Figuring floods

Figuring floods NOT all floods in Bangladesh are "bad"; there are "good" floods as well, and only the Bangladeshis can distinguish between the 2 to make the best use of them. This is the message that they are endeavouring to convey to the World Bank (wb), which has recently come up with a Flood Action Plan (fap) aiming to tame the annual devastating outbursts of the country's rivers. But critics, led by front-running environmental ngos and prominent farmers' associations, claim that the plan failed to "draw on local traditions and knowledge", and instead turned to totally unsuitable hi-tech solutions. The issue has taken a serious turn as a high level meeting of countries funding the plan's implementation, is scheduled to be held in Dhaka very soon. Panos launched a book in June, titled Rivers of Life, attempting to bring forth the various opinions and comments expressed by concerned parties, and speculations and counter-speculations that are rife on the issue. The issue emerges as the focal point of a heated debate on the extent of interference and decisionmaking power of "foreign aid agencies".

fap, although finalised only this March, was conceived after a particularly destructive flood season in 1988, when 2,000 people were killed and countless were rendered homeless. France appointed a team of engineers to devise a "permanent solution" to the problems. Other nations, finding the exercise a potentially lucrative deal, also pitched in. Thus fap emerged, with proposals of 65 priority projects -- only to be rejected by environmentalists. The detractors claimed that the plan failed to take care of traditional knowledge that in normal years floods actually enhanced soil fertiity. The solution, they claimed, was not flood control but controlled flooding. fap on the other hand, talked of capital-intensive engineering procedures by building embankments and irrigation channels.

In face of opposition, the wb proposed intensive surveys. Rivers of Life documents the developments throughout the last 5 years. Peasants, backed by vociferous green activists, wanted to prove that overflowing river water recharged underground aquifers, which helped them throughout the dry season, whereas embankments created new problems. In certain areas where human-made obstructions had been constructed, the flood situation had worsened. In Beel Dakatia**, for example, the people had to dig through the embankments to let the water out. Besides, in a bid to protect the rice fields, the engineers overlooked the safety of the fish stock -- staple diet of the Bangladeshis -- more than 3/4 of whose annual catch comes from inland waters, an intricate network of rivers, canals and wetlands. But artificial barriers drove the fish out, spelling doom for the already impoverished fisherfolk.

Now after 5 long years of intensive research, fap has been submitted this year with extensive changes: a national water mangement plan, and a list of high-priority projects with an investment of us $350 million. It relegates barrages to long-term possibilities. But most interestingly, the United Nations Development Project (undp) has called into the field a 5-member "independent mission" for "structured debate" to be organised by a steering committee of government officials and fap critics which has received favourable reaction from the anti-fap camp.

Related Content