Flood Control in Bangladesh: Which Way Now?


This year, Bangladesh has again witnessed an unprecedented flood. Almost two-thirds of the country went under water. Disruptions and damages caused are simply enormous. Bangladesh is now trying to rebuild life after the flood. However, as she tries to tackle the short-term task of relief and rehabilitation, Bangladesh has to think seriously about the long-term strategy regarding the flood. It is that long-term issue that is the subject matter of this essay.

Two things have become clear. First, we have failed to prevent another major flood. Second, we are not adequately prepared to cope with the consequences of the flood.

The question that naturally arises is what has happened to Bangladesh’s flood control efforts? It is now several decades that Bangladesh has been regularly spending about 20 percent of her budget on water development projects. Numerous Flood Action Programs (FAP) have been implemented. Yet, it remains that we do not have a handle on the ‘flood-problem.’

Not only that. In some respects, the situation seems to be worsening. For example, we are now witnessing quick recurrence of a major flood. The country was yet to recover from the shock of 1987 and 1988 floods before being hit by the current, 1998 flood.

Second, this year’s flood has displayed certain additional alarming characteristics. One of these is the unusually slow pace of floodwater recession. This is sure to prolong human sufferings and aggravate damages. In particular, the slow recession may leave farmers with little time to replant their aman crop, and thus may result in unusually high crop loss. Another alarming phenomenon witnessed this year is the conjunction of a flood with acute problems of drainage, waterlogging, and filth. This can be potentially deadly for sanitation and public health.

What is the reason for this outcome? Why our flood-control strategy has not prevented a flood, has not enabled us to cope with flood, and has aggravated and created new problems?

The purpose of this essay is to show that, by and large, flood control efforts in Bangladesh have been based on erroneous thinking and have proceeded in the wrong direction. Unless serious steps are taken to correct this thinking and direction, the flood problem of Bangladesh is likely to become even worse with time and attain ultimately calamitous proportions.

In the wake of the 1988 flood, there was some soul searching regarding Bangladesh flood. However, that did not result in a wholesome conclusion. Current year’s flood will surely lead to another round of brainstorming. Many mega-projects will be proposed. However, unless the fundamental thinking is set right, these projects will prove futile and counterproductive.

Flood is an issue of major public importance. Decisions regarding such an issue should not be made exclusively by narrow circles of bureaucrats and technocrats, either domestic or foreign. The major public discussion should be held.

One purpose of this is essay is to generate such a discussion. It will first reveal the flaws with the current approach to flood control and then will put forward an alternative approach. However, before we can do so, we need to be familiar with certain basic facts regarding the land and rivers of Bangladesh. Some of these facts may be known to experts, but for the general reader, it is useful to have these facts restated here.

Bangladesh is a Delta

The fundamental physical fact regarding Bangladesh is that, together with West Bengal, it constitutes a delta. While most other deltas are the creation of single rivers, (like the deltas of the Nile, Mississippi, Yangtze, etc.), the Bengal delta is the creation of three mighty rivers, namely the Ganges, the Brahmaputra, and Meghna. This makes the dimensions of Bengal delta simply enormous. To have some comparative perspective, we may note the following facts:

  • The combined catchment basin of the Ganges, the Brahmaputra, and Meghna measures to 1,758,000 square kilometers, which is more than 12 times the size of Bangladesh.
  • The amount of rainfall in the catchment basin of the Bengal rivers is more than four times the rainfall in the Mississippi basin, although in terms of area the former is less than half of the latter.
  • The amount of sediment carried annually by the rivers of the Bengal delta is about two billion tons. This is far more than any other river system anywhere in the world.
  • Under average conditions, from June to September, 775 billion cubic meters of water flow into Bangladesh through the main rivers and an additional 184 billion cubic meter of streamflow is generated by rainfall in Bangladesh. This may be compared with the annual flow of only 12 billion cubic meters of Colorado River at Yuma of Arizona, US.
  • The combined channel of the Ganges, Brahmaputra, and Meghna is about three times the size of the Mississippi.

These numbers clearly show what a massive hydraulic system is at work in the Bengal delta. It is this gigantic scale of delta formation process that one has to take into account before thinking of any intervention into this system.

Different Stages of Life of Land in a Delta

Land in a delta crosses broadly four stages of life. In the first stage, the deposited silt still remains undersea, though rising steadily toward the sea level. In this stage, the land remains, so to speak, permanently inundated. According to a 1968 marine seismic study, the undersea fan of sediment from the Himalayas deposited in the Bay of Bengal by the rivers is 1000 km wide, over 12 km in depth, and 3000 km long. This deposit, therefore, extends as far south as and beyond Sri Lanka. The sheer size of this undersea fan testifies, in another way, to the scale and vigor of Bengal delta.

As rivers deposit more silt, a second stage is reached. The new tract of land emerges from under the sea, as it is currently happening south of Noakhali district. At this stage, the land can be seen only during the low tide and remains submerged during high tide. So, instead of being permanently inundated, it is now periodically inundated, although the frequency of inundation is rather high, twice every twenty-four hours.

As more silt is deposited, the elevation of the land increases further, and the frequency of inundation decreases. Most of the rivers that form delta have a peak and a lean season in a year. Accordingly, the frequency of inundation stabilizes and ultimately it becomes mostly an annual phenomenon. This is the third stage, and lands of this stage are known as floodplains.

With continued siltation, the elevation of floodplain increases, and after a certain point of time, parts of it get out of reach of river overflow even during the peak season. These lands then become part of the old or mauribund delta, which is generally not inundated any more.

Most of Bangladesh consists of the floodplain, i.e., of lands belonging to the third stage of delta life. It is estimated that about two-thirds (63 percent) of Bangladesh’s cultivated area falls into the category of the floodplain, and the remaining 37 percent is the mauriband part. Most of the latter is located in the Barind tract of North Bengal and in Kushtia and Jessore districts of western Bangladesh.

Thus, to summarize, the basic geomorphological fact regarding Bangladesh is that first, it is a delta, and second, most of it still falls into the active part of the delta.

Some Specific Features of Bangladesh as a Delta

In addition to the above, Bangladesh has certain unique features that distinguish it from other countries with delta. Some of these need to be noted here.

First, in most other countries, deltas form only a small part of their total area. Mississippi delta constitutes a minuscule part of the US land area. Similar is the case with Yangtze delta in China. Even in Egypt, the Nile delta constitutes a small part of the country. For Bangladesh, the situation is different. Except for hill tracts in the eastern region of the country, almost the entire country is a delta. There is very little else in the physical geography of Bangladesh.

Second, in most cases, the delta and the catchment area of the river lie in the same country. The entire catchment area of the Mississippi lies in the US. The catchment areas of Yangtze, Ho, or Yellow rivers lie in China, as do their deltas. Similarly, Brazil contains both the Amazon delta and most of Amazon’s catchment basin. But, this is not the case with Bangladesh. Most of the catchment area of Bangladesh’s rivers lies outside of Bangladesh. It is actually is spread over five different countries, namely Bangladesh, Bhutan, China, India, and Nepal. Of this huge basin, only eight percent lies within Bangladesh.

Third, unlike other deltas, Bangladesh’s rivers are characterized by an unusually large fluctuation of water-flow between lean and peak seasons. This is because 85 percent of the precipitation in the catchment basin of the Bengal river system occurs in just one-third of the year. This implies that the extent of overflow and inundation is incomparably higher in the Bengal delta than in other deltas.

Some Future Trends

In thinking about Bangladesh’s flood problem, some future trends also need to be taken into account.

One of these concerns peak season volume of water-flow. It is true that with time more water diversion projects are being implemented in the upper riparian countries, particularly in India. But these projects are mainly for diversion of water during the lean season. Therefore, these are not helpful in reducing downstream water-flow during peak season. On the other hand, global warming is causing more evaporation of water from the Indian Ocean, resulting in more moisture in the monsoon winds, and hence causing more precipitation. Global warming is also leading to more melting of the Himalayan snows and glaciers. Both these processes are likely to increase the peak season water flow in Bangladesh rivers.

Second, the amount of silt in Bangladesh rivers is also likely to increase in the future. This is because with time more deforestation and topsoil exposure is taking place. This is true for all countries of the basin, including India and Nepal. This will lead to more soil erosion and hence more silt in the river water.

Third, another alarming consequence of global warming is likely to be a gradual rise in sea level. One of the reasons for this year’s slow pace of recession has been reported to be unusually high sea level.

This combination of more peak season flow, more silt, and higher sea level are scary. More silt will cause riverbeds to become silted, which in turn will make rivers swollen even if the flow remained unchanged. Increase in water volume will only make things worse. Higher sea level will prevent water from quickly flowing to the sea. The severity of the recent floods may already be indicative of these processes being at work.

Bangladesh’s flood control problem has to be thought in the context of the above facts and trends. The issue has to be approached with extreme caution and wisdom. The massive scale of the natural forces at work here warrants a certain degree of humility on our part. The approach has to be based on intimate knowledge about the land and its people, their culture, history, and heritage.

The first thing to do is to examine carefully how our ancestors have lived with rivers. It is their experience that is most relevant in formulating a flood policy for present-day Bangladesh.

Adjustment of Life to Deltaic Conditions

Over thousands of years, people coming and living in Bengal learned how to live with rivers and adjusted their lives to the deltaic conditions of the land.

Settlement Pattern: In settling on flood plains, they always sought out high patches of land to construct dwellings and used the rest for farming. When such high patches were not available, they dug ditches and used the excavated earth to elevate the land and constructed houses thereon. This is the ‘dig-elevate-dwell’ principle of settlement. This is generally how numerous ponds, dighis, and khals that one can still see in Bangladesh villages came into being.

Note that, so far as the surface area is concerned, Bangladesh is a zero-sum game. It is not possible to devote more area to dwelling without reducing an equivalent area from rivers to put their overflow. However, to contain river overflow, more important is volume and not just surface area. From that point of view, the principle of ‘dig-elevate-dwell’ not only preserves but can actually enhance the space for river overflow. This is because every bit of newly dug out space can be made available for river overflow, but further elevating the land that is already above flood level does not take away new space from rivers for their overflow.

Dig-elevate-dwell’ principle of the settlement served many other purposes. The ponds, dighis, khals, etc. created in the process served as a permanent source of water for drinking, bathing, etc. These were also necessary for processing of many agricultural products and for cattle rearing. Finally, these water bodies served as a year-round source of fish, the main source of animal protein in average Bangladeshi diet.

Cropping Pattern: The cropping pattern was also intricately adjusted to the deltaic conditions. Through a process of natural selection, the people of Bangladesh developed the amazing varieties of bona aman, which can grow twenty feet tall or even higher to withstand deep flooding. These miraculous paddy stalks just float in water and can grow up to a foot in twenty-four hours just to keep pace with the fast-rising level of flood water. These capabilities of bona aman are yet to be matched by anything produced by modern plant breeding. Bangladeshi farmers also developed ropa aman to adjust to the brief time period that is usually available between aus harvest and the arrival of floodwater. Similarly, Bangladeshi farmers developed many varieties of boro rice and other rabi crops to suit the deltaic conditions of the country.

Transportation: The mode of transportation was also adjusted to deltaic conditions. In the dry season, people walked right on the floodplains along ails. During the rainy season, when floodplains were inundated, they used boats. Each household in the floodplain would have at least one boat. Our ancestors did not try to put up too many roads on the floodplains. In this, they were intuitively following the principle of ‘least resistance’. They knew that roads and dikes obstructed the free passage of water and therefore aggravated floods. This explains why we find so many ancient manmade khals but too few ancient roads. These khals served as important avenues for inland transportation.

The people of Bangladesh, therefore, found ways to live with rivers. They respected rivers. Some even worshipped them. They knew that rivers gave birth to this land, and rivers would come periodically to nurture it. They realized that it was in their own interest to let this nurturing take place. Therefore, they struck a bargain with the rivers: instead of trying to prevent river inundation, they made the best use of it.

This was part of the pre-industrial equilibrium between people and deltaic surroundings of this country. As we now try to achieve a new industrial-equilibrium, we have to decide judiciously which part of the old equilibrium to discard and which part to modify and in what way. In an angry urban response to this year’s abnormal flooding, it may be easy to forget the nurturing effects of regular inundation. Therefore, it is worthwhile to recall these effects here, before moving on to the discussion of the strategic issues.

Nurturing Aspects of River Inundation

The following gives a quick rundown of the various ways in which river inundation nurtures the floodplain.

First is obviously the silt deposit through which floodplain gradually rises in elevation, just as a child grows in height. The extent of silt deposit depends on the locale and duration of flooding. In some cases, silt deposit may lead to an elevation increase by as much as an inch a year.

Second, the silt that settles as topsoil, is rich in nutrients, particularly phosphorous and potash. Floodwater also triggers other biological activities in the floodplains, which generate nitrogen fertility. As river water percolates through the ground, it also fertilizes the subsoil. But for this natural process of fertilization and regeneration, land in Bangladesh would have become more chemical-dependent for nutrients.

Third, the river inundation makes monsoon agriculture possible. In the absence of flooding, agriculture would have to depend more on mechanized irrigation.

Fourth, river inundation recharges all surface water bodies and helps them to remain healthy.

Fifth, by recharging the water bodies, river inundation helps to maintain the fish habitats.

Sixth, recharged water bodies also keeps the waterways functioning.

Seventh, along with surface water bodies, river inundation also helps in recharging of underground water aquifers. The alluvial plains of the Ganges-Brahmaputra basin have the world’s largest groundwater aquifer. Whatever the increase in agricultural output Bangladesh could achieve over the last two decades has been possible mainly due to the expansion of groundwater irrigation through the use of these aquifers. However, this has resulted in the fall of the groundwater table in many areas of the country. This fall has been identified to be one of the main reasons for the recent dramatic increase of arsenic in Bangladesh’s water. Hence, for long term sustainability of groundwater irrigation, and for avoiding arsenic and other contamination of water, it is essential that Bangladesh’s underground aquifers get annually replenished. Regular river-inundation is key to this process.

Eighth, by recharging surface and groundwater bodies, river inundation helps preserve moisture in the soil and thus helps to grow of dry season crops. In addition to groundwater, surface water bodies provide additional water for irrigation.

Ninth, river inundation has a great cleansing effect on the overall physical environment. It helps preserve the flora and fauna of the land. The recharged water bodies also help moderate the extremes of heat and cold. They also have some aesthetic value.

This list of the beneficial aspects of regular river-inundation may be continued. Of course, it is of little consolation now to recount this list, when the country is witnessing unprecedented flood with all its damage and disruptions. However, it is necessary to keep this list in perspective in evaluating the virtues of various flood control proposals. Let’s begin by looking at the Embankment Approach.

Embankment Approach to Flood Control

Bangladesh’s flood control program has been so far dominated by the embankment approach. According to this approach, it is necessary to cordon off areas in order to protect them from flooding. Therefore, under this approach, the goal of flood control gets transmuted into that of flood-prevention.

A classic example of this approach is the DND project. Under this project, a tract of flood plain with Dhaka, Narayanganj, and Demra at the vertices has been cordoned off from the adjoining Buriganga and Shitalkhya rivers through construction of embankments.

Another prominent example of this approach is the Brahmaputra right-hand embankment project. Under this project, a fifteen to twenty feet high embankment has been constructed along a considerable stretch of the right-hand side of the Brahmaputra-Jamuna river channel. The purpose has been to cordon off the western bank of the Jamuna River from river inundation.

Similar embankments have been constructed along various stretches of many other rivers. The Meghna-Dhonagoda project is also of this type. In many cases, cordoning off projects have centered on cities. Embankments have been constructed to protect cities and towns like Rajshahi, Shirajganj, Chandpur, and others.

The embankment strategy got a boost by the 1988 floods when most of Dhaka city was submerged by water. The Greater Dhaka Embankment Project is a direct result of that flood. The events of 1988 led to the idea of constructing embankment along entire stretches of all large rivers. The idea is to let the river water remain confined only to their channels and pass directly to the sea. A multi-million dollar project is now underway to study the feasibility of such a project. It is quite likely that the current year’s flood will give further impetus to this idea, and the government will actually adopt this embankment project.

Yet, the fact remains that, given Bangladesh’s deltaic conditions and the future trends mentioned above, embankments are harmful on four counts. First, they deprive floodplains of the nurturing effects of inundation. Second, embankments do not solve the flood problem. Third, embankments create a risky situation and bring in new problems. Fourth, embankments lead to a huge waste of investment and leave a big debt burden behind.

To see what these general propositions mean, we can look at the experience of the DND project, the showcase of the embankment approach. The original idea behind this project was that cordoning off would allow more crops to be grown on this land. What happened subsequently is just the opposite. The cordon created a false sense of elevation and dryness, and people abandoned the time-tested ‘dig-elevate-dwell’ principle of settlement, and instead started constructing houses without sufficiently elevating the land. This ease of dwelling construction and proximity to the cities of Dhaka and Narayanganj have led to the conversion of the project area into mainly a residential area, with most of the houses being below flood level. Now, each year during the rainy season, DND becomes a flashpoint. During the 1988 flood, DND embankment was almost giving way, and the panic this created should be vivid in most people’s memory. This year the threat to DND project has become even more serious.

Thus, embankments have not solved a flood problem for DND area. In fact, more than of any other part of Bangladesh, the residents of DND have to worry and panic about flood most. If someday the embankment gives way and water gets into the project area, it will now be a calamity for the residents of the area.

Meanwhile, drainage and waterlogging have become a major problem inside the DND area. Cut off from its natural connections with the rivers, the entire area now has to be drained artificially through pumps. A large number of pumps have to operate for this purpose.

Finally, an investment made into DND project has certainly failed to achieve its goal. In a convoluted outcome, agriculture has been largely abandoned, thus frustrating the basic objective of the project. Even if we consider its unintended consequence of creating a residential area, it is clear that DND has promoted below flood level dwelling, and thus created a very dangerous situation. If other conditions prompted, a settlement would have proceeded in this area even without DND. However, in that case, people would have followed the ‘dig-elevate-dwell’ principle of settlement, and houses would have been above flood level.

There is also the issue of recurring costs. Each year, the national government has to spend a large sum on maintaining the DND project. This involves repair and maintenance of the embankments, operation of drainage pumps, etc.

Thus, DND shows how the embankment approach results in a loss on all four counts. It also shows in miniature what can happen to Bangladesh if the embankment approach is further pushed.

More importantly, even if embankment worked for DND, it would not work for Bangladesh as a whole. This refers to the fallacy of composition. As Joan Robinson explained, in a crowd, you could get a better view if you stood on a chair. However, if following you, everybody grabbed a chair and stood on it, you would no longer have a better view.

Thus, for example, DND could give up farming, switch to being primarily a residential area, and thus avoid the detrimental effects on agriculture of being cut off from the rivers. However, for Bangladesh as a whole, this is hardly an option. Bangladesh has to continue to reap the comparative advantage that she enjoys in practicing monsoon agriculture on her fertile floodplains.

Similarly, a disproportionate amount of national resources is now being spent in draining rainwater from the DND area by use of electrical pumps. It is naïve to suggest that this can be replicated on the scale of entire Bangladesh. Resource-wise and technologically, this would be a nightmarish proposition. The same applies to the issue of maintenance of the embankments in general.

The danger of fallacy of composition is most serious with regard to flood control itself. Embankments do not reduce the total volume of water. The water that otherwise would have found space in the cordoned area has to find space elsewhere. This increases pressure on the neighboring areas which now have to experience a higher level of flooding.

For example, it is likely that part of the increased flood pressure on Dhaka city is the result of the DND cordon. Similarly, it is quite likely that the Brahmaputra Right Hand Embankment, while reducing water flow to historic Chalan Bil, has increased pressure on left bank districts, like Jamalpur and Tangail.

Thus, embankments lead to a situation of conflict. Cordoned areas are pitted against those that are not. Also, one cordoned area is pitted against another neighboring one. Already in Bangladesh, there have been many instances where angry farmers have attempted to tear down cordons of neighboring areas because these were aggravating flood conditions in their own area.

This year’s experience of Chinese floods also proves how serious this situation can become. The Chinese had to ultimately dynamite many of their dikes and embankments in order to find space for overflow water and save some of the cities from the deluge.

Thus, it is necessary to think twice before becoming enthusiastic about the idea of putting up the embankment along all the rivers of Bangladesh. Where will all the water go? Can the entire monsoon flow of the mighty Bengal rivers be contained within their channels? One can say that embankments of a certain height will do the job. In actuality, this is an extremely dangerous line of thinking.

Suppose that such embankments work for a while. Recall the future trends of an increased volume of water and silt. Siltation will cause the riverbeds to rise. Hence, the height of the embankments will have to be continuously increased. On the other hand, deprived of the silt, the elevation of the floodplains will remain the same. With time, therefore, riverbeds will be higher than the floodplains. Mighty Bengal rivers will then have to fly to the Bay of Bengal over Bangladeshi heads!

While this scenario of flying rivers may seem plausible on a drawing board, in reality, it will simply not work. Instead, it will bring great disasters to Bangladesh. Given the extremely flat terrain of Bangladesh, successful containment of the rivers will at some stage require continuation of embankments upstream. But Bangladesh has no control over upstream reaches of any of her major rivers because these regions are outside of her political boundaries. Thus geo-political conditions also pose added obstacles to the embankment strategy.

Let’s, however, focus on the geological conditions only. The rivers surrounding DND project are not the major rivers of the country, and their courses are relatively stable. This is not the case with the main rivers of the delta, namely, Padma, Jamuna, and Meghna. It is in the nature of these rivers to frequently change their courses over an alluvial plain, and when they are set to do so, no amount of earthwork can prevent that from happening. Bangladesh’s experience is full of such unstoppable examples of river power.

On the one hand, there is the possibility of such historic change of river courses like that of Brahmaputra from its old Brahmaputra channel to Jamuna, or that of Ganges from Bhagirathi to Padma. Such epochal shifts do not occur frequently. However, they cannot be ruled out. River experts are particularly worried about the Brahmaputra, which they regard as one of the world’s most turbulent and dynamic rivers. They think that the way Brahmaputra is positioned on a fan of its own silt on northern Bangladesh is indicative of the possibility of another historic shift.

Also, note that some of the areas through which Bengal rivers pass are seismically active. This is particularly true of the Brahmaputra and the tributaries of Meghna. Hence, seismic events can not be entirely ruled out. Even mild tremors can provoke rivers to change course and overrun embankment. Alternatively, tremors may cause cracks in the embankment, and the pressure of river water may do the rest.

Even without seismic activity, cutting new channels and moving into them is a regular phenomenon for Bangladesh’s major rivers. Even nationally concentrated efforts have failed to prevent such course changes.

One recent example of such failure is the collapse of Chandpur Irrigation Project’s protective embankment in face of Meghna’s onslaught during the 1988 flood. The river moved 550 meters eastward and cut a 45-meter deep new channel. Similarly, all efforts at stopping erosion by Jamuna near Shirajganj town have met with little success. Earlier in 1966, the combined flow of the Ganges and Brahmaputra, downstream of Faridpur, moved 1500 meter laterally and dug a 30-meter deep new channel. As Eastern Water Study notes, there is no force on earth that can confront such raw power of nature.

Thus, to summarize, it is unnatural and downright dangerous and irresponsible to suggest that the Bengal deltaic rivers can be confined into their channels only. Such a program will put the entire nation in perpetual risk. It is just a law of probability that embankments will fail in Bengal delta. But in the meantime, embankments will create a false sense of elevation and will lead to widespread development of below flood level settlements. Embankments will also create nightmarish new problems of drainage, sanitation, and environmental degradation. Finally, when the embankments will give way, the consequence will not be too different from that of Prophet Noah’s deluge.

The Embankment Lobby

If the ultimate consequences of the embankment are so grave and destabilizing, why is it that embankments have dominated flood control thinking of Bangladesh for such a long time and continue to do so?

There are several reasons for this. The first may be categorized as misperception, which, in turn, may arise from several sources. One of these is the partial nature of expertise. For example, a hydraulic engineer of urban background may have a good understanding of fluid dynamics, but he may be unaware of the intricacies of floodplain agriculture. With little appreciation for all the nurturing effects of river inundation, he may indeed think that cordons are a good idea to boost crop output. Similarly, a bureaucrat may not have technical information about possible alternatives and come to think that cordons are the only way to deal with the floods. In absence of technical expertise of his own, a politician may just go along with technologists’ and bureaucrats’ recommendation and adopt the embankment approach.

Foreign Involvement: This problem of misperception has been aggravated by considerable foreign involvement in Bangladesh’s flood control program. In fact, water development efforts in Bangladesh started with the institution of Cruig Commission by the United Front government in the wake of the 1950 flood. Mr. Cruig himself was from the US Army Engineering Corps, as were some other members of the Commission. Most of the big water development projects that were implemented during the sixties and seventies arose from a recommendation of this Commission. These include the DND project, the Brahmaputra Right Hand Embankment Project, the Ganges-Kobadak Project, Coastal Embankment Project, etc.

Starting from that inception, dependence on foreign aid and expertise continues to be the hallmark of Bangladesh’s water development efforts. The National Water Plan, which is the current blueprint for water development efforts of Bangladesh, has been formulated by the Chicago based firm Harza Engineering Company International. Various Flood Action Programs (FAP) have also been developed with the help of foreign technical experts. Foreign technical assistance comes as an inevitable part of foreign aid.

Even such fortuitous events as that of Madame Mitterand’s accidentally being in Dhaka during 1988 flood proved to be of major consequence. This particular event led to considerable French involvement in the formulation of Bangladesh’s flood control policy. A team of 30 French engineers visited Bangladesh and reportedly advocated for embankments. For foreigners, it is all the more difficult to realize all the aspects of the organic connection that river and river-inundation have with life in Bangladesh.

It would not, however, be appropriate to lay all the blame for our ineffective flood policy on bad foreign advice. This is very clearly borne out by the reception accorded to the Eastern Water Study (EWS) report. This study was commissioned by USAID in the wake of 1988 flood for the US House of Representative Foreign Affairs Committee hearings. The study was conducted under the leadership of Peter Rogers, Harvard Professor of Environmental Engineering. Based on a careful analysis of the entire situation, this study recommended the construction of embankments.

Unfortunately, for Bangladesh government circles, this was not a welcome recommendation. They were rather eager to have the international community signed on to a multi-billion, mega-project of embankment construction, and therefore viewed Eastern Water Study report as basically a spoiler. This made EWS report a hot potato because, under pressure from Bangladesh government and others, even the USAID tried to distance itself from its recommendations. As Prof. Rogers informed me in private communication, the situation reached such a point that he was once barred from flying to Dhaka from Kathmandu to attend a conference.

This makes it clear that bad foreign advice is not the sole reason for Bangladesh’s bad water policy. In addition, there are powerful material interests at work. Big embankment projects are often lucrative to the government because these can bring in a large amount of foreign aid. This makes some politicians happy because they can then show the electorate that they are bringing home money. Embankment projects make some bureaucrats happy because they can preside over large spending programs. Such projects can make consultant, engineering, and construction companies happy because they can all get large contracts. It is easy to extend this list of direct beneficiaries of embankment program. Add to this the possibility that some of these actors may actually be corrupt, and hope to illegally benefit from these projects, and it is easy to understand why passions can run very high.

Note that none of these actors will have to be ever personally accountable for the long run outcome of these projects. A few years down the road, the politician may be out of office, the bureaucrat may be working in a different ministry, technocrats and contractors may be eagerly working for some other project. None of them will have to pay for the failure of the project to achieve its objective. The money for debt servicing will nevertheless come from backbreaking toil of peasants growing jute, or teen-age girls working in garment factories, or Bangladeshis doing menial work in the Middle Eastern countries.

Large budget embankment program suits donor agencies well too. There is little accountability on the part of the donor officials because they distribute other people’s (developed countries’ taxpayers’) money, and ultimate effectiveness of the project can touch them hardly at all.

With no personal stake in the effectiveness of the investment either at the donor’s end or at the recipients’ end, it is no wonder that wrong investment decisions are made. This is rather a general problem of aid-financed development. History of the third world countries, Bangladesh included, is littered with innumerable examples of such bad investments.

The fact that embankment-approach continues to dominate despite its obvious flaws should not, therefore, be too surprising. The question is what is the right approach to Bangladesh’s flood problem?

Opening-Up Approach to Flood

The appropriate flood control approach for Bangladesh is to open up as much space as possible to accommodate river overflow. This follows from simple arithmetic: given the volume of water and gradient, the height of flooding decreases proportionately with the increase of area over which water can spread. This is a strategy not of flood prevention but of flood mitigation and control. The approach is based on the time-honored principle by which our ancestors lived in this area, namely: live with the rivers and benefit from them.

Of course, this does not mean that we have to reproduce and cling to the pre-industrial equilibrium in its entirety. Certainly, we want to modernize and industrialize. We need more areas for urbanization, and we need faster transportation of goods and people. However, even as she tries to industrialize, Bangladesh will continue to be a delta, which, moreover, is supposed to get more peak season water and silt. We may be sitting in a high-rise apartment building, hooked to a geostationary satellite hovering several miles over the earth through a cellular phone stuck to our ear, but under our feet, down below, it is still an alluvial floodplain. Thus, while we need to adjust the old, traditional equilibrium and accommodate the needs of modernization, we have to do it in the basic geophysical setting of a delta.

Holland’s example: Does that mean Bangladesh will never be able to be a genuinely modern country because of her physical conditions? That is certainly not the case. The example that is very instructive in this regard is that of Holland. Like Bangladesh, Holland is also primarily a delta, created by the river Rhine. Like Bangladesh, the main part of Rhine’s catchment basin also lies outside of Holland. Yet, Holland has been enormously successful in creating a modern, sophisticated economy.

Of course, there is a huge difference between conditions of Bangladesh and Holland. Yet, Holland’s example shows that it is not necessary to destroy the deltaic character of the land in order to become modern. Modernization effort has to be in harmony with the local physical conditions.

In Bengali, Bangladesh is called as ‘nodimatrik desh’. This is indeed literally true. Rivers gave birth to this land. It is therefore fundamentally wrong to treat rivers as ‘bimata’ and refuse them to embrace the land. Instead of putting up embankments, we need to be as inviting to the rivers as possible and allow them to come to us when they have the need to do so.

Is this a passive strategy whereby we just sit with folded arms and wait for the rivers to engulf us? Actually, it is just the opposite. Opening-up strategy requires a huge amount of work to be carried out on a sustained basis. In the following, we indicate some lines along which this work has to proceed.

Re-excavation and Dredging: One of the most important tasks in the opening up strategy is to re-excavate the surface water bodies. In fact, excavation and re-excavation have a central role in the opening-up approach, so much so that this approach may as well be called the Excavation Approach.

What has been happening in Bangladesh over the past years is just opposite to what was warranted. We have been eagerly filling up the surface water bodies, the ponds, dighiskhalsbils, and lakes. The pressure of population growth and urbanization has certainly contributed to this process. But, this process of filling up of the surface water bodies has been very detrimental to flood control effort.

In the older part of the delta, even historic rivers are getting filled up. For many years now, due to Farakka and other upstream diversions, the lean season flow of Bangladesh rivers has decreased. This has been particularly true for rivers in the western part of the country. Many riverbeds now become totally dry during the winter season. This has made it possible and encouraged people to fill up the river beds and use them for other purposes.

Unfortunately, as we noted, Bangladesh is headed toward a situation of extremes, whereby very low lean season flow will be accompanied by very high peak season flow. Only a massive excavation program can enable Bangladesh to cope with this twin problem of extremes simultaneously. On the one hand, excavation will keep riverbeds wide, open, and deep so that peak season flow can pass through easily and rapidly. It will also enhance surface water storage capacity, which will thereby lower the flood height. On the other hand, the stored water in the re-excavated water bodies will counteract the shortage of water during the lean season. Unlike embankments, an excavation program can significantly enhance the dry season irrigation potential.

Sometimes it is argued that re-excavation and dredging is too big a task. Dredging of the main rivers is, of course, an enormous task. But that should not prevent Bangladesh from embarking on an energetic program of re-excavating the smaller rivers and other surface water bodies. In fact, Bangladesh should immediately start with a program of rejuvenating the distributaries of Padma in southwestern districts of the country. It is quite likely that filling up of these distributaries has been one reason of increased flooding in recent years of regions south of Goalondo, including Dhaka. The rivers of North Bengal should also undergo this process of re-excavation as soon as possible.

There are quite a few aspects of Bangladesh’s situation that should prove favorable for a nation-wide re-excavation program. Some of these are as follows.

First, Bangladesh’s massive population should be a tremendous help. The density of population in Bangladesh has now reached almost 1000 per square kilometer. If the water bodies targeted for excavation constitute even 10 percent of the area, then we would have 10,000 persons per square kilometer. With this high density of population, clearly, re-excavation should be a manageable task.

Second, re-excavation program does not require imported inputs and hence does not demand foreign currency. It is a labor-intensive operation and hence should be helpful in generating a huge amount of employment in rural areas. Also, not all labor may have to be fully paid. With appropriate national leadership, some of this labor may be partially or fully voluntary.

Third, it is an important fact that rivers and most large water bodies in Bangladesh are under khas, or government, ownership. This means that in implementing an excavation program, the government will have to face fewer legal problems and fewer expenses. This should be a big advantage. By contrast, construction of embankments usually requires confiscation of land and paying compensation to its owners. This makes the embankment program often legally problematic and financially expensive.

Fourth, the current reduced lean season flow should make the task of re-excavation technically easier. In many cases, there will no need for creating temporary diversion channels. The excavation program can gradually move from smaller river and water bodies to those of larger size.

Note that this program may not be limited to re-excavation only. In certain cases, new canals may also be constructed. However, to save the land, it is always a good idea to re-excavate the existing ones than to construct entirely new ones.

Ensure Free Passage of Water Across Floodplains: The other important thing in the opening-up approach is to ensure free passage of water on the floodplains.

The first major structure thrown on Bengal floodplains was the railway system constructed by the British. Of course, railways were necessary to bring the country out of the slow pace of medieval life. It was helpful that railway lines were drawn to run mainly in the north-south direction, instead of east to west. The railways were also constructed with a large number of culverts and bridges for water to pass.

During Pakistan period and since independence, many roads have been constructed. Unfortunately, not all of these have been carefully tailored to the necessity of free passage of water on the floodplains. In particular, roads have been often constructed without adequate number and size of culverts and bridges. Traveling in the western districts, it is not unusual to find an entire river filled up from both sides and spanned by a culvert of pathetic size in the middle. A lot of corners have been cut because of either misconception or sheer greed. This has now resulted in many unnecessary obstructions and bottlenecks.

Roads are certainly needed. However, in view of Bangladesh’s situation, the following principles need to be observed. First, it is better to expand and make more intensive use of the existing roads than to build entirely new ones. That is, construct new roads only if these are absolutely essential and there are no other alternatives available. Second, roads should be aligned with the rivers as much as possible. Third, in all cases, leave a maximum passage for water by inserting bridges and culverts of adequate number and size. Fourth, given that large sums have to be spent in repairing roads damaged by flood each year, in some cases, it may be cost-effective to have an entire road constructed in the form of bridge.

These principles imply that some of the existing roads will need modification. In particular, at points where these roads do not have an adequate passage for water, they need to be reconstructed.

Restoration of Water Ways: Opening up approach will have to be accompanied by an emphasis on water transportation. The re-excavation program and the program of alignment and modification of roads will have to be implemented with an eye to the restoration and enhancement of waterways. Note that water-transportation no longer has to be a slow mode of transportation. With engines fitted even to the country-boats, the rejuvenated water transportation will be qualitatively different than that featured in the pre-industrial equilibrium.

The revival of Fisheries: The re-excavation program will have to go hand in hand with a program of the revival of the fisheries. Over the last years, fresh-water fisheries sector of the country has suffered considerably. In part, this has been the result of filling up and lean season drying up of the water bodies. A second reason has been the increased use of chemical fertilizer and pesticides. The runoff from fields with chemical fertilizer and pesticides often had a devastating effect on the fisheries stock of the adjoining water bodies. The opening up strategy will help to restore fisheries in two ways. First, re-excavation of inland water bodies and reestablishment of their connections with rivers will enhance the fishing habitat. Second, river inundation will help agriculture to be less dependent on chemical fertilizer, thus reducing the problem of chemical run-off.

Re-direction of the Crop-research Program: For a long time, the crop research program of Bangladesh was focussed on dry season, controlled irrigation based crops. HYV boro was the point of focus. In fact, there was a connection between this state of crop research and the embankment approach to flood control. It was thought that solution to the country’s food problem lay in cultivation of HYV boro, which required controlled irrigation. This provided an argument for cordons because they could facilitate controlled irrigation.

However, crop research has come a long way since those early days, and now many HYVs of ropa aman have been invented. Even some HYVs of bona aman are being tested. This direction of crop research needs to be further strengthened. Growing HYVs should not be an argument for cordons.

However, in the enthusiasm for HYVs, one should not ignore the value of the traditional varieties that our ancestors created through a natural process of selection over centuries. Although their yield may sometimes be low, these rice varieties have other important qualities like superior taste, ability to resist pest, etc. Hence, nurturing these traditional varieties should also be an important goal.

Adjustment of Rural Settlement Pattern: One of the advantages of the opening up approach is that it will not create any false sense of elevation and therefore will not encourage below-flood-level-dwelling. However, it may be possible to go a little further. The government may encourage some amount of clustering and consolidation in rural settlement pattern. Such consolidation may be helpful in several ways. First, it will be easier to save dwellings from inundation by elevating the ground level if these are concentrated than if widely dispersed. Second, motorized road connection, though not a part of the pre-industrial equilibrium, is often proving to be a desirable ingredient of the new equilibrium. It is much easier, economic, and land-saving to provide road connection when settlements are consolidated than when dispersed. Third, consolidation is land-saving from dwelling point of view too, and consolidation also minimizes obstruction to water movement on the floodplain. Finally, consolidation may be helpful in planning and organizing joint efforts on the part of the villagers. One such effort may be the construction of flood-shelter, like the hurricane-shelters of the coastal districts. The best strategy in this regard will be to raise the elevation of the local school or other such public building to a flood-proof level.

Land Leveling and Terracing: Some amount of land leveling and terracing will be helpful in reaping the benefits of river inundation. This may facilitate some flood management if there is any scope of doing so. Land leveling and terracing will be helpful for dry season irrigation too.

Low Embankment with Floodgates: Even some low-height embankment construction may be part of the opening-up strategy. The purpose of these embankments will not be to cordon areas from flooding. Rather, these will be low barriers with enough floodgates. Such a combination of low embankment and floodgates may help in manipulating the timing and extent of inundation. The earth produced from re-excavation of the rivers can be used for the construction of these structures. However, careful planning has to be done so that these structures do not prove to be a new obstruction to inundation. In fact, such structures can better be thought as to future goal, because the more technological and institutional capacity and resources will be required to construct, maintain, and operate such structures.

The above does not exhaust the possible lines of activities under the opening up approach. Many new dimensions will emerge from actual experience, as the strategy gets implemented. However, we see that the opening up approach wins on all four counts that the embankment approach loses. It preserves and enhances the nurturing effects of river inundation. It mitigates flood by spreading river overflow over a larger area. It does not create a destabilizing and risky situation and does not create new problems of drainage and sanitation. Finally, it does not entail the wastage of investment.

Flood Control and Population Planning

As Bangladesh strives to have an industrial equilibrium in the delta, she also needs to think hard about the size of her population.

Note that the pre-industrial equilibrium had a stability feature to its population dynamics. This is manifested by the fact that the population in Bengal delta remained unchanged for several centuries prior to the twentieth century. It is only from the mid-twentieth century, the population has been rising along an exponential curve.

The population of Bangladesh in 1951 was 44 million. By 1989, it has increased to 110 million. Under projected dynamics, it will increase to 166 million by 2005, which is just another six years from now. This is a dangerously high number of people to live in such a small landmass characterized by such precarious ecological circumstances. The population situation in Bangladesh is certainly one of disequilibrium, and it is extremely urgent that an equilibrium is reached.

Sometimes, a tone of complacency can be deciphered in recent discussion and pronouncements regarding population situation of Bangladesh. It is claimed that the population growth has been brought down from 2.5 percent to 1.9 percent, and thereby the population situation has been brought under control.

This is a very erroneous appreciation of the situation. If the population growth rate has come down from 2.5 percent to 1.9 percent, that is a good thing, and the credit should go to where it belongs. However, this does not provide any basis for complacency. Back in 1971, when the size of the population was 75 million, a 2.5 percent growth rate implied an annual increase of population by 1.87 million. Now the population size is about 120 million, and therefore a 1.9 percent growth rate now implies an annual increase of population by 2.28 million. Thus, the annual increase in population has in fact increased.

Note that there are numerous countries of the world, whose entire population is less than Bangladesh’s annual incremental population. In fact, the total population of such large European countries as Norway or Sweden is equal to Bangladesh’s only 2 and 4 years’ incremental population. It is impossible to achieve an ecological balance with that kind of destabilizing population growth.

One important agenda from flood control’s point of view is, therefore, to immediately arrest and then reduce the population size. The example of China may be instructive in this regard. China’s density of population is still several times less than that of Bangladesh. Yet, for several decades now, China has been strictly pursuing a policy of negative population growth. Bangladesh has to strive for a similar goal. Ultimately, Bangladeshis cannot hope to have a decent and comfortable living in this delta, unless they keep their numbers commensurate to the size of their country.

What about Cities?

One question that will be asked is whether opening up is the right approach for cities, even if it is appropriate for rural areas. In particular, this will be asked with reference to Dhaka, the capital city. This question deserves serious consideration.

Let’s first look at the experience so far. It is true that Greater Dhaka Embankment has been partially successful this year in reducing flood in the south and southwestern parts of the city. But, as a whole, the embankment could not save Dhaka from a flood. In fact, flooding in northern parts of the city has been more serious this year than in 1988. Thus, efforts to save one part of Dhaka have aggravated flood in other parts.

An embankment enthusiast may nevertheless say that what is necessary is to extend the embankment to cover northern fringes of the city as well. In that way, the entire Dhaka will be cordoned off, and there will be no more flood within the city! In other words, the proposal is to make Dhaka into another DND.

But, the experience of DND already tells us what the consequences of this are going to be. As in DND, this will encourage below flood level dwelling construction, something that has already happened in Mohammadpur and other parts of the city that are close to but inside of the embankment. With the entire city cordoned, this will become rampant.

In 1988, DND embankments were almost giving way. This year the problem has become even more serious, and DND residents have now (September 12) started evacuating. Compared to DND, greater Dhaka is many times larger. If such a large area is cordoned off, the pressure on the embankments will be immense, and it will be just a question of time before one day these embankments will give way.

If in order to minimize the pressure, the cordon is kept small, then, given the explosive growth rate, Dhaka’s population will soon overflow the cordon. In fact, the cordon will only hasten this process by attracting more people to the ‘safety’ of Dhaka. With time, this will build into a major source of conflict between people inside and those outside of Dhaka cordon. Dhaka will be like one of the medieval walled cities, which ultimately collapsed in the face of storming unprivileged outsiders.

Conflict will arise in yet another dimension. Dhaka’s cordon will encourage all neighboring cities and towns to have their own cordons. If they prove successful, then everybody’s embankment will increase pressure on everybody else’s embankment. This self-defeating course of events will certainly lead to an eventual collapse of the entire structure.

In short, given Bangladesh’s conditions, embankments are not the way to ‘save’ cities, including Dhaka. This will not solve the flood problem. On the other hand, this will put Dhaka in an even more risky situation than DND. Do we want to face the absurd prospect of the evacuation of the huge population of Dhaka?

Meanwhile, cordon will create serious problems of drainage and sanitation, similar to those that exist in DND. Whenever the surrounding river-level will rise, normal gravity-flow drainage will have to be replaced by drainage through pumps. For a large and very densely populated city like Dhaka, and in a country which suffers from an acute shortage of power, this is simply an outlandish proposition.

Also, being cut off from rivers, all surface water bodies inside the city will gradually become unhealthy and will eventually die. The temperature moderation effect the water bodies will be lost. Dhaka will become more arid, hot, and inhospitable.

Thus, in the interest of long-term viability, Dhaka and other cities of Bangladesh should not try to cordon themselves. Like the rest of the country, the cities will also have to live amicably with rivers and benefit from them.

Being situated at the heart of Bengal delta, Dhaka cannot pretend to be Dallas of arid Texas. Just as the iron bridal chamber could not save Lakhindor from Manasa’s wrath, cordons, no matter how strongly built, cannot keep Dhaka out of mighty Bengal rivers’ reach. Cordons will only make these rivers come with vengeance.

Hence, Dhaka has to be in harmony with rivers and not in opposition to them. Instead of severing connections with rivers, she has to reestablish and increase these connections. There are examples of great cities, like Amsterdam and Venice, which have successfully structured their life around water. The extensive system of canals and the connection with rivers and sea have made both these cities only more attractive. That is the direction in which Dhaka has to move.

Thus Dhaka has to embark on a major program to re-excavate adjoining riverbeds, old canals, and other water bodies. Excavation will directly lead to elevation. It is, of course, difficult to elevate the ground level of the dwellings that are already in place. But the approach will certainly lead to a higher elevation of the new ones.

There were many canals in Dhaka city dating back to the Mughal period. Some of them were natural; others were dug under official patronage. Instead of preserving and extending these, we have successfully obliterated them from the face of the town. (Just try to find Dholai Khal any more!) What is needed is to restore these canals and construct new ones.

What is more important, while cordon-strategy puts Dhaka in conflict with the rest of the country, an opening-up strategy will put Dhaka in solidarity with the rest. Under this strategy, flood control efforts of the cities and the rural areas will be complementary to each other. Re-excavation and other opening up measures all across the country will certainly reduce flood-pressure on Dhaka city. In particular, re-excavation of rivers in the western and southwestern districts will let the large volume of water to move to the sea along channels west of Goalondo. This will be of significant help to Dhaka. Dhaka’s own efforts at creating more passage and storage of water will help mitigate flood in the adjoining and downstream areas. Instead of getting mired in conflict, the whole country will then unite in dealing with the flood. That is certainly the way to go.


In conclusion, therefore, we can clearly say that Bangladesh has been wrong in emphasizing embankments in her efforts to control flood. Fundamental geophysical facts regarding land and rivers of Bangladesh and the future trends do not agree with the embankment approach. Instead, the deltaic conditions of the country demand that Bangladesh adopts the opening up strategy. This strategy is based on the time-honored principle by which our ancestors have lived in this country for centuries, namely ‘live with rivers and benefit from them.’ The main components of this strategy are re-excavation of riverbeds and other surface water bodies, minimization of obstruction on the floodplains, increasing the elevation of rural and urban dwellings, restoration of waterways and water-transportation, and promotion of rural settlement consolidation around permanent flood shelters.

The opening up strategy wins over the embankment approach on all four counts. It preserves the nurturing effects of regular river-inundation, it mitigates flood, it does not create a risky situation and does not bring in new problems of drainage and sanitation, and it does not lead to waste.

However, despite these clear advantages, adoption of the opening up strategy will not be easy. The inertia of entrenched beliefs and powerful vested interests make this an uphill struggle.

However, flood control is too important an issue to be given up. People of Bangladesh who are not caught up with any vested interest, and can look at the problem with an open mind, will have to come forward. The public has to be made aware of the pros and cons of alternative flood control approaches. There are too much misconception and ignorance about various aspects of this issue, and this makes it easy for interested circles to have their way.

This year’s flood will again lead to some discussion and action. But, this should not again become an affair of closed circles. The civil government should open up this issue for wide public discussion. People with the right ideas and with only greater interests of the country in mind will have to participate in this discussion. Let us hope that through the combined efforts of all, Bangladesh will finally be able to correct the direction of her flood control efforts. Through the pain and sufferings of this year’s flood, let us hope that something good will come out. Let us not enter a new millennium on the wrong course.

(By Nazrul Islam, Professor of Economics, Emory University, Atlanta, GA, USA, nislam@emory.edu. This paper draws upon author’s earlier paper “Let the Delta Be A Delta: An Essay in Dissent on Flood Problem in Bangladesh” published in Journal of Social Studies(No. 48, 1990). Some factual information is taken from Eastern Waters Study, by Peter Rogers, Peter Lydon, and David Seckler, ISPAN, 1989, which is a must-read for all conscious people of Bangladesh.)