The flood situation in the country's northeast region has further deteriorated, leaving over 30 lakh people marooned in different upazilas of Sunamganj, Sylhet and Netrokona.
The world's leading weather forecast models have indicated the possibility of further deterioration of the ongoing flood situation in the region in the next few days due to increased rainfall in the mountainous region of Meghalaya, bordering Sylhet and Sunamganj districts.
Members of the army, navy, coast guard, local public representatives, along with volunteers, have been running rescue operations since Saturday to save those stranded in remote areas.
In this situation, The Business Standard talked to Gawher Nayeem Wahra, Member Secretary of the Foundation for Disaster Forum, for his take on the reasons behind such a disaster.
What are your views on the existing storm water discharge system of the Haor belt? Do you think that problems with the system are responsible for the present flood situation?
The current flood situation across the Haor region is not a result of just the volume of rainfall, which many are saying is the highest in history. Actually, the flood situation has turned worse because this high volume of rainfall has gotten stuck in low-lying land.
This country witnessed higher rainfall in 2004, 1998 and 1988. We did not have this situation during those years. So why now?
The actual reason is that human intervention has destroyed the 124km passage for discharging stormwater from Cherrapunji (Meghalaya, India) to Bhairab (Bangladesh).
The huge amount of silt coming with the downpours flows down not only the tributaries and distributaries, but also the flood plains. But we have developed a road network blocking the drainage passage.
Let me give you an example. The All Weather Road, locally called the 'Abura' Road, connecting the three haor upazilas: Itna, Mithamoin and Ashtagram, was constructed in October 2020. The road blocks flood water discharge through the western [of the road] localities, including Nikli, Bajitpur and Kuliarchar, when Sylhet and Sunamganj get submerged. This has never happened before.
It is now evident how an anthropogenic cause has destroyed a natural water flow system. This road is responsible for the current flash flood around the north-east region.
The tributaries and distributaries of the Sylhet region have not been dredged for many years. But a raised riverbed alone would not have caused inundation of Sylhet habitats, with 7-8 feet-high water levels.
The 29km Abur Road caused huge sedimentation over hundreds of acres of land on its north-east side. When the north-east land overflows, the Abura Road has now limited water discharge only through a 800 metre space [culvert]. Moreover, the Surma-Khushiara_Kalni river flow fails to drain down the stranded water because of river encroachment downstream.
Hence, the present floods across the north-east haor region are mostly triggered by human causes.
The Planning Minister has recently announced that the government will not construct new roads in the haor belt. I would like to question him about what the government will do with the 29km road.
I would say the road must be removed.
A vast part of the Sylhet city – far north of the Abura Road – has become inundated. What could be the reasons?
Poor waste management is the main cause. Besides the Kushiara, the Surma channels the hilly downpours to the downstream. But municipal waste generated in Sunamganj and Sylhet are all dumped in the Surma, blocking the discharge system.
The government alone is not responsible for the urban inundation. Responsible waste management must be carried out by citizens too. We are not willing to realise that throwing out non-degradable waste can clog the entire drainage system. It will end up in the rivers.
If we stop dumping waste in river bodies, there would be no need for river dredging, particularly for the north-east rivers as downpours with heavy force can wash the silts out to downstream.
For the maintenance of haor-based embankments, the government formed the Project Implementation Committee (PIC) comprising local public representatives. Would you consider this public participation?
Not at all. The PIC was dominated by political elites. The embankment development projects failed to come of use at the right time because of corruption.
The projects were not participatory. You see how the public risk their lives for the protection of an embankment. The actual protectors will not entertain corrupt practices.
Haor management should be dependent on the local public who can protect the natural system with their experience-based knowledge. Political elites manage the haor system to serve vested interests. On the other hand, if local people have control, they will conserve the system to protect their agriculture.
For a public-participatory management, we need democratic local governance. The local government must be responsible and accountable.
How does non-participatory management destroy the haor system?
Haor is a living being. We cannot construct embankments, roads, culverts and sluice gates whimsically. Construction of a single road for a small locality could damage the entire ecosystem. Public representatives should consider the pros and cons of a development project.
A development project must take environmental issues and science into consideration. But science has been gravely ignored here in the development plan formulation.
There are two government wings: Bangladesh Water Development Board (BWDB) and Bangladesh Haor and Wetland Development Board (BHWDB) to oversee the scientific aspects of such development projects. How do you assess the performance of these two wings?
Do you believe BHWDB has scientists? I don't. The wing is mostly dominated by bureaucrats. The governance system does not welcome independent experts in policy formulation.
A few years ago, some international scholars having roots in the haor belt had participated in a discussion over haor management. The discussion was held in Kishoreganj. The scholars were literally insulted by the hosts for being expatriates.
What was their fault? They recommended fly-overs instead of roads for the free flow of downpours. They suggested that the north-east river system be maintained round the year. The hosts did not like the expert opinions.
What do you suggest as short-term and midterm solutions for flooding around the haor belt?
Saving people's lives is the immediate solution.
Restoring the entire drainage system around the north-east region should be done before the next monsoon (2023). It may consist of river dredging, embankment protection and more. The government should ensure that the region will not experience stagnant water in the next monsoon and onward.
We should not wait for the implementation of the Delta Plan-2100.