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5 December, 2017 00:00 00 AM
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Impact of recent flood in the livelihood of Haor people

Studies show that poor drainage system and encroachment of river beds are the major causes of water stagnation in Haor areas
Sadrul Hasan Mazumder
Impact of recent flood in the livelihood 
of Haor people

This year’s early flash flood, which had shocked several thousand farmers across Haors and low-lying areas of the northeastern part of Bangladesh was actually the outcome of heavy rainfalls as well as onrush of water from the upstream hills of Meghalaya and Assam in India. The flood caused losses of nearly-ready-for-harvesting Boro rice on more than 200,000 hectors of land. This flash flood started on March 28 affecting six districts in the northeastern region, which lingered for a comparatively longer period due to the ever longest rainfall till September 2017. Water overflowed and breeched embankments in many places and inundated vast areas of croplands.

Haor is a wetland ecosystem in the northeastern part of Bangladesh, which remains covered by water almost half of the year starting from the monsoon season. As lands in Haor remain inundated six to seven months from June to November, the Haor people are used to living in this condition although it causes numerous sufferings to their lives. It almost confines them to their small homes, limits their mobility, and practically eliminates the possibility of finding jobs. According to a study by Center for Policy Dialogues (CPD) around 4.67 million people from 1.03 million households were affected during this flash flood, which is about one-fourth of the total population of the six affected districts. CPD counts that 85 percent of the affected households depends on agriculture and that approximately 1.58 million metric tons of Boro rice were damaged, which is equivalent to 8.3 percent of national average of Boro production.

According to Haor Master Plan, around 29.56 percent of 160 million people who are living on less than $1 a day located in Haor region where nearly 28.5 percent have no access to any kind of employment opportunity. Devastating flash flood washed away their homes, submerged land and destroyed possessions and put them into further vulnerabilities. Effected families have been facing the cruelties of hunger and malnutrition as they were forced to find a new place to live and a new means of earning their livelihoods. BRAC study estimates loss of around Tk30,000 million only in agriculture sector and approximately Tk240 million in health sector, which compelled 47.5 percent and 24.8 percent farmers respectively to borrow from their relatives and NGOs. Proportion of jobless people increased by 20 percent during flood exposing the Haor dwellers to excessive mental stress, the study revealed.

Experts opined that such flash floods usually wreak havoc in this part of the country during April but this time crops went under water during March and attributed such phenomenon to climate change. In a report by Daily Star, Prof AKM Saiful Islam of the Institute of Water and Flood Management of the Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology (BUET), mentioned that when the water level of the Surma river at Sunamganj station of Bangladesh Water Development Board (BWDB) crosses the 6.5 metre-mark during March-April, they consider it as the beginning of flash flood. The US National Weather Services defines flash flood as a flood caused by heavy or excessive rainfall in a short period of time, generally for less than 6 hours. Flash floods are usually characterized by raging torrents after heavy rains that rip through river beds, urban streets, or mountain canyons sweeping everything before them. They can occur within few hours of excessive rainfall. Given the geographical location flash flood is one of the main natural disasters of the northeast region of Bangladesh. BRAC study found that all other flash floods since 2000 hit the Haor areas during mid-end of April while this year it happened during March making farmers helpless and unprepared to harvest a major portion of the Boro crops. Even the most resilient farmers at large were not prepared for such devastation at all. Climate scientists also attributed such changes in season caused by global warming and climate change leading to early flash floods.

Flood Forecasting and Warning Centre (FFWC) under BWDB generates and provides flood forecasts and warning information to enhance the disaster management capacity of national agencies and communities using the best scientific principles, real time data and weather forecast information. FFWC issues flood warnings by simulating a numerical model of the Bangladeshi river network but practically, it has been found that such model is not capable of issuing a strong and dedicated early warning system of flash flood with a considerable lead time for Haor region. Furthermore, it resumes its operation during monsoon in June. Therefore, farmers of Haor don’t get any warning in April-May when they need most to protect their harvest. This indeed demands modernisation of the warning system.

Research studies show that poor drainage system including legal and illegal occupation of river beds have been found as the major causes of water stagnation in Haor areas. Two major natural drainage systems - the Meghna and the Brahmaputra, which carry out water from the northeastern part of the country, have been grossly narrowed down at the Jamuna and Meghna bridges point, which we usually do not care about at all. It has been evident in several media reports that people in need as well as the land grabbers at large continuously occupy the river beds, which ultimately create obstacle to drain out flood water quickly. Even the dams and embankments, which are usually built to save crops from flash flood water, have been found to be obstacles to faster removal of flood water. BRAC study found that if flood water could be drained out at the fastest possible time through regular maintenance of drainage system or removing additional silt easing natural process of recharging ground water or pumping-out of stagnant water (though expensive), there are chances for the farmers to start early transplantation of Boro during November creating longer duration for harvesting. In addition bringing diversification in crop varieties and introducing paddy of comparatively shorter life cycle could be manageable for farmers to harvest even well ahead of the early flash flood period.  

Fortunate though, since 2013 BRAC has been piloting Integrated Development Programme (IDP) in four upazillas of the northeastern part where the devastating flood washed away the essential livelihoods of around 7,48,000 people. IDP has been designed to tackle various cycles of poverty, malnutrition and diseases. Realising that any singular intervention might not be supportive for the deprived, marginalised and excluded people living in multiple challenges, BRAC has undertaken the integrated approach to bring positive changes, and alleviate multidimensional conditions that the poor are exposed to. Through integrated approach, BRAC has been providing nine different services following one stop service delivery mechanism engaging the communities. Such interventions help BRAC to respond during the flash flood in the shortest possible time. BRAC has learned that if a coordinated mechanism can be drawn, minimum resources could be managed to reach the maximum number of target people, which can be scaled up not only by other non-government actors but also by the government agencies. For example, only in primary education, due to BRAC interventions, dropout rate has been decreased by 133 percent, just arranging ferry boat transporting children to school and organising Boat Schools, while in health sector 42 percent people get increased access to sanitary latrine and 66 percent increase in practice of washing hands with soap after defecation.

Flash flood in Haor areas has been the common instance driven by the natural ecosystem and from development perspective we perceived it as adversity. Climate scientists referred such devastation as the outcome of climate change. In such a geographical setting having flood is obvious but following precautionary initiatives and appropriate preparedness we can reduce loss of human kind. Some of the initiatives are associated with reform or enactment of polices and some of these are strongly related to our choice and means of livelihood. But once we would be able to undertake the following measures, we can well stand chasing such natural calamities:

•    Introducing crop insurance scheme for the farmer across Haor regions.

•    Introducing new crop variety with short-life and high value.

•    Improving drainage systems that facilitate early transplantation of Boro crop along with re-stalling natural system for recharging of groundwater.

•    Creating greater access to job market through specially designed skills development programmes for youth.

•    Ensuring greater financial inclusion of Haor people through banking and non-banking arrangements.

•    Creating market opportunities for the marginalized farmers by facilitating supply chain management system.

•    Intensifying social safety net programmes at Haor region.

•    Introducing dedicated early flash flood warning system.

 The writer is the Programme Coordinator – Advocacy for Social Change, BRAC and can be reached at sadrul.mazumder@brac.net

 

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Published by the Editor on behalf of Independent Publications Limited at Media Printers, 446/H, Tejgaon I/A, Dhaka-1215.
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Editor : M. Shamsur Rahman
Published by the Editor on behalf of Independent Publications Limited at Media Printers, 446/H, Tejgaon I/A, Dhaka-1215.
Editorial, News & Commercial Offices : Beximco Media Complex, 149-150 Tejgaon I/A, Dhaka-1208, Bangladesh. GPO Box No. 934, Dhaka-1000.

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