh.