Under natural conditions, every year during the months of April and May, heavy rainfall occurs in Meghalaya, Assam and the upper reaches of Arunachal in a very torrential manner, resulting in the sudden rise of the rivers' water level.
The rivers downstream, including the Barak system that comprises the Surma and Kushiara (considered to be the lifeline of the Sylhet region in Bangladesh), witness a massive discharge due to the heavy rainfall in Assam and Meghalaya, especially Cherrapunji, of India.
The rivers including Jadukata, Patnai, Baulai, etc flowing through Kishoreganj and Sunamganj districts face the impact of this discharge. We often define the event as a flash flood that submerges the floodplain. This entire area has been named haor – a back swamp which comprises a number of water pockets called beel.
So, in the peak of the monsoon, the beels get connected and form a large water body: haor.
Historically, farmers cultivated boro paddy when the beels dried up during the dry season (December-March). But the boro plant often got submerged when the beels got connected due to rainfall at the end of April and the beginning of May.
So, the government in the 1970s decided to build an embankment to protect the boro crops. However, the embankment or dyke was not too high. The dykes, with a height of 4-5 metres, could resist the overtopping for some days so that farmers could harvest boro crops by that time. At a particular stage, the dykes too went underwater, so did the entire area, and a vast haor formed. This natural system is still suitable for fish production there.
Presently, the problem is that the water levels of the rivers rise very quickly due to flash-flood. And we have seen in the last 10-15 years that the dykes surrender to heavy water pressure.
The changing rainfall pattern
Fifty years back, the first flash floods in the early monsoon would take place within the last week of April and the middle of May. The design of dykes was initially to protect the crops up to the end of May.
Fifteen years back, we found the rivers swelled much higher, even in the beginning of May. Then the government advised the farmers that they harvest boro crops by mid-April. The design of dykes remained the same.
However, in the last 10-15 years, we have noticed a change in the rainfall pattern thanks to global warming and climate change. And for the last five years, I have been advising the government to inform the farmers so that they can have their harvest by the end of March instead of April and mid-May.
For that, the farmers need appropriate types of seeds that can be harvested one month earlier. Luckily, there is a kind of seed like that, and we appreciate the hard work of agriculture researchers behind this innovation.
For example, in 2021, 70-80% of rice could be harvested by the end of March or the first week of April because the farmers cultivated the new variety. But it looks like this year; the farmers went for the variety that can be harvested at the end of April. I read news reports that 80% of the paddy was ready for harvesting.
Due to climate change, rainfall patterns are changing, and we need to change our agro-economic practices.
Alternatively, I have heard some arguments: can we raise the height of the dykes so that the crops are protected up to mid-May or the end of May. I am personally totally against the concept because we should have a combination of rice and fish.
For fish, the spawning season and the breeding season starts with Kal Baishakhi (Nor'westers). This year, the country has already witnessed the first blow of Kal Baishakhi in mid-April, and that was the signal for the fish to breed.
The heavy rainfall in the first week of April-end of May is widespread and natural. Maybe this year it is happening a little bit earlier. So we should be ready, as it will happen next year and the year after that. Taking into account the changing phenomenon, the rice should be harvested one month earlier. Therefore, they should be planted one month earlier.
Now that will be another change to our traditional style. Having said that, my second major point is an embankment; whether it is a full embankment or a submersible dyke of 4m height, it can protect the boro crops. After boro is harvested, the whole area will go underwater and it will be left for the fish to grow. So there is no point in raising the height of the dyke as that could clash with fish production.
Why do dykes fail?
Is it a failure of the design engineers? Is this a failure of Bangladesh Water Development Board (WDB) engineers meaning they did not design the embankments correctly? It is the failure of the construction engineers and also the failure of maintenance engineers who manage the dykes.
In 2017, the government took over the power of construction and management from the hands of engineers and gave it to the bureaucrats. Do they understand engineering? The answer is no. There are Project Implementation Committee, UNO and the deputy commissioner. They should take responsibility.
The embankment is an engineering structure. When the design is okay, but the construction engineers do not use the approved amount of cement and sand, it will fail. Unfortunately, in Bangladesh, proper engineering practices are not followed.
And then, the structures need maintenance. The problem in the submersible dykes in the Haor area is the poor construction, which does not follow professional engineering and maintenance practices.
Why has the maintenance not happened earlier? Of course, there was corruption. Still, nobody has been made accountable. My next point is, it is known why the dykes might fail. It may fail if the slope of the embankment is not proper or its base is not right.
Let me give an example of the Tongi-Ashulia Road. It is an embankment built-in 1989. It has not failed over the last 30 years because it was constructed properly.
Working in a rural community, the engineers have to reduce the design cost because the Planning Commission would object to it. Now the commission does not have engineers. Then why would the commission object to the proper design and cost? Again, the government does not have a shortage of money. If the proper design is placed before the government, if the proper construction technique and proper maintenance practice are presented, why is there cost-cutting since the Planning Commission is not a business entity?
I would say the main guilty party is the Planning Commission, followed by the administrators and the engineers. The whole engineering practice concerning the embankment project is faulty.
Round-the-year Haor management
How should the haor be managed on a round-the-year basis? Haors are areas that are rich in fish resources and where a good amount of boro crops are grown. So we want boro rice and fish. However, sometimes, agriculturists only think about rice production. The thinking process is absolutely wrong.
Fishers are kind of helpless and don't have a strong voice. They should demand that the water body be filled up with water by the beginning of April so the fish can spawn properly.
The time has come for the government and people there responsible for the management of haor to think about how fish, paddy and the entire ecosystem can be managed.
In the haor area, there are many other problems. One is 'Afal' which is the high wind generated in a high altitude wave. Entire villages get destroyed by it. They should be protected.
Haors are very good areas for rearing cattle. And haor is an excellent place for rearing ducks during the dry season. We should think about how the cattle and the ducks are to be managed round the year.
In the monsoon months, there is so much water all around, but in the dry season, one of the major crises in the area is a shortage of drinking water. People there need to have tube wells and other water supplies. And they need proper sanitation facilities.
My final point is the villages are protected by nature with the wetland trees called Hijol (Barringtonia acutangula) and Karach (Pongamia pinnata). 100 years ago, there were huge forests of the wetland varieties of trees to protect the villages from high wind.
The time has come to reconstruct the haor-based rural landscape. We need to develop sanctuaries, and the Hijol and Karach gardens along the village borders are like green belts. It will also help the fish grow.
Moreover, tourism should be arranged and organised, centring the entire area. You can see how the famous writer Humayun Ahmed highlighted the beauty of the water body in the monsoon.
Let me conclude by saying we need to think fresh. We need to throw out all the archaic approaches. I am not entirely sure what the Haor and Wetland Development Board does. In actuality, it is simply the haor department of the Water Resources Ministry.
The ministry of water should commission a new thinking process on how to manage the haor by which we can maximise our benefits from rice and fisheries.
We need to go for a water-based ecosystem and nature-based development activity. We need to pay attention to the local community. There are three communities living around there [haor area]. The local Sylhetis, the migrants from Noakhali, Faridpur and Barisal and the landless Jilanis.
Harvesting is a major problem because the rivers rise all of a sudden. So mechanisation (the introduction of machines or automatic devices into a process) should be introduced into the harvesting process. There is another significant problem. At the end of the monsoon, or by August and September, the water cannot recede out of the polders smoothly. So the polders have to be cut down.
In 2007, when the farmers cut down dykes for the water to be released, the administration arrested them. The administration did not understand the necessity of cutting down the embankment.
The location where the embankments should be cut down should be pre-designed and technically fit, and they should stay plugged during October and November. And the local community should be involved in the process, and they should be empowered.
We need a new institutional mechanism and administrative structure to decide on the roles of the core stakeholders. We need empowered people who have proper understanding and capability, proper technical, institutional and social know-how to manage the vast wetlands because this is a disciplinary subject.
There is a haor master plan done by CESIS (Centre of Excellence for Science and Innovation Studies), and I have no complaints about that. But the plan is based on old traditional practices, and the practices have to change as the climate changes.
Agriculturalists have developed new varieties of crops and fishes. We could benefit from these. And people should maximise their benefits without disturbing the ecosystem and nature.
Professor Ainun Nishat is a renowned water expert and Professor Emeritus at the Brac University.
Disclaimer: This analysis has been written based on a telephonic conversation between the author and The Business Standard's Sadiqur Rahman, who also transcribed the conversation.