Bangladesh is often lauded for the disaster management capabilities it has garnered over the past decades. Yet, the devastation caused by the recent flash floods in the northeast is a blow to our confidence, creating doubt in the minds of many, and leaving us with a question: 'how prepared are we for this climatic catastrophe?'
A record level of rainfall in Cherrapunji in 122 years reached 972mm, which led to floods of high magnitude in the Surma-Kushyiara-Meghna river basin, including in about 200 villages under Barlekha upazila of Moulvibazar. The floods submerged 94% of Sunamganj and over 84% of Sylhet, leaving four million people stranded, including 1.6 million children.
Now, flash floods are an annual phenomena in the Haor region, which people and disaster management practitioners are aware of.
The rivers are woven intricately into the lives of the Haor people. Historically, livelihood, cropping patterns, infrastructures have been shaped and well adapted to this situation. What went wrong this time then?
The Sylhet-Sunamgonj disaster is an outcome of both natural and manmade reasons. Weather events such as heavy or erratic rains, when combined with human-driven elements, including management of our watersheds (via dams, levees, and reservoirs) and the irreversible alterations we make to land, can be deadly.
History has warned us about this fact over and over again, but how much have we really learned? It is high time we stop pretending to be deaf and blind to this crucial message and genuinely rethink, re-evaluate and remodel our smallest to largest development initiatives for the country.
The first step in the process is to understand the interconnection between climate change and extreme events. However, connecting climate change to flash floods can be a tricky endeavour. Bangladesh already has a critically complex and increasingly difficult experience with water management.
River erosion, rising sea levels, increased salinity and heat waves, and similar environmental situations are clearly increasing due to climatic impacts. The consequences of these climatic stressors, added to that a myriad of human-related factors, plays into whether or not a flood occurs and the extent of the devastation.
Moreover, limited data on the flash floods of the past, as well as inadequate real time data on shared rivers make it difficult to measure them against the climate-driven trends today.
The river Barak enters Bangladesh through Amalsidh, near Zakigonj in Sylhet, after splitting into the Surma and Kushiara rivers. The Surma and Kushiara in turn unite near Bhairab to form the mighty Meghna.
Spanning over 16 districts, the Surma-Kushiara-Meghna system supports the livelihood of roughly 50 million people. If bilateral benefit policies between the two countries were strong enough, it would be much easier for us to reduce such an unprecedented damage and allow us to plan beforehand.
Parallelly, the environmental justification of Itna-Mithamoin-Astagram highway has also raised enough questions about rethinking the balance between hard engineering and the well-being of nature in development projects.
Climate change is aggravating impacts of disasters and causing erratic patterns of climate variability. It is evident that this kind of extreme and erratic weather pattern will become commonplace in the future.
This calls for re-assessing a wide range of instruments and policies in place to address disaster management in Bangladesh. A prospective trajectory for a climate adaptive future needs to take into consideration the following crucial issues:
Review of the current Standing Orders on Disasters (SoD) and construction of more robust infrastructure, such as telecommunication, power supply substation, and road connectivity, so that they may be used in an emergency.
Only 23 of the 151 primary schools in the Baralekha upazila, that were supposed to act as flood shelters, could be utilised because 58 of them are already underwater. These figures ought to be sufficient to support the idea of resilient infrastructure, not just for coastal areas but also for sections of the nation that are susceptible to flooding.
Topography is undoubtedly a driving force behind flash floods. Now is the time to open collaboration with neighbouring countries to set an early and timely dissemination of adequate information.
The National Flood Forecasting and Warning Centre (FFWC) provides water level forecasting of rivers; it therefore requires the latest technological support. It is important to design data-based prediction, particularly for the north-eastern part of the country for flash floods, since lag time for flash flood peaks is very short and regional information needs to be shared at the earliest.
Due to the impact of climate change, flash flood events will likely recur and we need to be prepared to handle it. Listing and targeting the population that is likely to be affected will allow responders to determine appropriate quantities of relief items required. It is imperative to take note of places where people took shelter during the current flood and create facilities taking gender sensitivity in consideration, to prepare for future events.
We have to develop and prepare navigation routes to reach victims as quickly as possible with sufficient good quality boats and logistics.
In my opinion, this catastrophe serves as a wake-up call for everyone in the world, not just Bangladesh, to embark on a paradigm shift in which disaster risk reduction is seen through the prism of climate change, in order to be ready for the projected and evolving effects of climate change.
Dr Md Liakath Ali is the director of the climate change programme at Brac and Brac International, and the urban development programme at Brac.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions and views of The Business Standard.