Government Incompetence Adding Sufferings for Millions in Sylhet and Grim Future Awaiting for Others -Mohammad Imran

Cover Story

Back to back floods have devastated the lives and livelihoods of millions of people living in Sylhet. Endless suffering of people in the face of gigantic tide flow washing everything away has shown the vulnerability of Bangladesh in the wake asymmetric climatic change. Unpredictability of climatic impacts coupled with mismanagement of government and unpreparedness of relevant stakeholders to address the emergency crisis has added further sufflation for millions of people. Lack of any long term initiative to address the root causes of the frequent floods in this region leave people with further prospect of devastation in upcoming days.

Frequent flood in Sylhet division has become frequent in recent years. In fact, sudden flood has submerged Sunamganj and Sylhet city for couple of days in 2019. But water has receded gradually and everything became normal. None realized that bigger horror is yet to prevail. Sunamganj, Moulvibazar, and Sylhet have been flooded from May 10 this year to next two weeks until the recession of all water. Flood has submerged the houses, paddy fields and roads with the overflow of water. At least 10 people died and four millions people were directly affected by the flood. No effective government policy or emergency measures were taken to prevent further exposure of these localities to floods. Unfortunately the biggest flood has come on June 16 and totally submerged 80% areas of Sylhet division and 90% areas of Sunamganj district. None has ever seen such a big flood in Sylhet after 1998. It is evident that, Sylhet is used to facing such flash floods but this time it was totally different. Its velocity, frequency, ferocity and frequency are unprecedented. Previously, water coming from upstream India has been driven to haor and low-lying lands in the northeastern Bangladesh. However, analysts are identifying multiple reasons behind the frequent floods in Sylhet. Above all, record amount of rainfall in Cherrapunji of Meghalaya has been identified as the most responsible enabler behind this flood. It has been reported that Cherrapunji has seen 972mm rainfall which is highest in 122 years. This vast amount of water directly comes down to Sunamganj. This excessive amount of water has submerged the total Sylhet area. Major rivers of Sylhet including Surma, Kushiara, and Goain have also seen excessive water flow. In fact, water flow in these rivers were one meter above the danger zone. Most critical situation was in Surma where water flow was 12,000 cubic meter per second, highest in last 50 years, during the peak of the flow. Almost 10 million people have been affected by this flood. People were forced to leave their homes and take shelter elsewhere. Lack of transportation has also added unimaginable sufferings. At least 22 people including children are already dead and this amount is likely to increase due to long standing flood. It is important to note that 35 people were also died in Assam from landslides and floods during the same time in India. However, people are being forced to go hungry due to the inundation of homes and nearly all low and high lands in Sylhet division. Crisis of food and fresh edible water is acute. People of this region was already struggling as they were hit by flood in previous month and new flood has just exacerbated the existing worse situation. Despite military deployment for rescuing people and distributing emergency foods, government initiatives were highly inadequate to heal the suffering of millions of people.

Floods in these region has direct connection with human activities. First of all, capacities of the rivers in northeastern region has been drastically reduced. Rivers have become silted and consequently the navigability has decreased by leaving less space to for water flowing. That is why water is flowing over the riverbanks making human settlements vulnerable. Water cannot move easily down towards the sea as a result of impediment in natural flow. Human intervention is evident in this regard. Due to rampant rock hoisting in Indian sides have huge soil and rock displacement. This makes the beneath of rivers coverlet with them. Additionally, pollution is highly responsible for decreasing navigability as various wastes are being dumped at river. All these human actions are highly responsible for adding strain on river by making flood inevitable. Beside human induced pollutant activities, unplanned construction is also largely responsible to disrupting the water flow. Especially the construction of roads and bridges in haor areas have also bearing with the limiting water flow towards low lands. Huge water pressure in haor due to the lack of flow channels has caused the inundation nearest areas. All of these aspects perhaps determine the outcome of floods in Sylhet region. But it is undeniable to say that global climate change is becoming a big issue. Proper government intervention is highly necessary to mitigate the suffering of people.

Suffering of millions of people in Sylhet division has shown us how unprepared Bangladesh is to tackle any climate. Bangladesh has been branding itself as a leader in environmental disaster management globally. Its resilience against floods and natural calamities have been boasted and recognized globally. But the flood condition in Sylhet and inadequate measures to respond the emergency reminded us nothing but a helpless fragile system. Local politicians and administrative officials were also less active in mitigating the sufferings of people. Floods in Sylhet is nothing new but local preparedness was nearly zero. Boats were the only medium of transportation due to inundation of the whole areas in Sylhet. In absence of boats, rescue programs were greatly impacted. Rather people from all walks of life have come forward across the country to help the marooned people in Sylhet. In fact, government fund allocation was highly insufficient to handle this big crisis. It has been reported in media that only 60 lakhs taka was allocated for the people in distress in Sylhet. It is questionable that how adequate this amount of fund is to tackle this crisis. In fact, fund collection of individuals has been more than this amount. Private initiatives were vibrant than government initiatives in flood situation in Sylhet.

Lack of long term preparedness to prevent floods in this region in government has been reflected very immensely. As the navigability scarcity in rivers has been a great source of overflow of water inundating the riverside areas, no excavation activities have taken place on Surma River in last five decades. So, sediment along with dumped materials have created the whole riverbed very congested to facilitate easy water flow. Study shows that 869 corer taka has been spent in last 12 years to clean the canals in Sylhet for better flow. But there is hardly any visible result as dumping wastages in common canals continue. Besides, unplanned private and public infrastructures are highly responsible. It has been evident that government is so much interested in undertaking infrastructural development projects. Indeed, they are highly necessary for the socio-economic development in the context of Bangladesh. But environmental cost of these projects should be taken seriously. Mithamoin-Astagram road is to be seen spectacular but its impeding impact of natural water flow in haor is making concern and visible impact on the local communities due to the increasing frequency of floods. Perhaps that is why Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has recently suggested to build flyover roads in haor. So, policy planners should have understood this earlier on as land based roads would negatively impact on the existing environment. Evidently, there were no strong embankments to prevent rapid water flow from Indian north-east. Government should seriously consider its policy planning in Sylhet region to tackle the further floods.

Climate change does not take place in isolation rather it has global connectivity and contribution in nature. So, flood happening in Sylhet cannot be extricate from neighboring India. As there are 16 common rivers flowing between Bangladesh and India in Meghna river basin system, consequently joint river management is necessary for the better management of water. Unfortunately there is no legal bilateral agreement. Joint excavation is becoming necessary for Bangladesh and India both to prevent floods in their respective localities. It should not be forgotten that Assam and Meghalaya are also facing frequent floods. However, Bangladesh government has also responsibility to make efforts bilaterally to resolve water sharing contention. We have just seen the horrific situation in Sylhet only but the flood situation is also getting worse in the area of Rangpur, Kurigram, Lalmonirhat, and Nilphamari. Excessive amount of water is being released from Teesta and that is already crating huge inundation in this region. Despite have friendly relations, current Bangladesh government has not been able to bring any fruitful results in negotiation with India. Tradeoffs between India and Bangladesh is running high as we have given them transit in rail and roads, and port facilities but India could not even resolve long standing Teesta water issue which is perhaps the most crucial need for people in northern part of Bangladesh. Distortion of the natural flow of water by preventing in dry and releasing in rain is making millions of people in both sides cry is bringing natural disaster. It should be noted that both countries are being facing environmental challenges by this sort of dams. Addressing these joint issue areas is becoming very urgent for the natural wellbeing of both India and Bangladesh in the context of global climate change.

Natural calamities have become a common feature of Bangladesh. None knows where the end of the suffering of these helpless people is. In the absence of adequate government policy, suffering of people multiplies. Government should finance on the rightful projects addressing the needs of people rather than fancy projects creating environmental disasters. Additionally sufficient fund allocation and management should be prioritized. Joint activities should also be pushed in bilateral relation with India to address the common problems both countries are facing. Government should seek help from global governing bodies if it is necessary for bringing environmental justice as once government has boldly moved for maritime demarcation.
Author of this article is a political analyst.