Water Champion

Country water actions are stories that showcase water reforms undertaken by individuals, communities, organizations, and governments in Asia-Pacific countries and elsewhere.

Hamidur Khan: Coping with the Worst of Floods
August 2004

By Maria Christina Dueñas Knowledge Management Officer Why are floods a recurring phenomena in Bangladesh? To explain the frequent flooding, one needs to understand the hydrological features that stem from the unique geographical situation of Bangladesh. First, most of Bangladesh lies within the flood plains of three great rivers-- the Ganges, the Brahmaputra and the Meghna rivers-and their tributaries and distributaries. The three rivers drain a catchment area of about 1.75 million square kilometers, 8% of which lie within Bangladesh. The flows of these systems discharge into the Bay of Bengal through Bangladesh. Bangladesh therefore has little control over the flood discharges that flow in the country. The rivers also carry huge sediment load that clogs the river and drainage channels and impedes the movement of flood flow, e.g. 735 million tons for the Brahmaputra and 450 million tons for the Ganges. Flooding in Bangladesh is really the result of a complex series of factors-from the huge inflow of water from upstream catchment areas coinciding with heavy monsoon rainfall to congested drainage channels; from the major rivers converging inside Bangladesh to tides and storm surges in coastal areas. These factors give rise to different types of flooding, both natural (flash floods, river floods, rainwater floods, etc.) and man-made. What are the major problems encountered in controlling the floods in Bangladesh? Until now, we haven't been able to control the Brahmaputra-Jamuna River, on which hinges the success of a national flood control plan for Bangladesh. Without control of flooding along this river, it is impractical to control flooding in the densely-populated central parts of Bangladesh or its downstream areas. Unfortunately, our flood control and drainage interventions have mainly focused on dikes/ embankments within the country, which were not very effective in containing floods in major rivers. We also haven't been able to produce the more durable and functional flood control embankments that we need. Riverbank erosion has so far been the main threat to our embankments. For instance, the Brahmaputra-Jamuna River has a marked tendency to erode in its right bank, and the Brahmaputra right-bank embankment has been breached several times, allowing serious flooding to occur periodically on adjoining "protected" land. ABOUT THE CHAMPION
Bangladesh is currently in the midst of its worst flooding. Although the floodwaters have started to recede, many people remain huddled in shelters or stranded in their flooded homes. The death toll has climbed to more than 700, and acute diarrhea, dysentery and other water-borne diseases have become the regular companions of over 130,000 people. The Bangladesh government estimate the total damage caused by the floods at about $6.6 billion. Dr. Hamidur Rahman Khan has spent the past 35 years teaching, researching, developing and implementing water resources programs, specifically on flood mitigation and preparedness. Starting his professional career as an engineer, he worked his way up to managing small- and medium-scale water resources development projects in Bangladesh, e.g. flood control, drainage and irrigation. He also spent a considerable time developing the curriculum and teaching courses on urban flood mitigation and preparedness. Dr. Khan is also actively involved in the Bangladesh government's efforts to manage its water resources, beginning with his involvement as a member of the Soil and Water Management Committee of the Bangladesh Agricultural Research Council in the late 1970s, up to his present involvement as member of the National Water Resources Council, which is headed by the Prime Minister.

Drainage has also been a major concern. As of August 2004, the floodwater from many areas in Dhaka still could not be drained; the drainage system could not function properly because of encroachment and siltation. Development in floodplains has also been unrestricted to date. With such developments taking place faster than projects could be constructed to protect them, the cost of flood control projects and disaster relief programs have become more and more exorbitant. What interventions does Bangladesh have to undertake to manage floods better? We need to continue the search for an intervention that will allow Bangladesh to contain the flow of its major rivers. We also need to ensure that our flood control interventions avoid the common causes of structural failures, e.g. inadequate design return periods, poor embankment materials and manual compaction, and inadequate operation and maintenance. We also need to regulate the development in floodplains. For this, we can use measures such as flood-risk mapping 1 and floodplain zoning 2 . It is also important to remember that in Bangladesh, with its high population density of 890 people per square kilometer, a large number of people live in flood vulnerable areas. Many of these areas are inundated to a depth of more than 3 meters, as exemplified by the floods in 1988, 1998 and 2004. It may not always be feasible to provide flood protection in these areas so the country needs to shift to flood preparedness. This could include flood forecasting, flood warning, evaluation and sheltering, flood fighting, and organizing an emergency response. Who should pay for flood mitigation works? Even though the flooding is largely connected to the issue of land use, very little attention has been given to it. When persons knowingly decide to settle or to develop the flood vulnerable areas, should the public be expected to provide protection for their unwise acts, or subsidize the losses that they suffer as a result of floods? Past experience indicates that it is expected. It seems rational, then, to argue that when such protection is expected and provided, the public should also have the right to decide what development should be permitted in the flooded areas.

If you can highlight several ideas or recommendations about flood management, what would they be? First, many of the water related problems in Bangladesh could be solved through regional cooperation among the countries in the basins of the Ganges, the Brahmaputra and the Meghna Rivers. For instance, problems of floods, increased dry season flows and salinity control in coastal areas may be taken care of by constructing storage reservoirs in the upper catchments of these rivers, which would minimize flood peaks and reduce both erosion and siltation. Bangladesh, therefore, needs to amplify its efforts toward promoting regional cooperation. Also, we must realize that the flood protection measures that protect the populace are the same ones that cause even greater damages when the infrequent, extreme floods occur. This paradox is due to the fact that many of the physical control measures employed impart a false sense of security that encourages even more intensive use of potentially dangerous areas. We must therefore re-evaluate our prevailing method of preventing or reducing flood damages. Finally, flood mitigation and drainage facilities must become major determinants of city form or planning. Flood mitigation and drainage improvement measures require, among other things, embankment/floodwalls and pump stations along riverbanks, detention ponds to store water temporarily or drainage channels to transport rainfall runoff to the pump stations. Each of these facilities requires land, and new urban areas should take this into consideration.

_______________________________ 1. Will indicate the extent of flooding at various probability levels, and provide the basic information for defining flood risk. 2. A legal device through which authorities can restrict occupancy of the flood plain to uses which will suffer little or no damage during floods. *This article was first published online at ADB's Water for All website in August 2004: http://www.adb.org/Water/Champions/khan.asp. The Water Champions series was developed to showcase individual leadership and initiative in implementing water sector reforms and good practices in Asia and the Pacific. The champions, representing ADB’s developing member countries, are directly involved in improving the water situation in their respective countries or communities. The series is regularly featured in ADB’s Water for All News, which covers water sector developments in the Asia and Pacific region.

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