Flooding in Bangladesh


First published in The Ecologist, 23(1), 36.   January/February, 1993

I read the article by Peter Custers, "Banking on a Flood-Free Future? Flood mismanagement in Bangladesh" (The Ecologist, Sept/Oct 1992) with considerable interest. Most of the sentiments expressed in his article have my wholehearted support. I doubt, however, whether land reforms could provide more than a partial answer to the threat from cyclones. The landless who move to the char lands probably never could be protected, if for no other reason than that the chars are transient in nature. The problem of landlessness itself may owe much to human greed and illegally large land-holdings but one cannot disregard the inherent problem of land division by inheritance. The resultant minute farms are unviable and, so, are sold leaving the inheritor landless. Similarly, the excessive population of Bangladesh and the high birth-rate act against any real solution.

During my time in Bangladesh, 1981-1983, I sought information on the source of water which filled the beels (the quite enormous saucer shaped depressions which make up the floodplains). Despite several large-scale studies which were underway at that time, nobody could give me any definite answers. A fair consensus seemes to be that the great rivers contribute in two ways. First, there is the overspill of their water - which embankments might prevent. Second, during the monsoon Bangladesh itself receives around 2,400 mm of rain, with some 3,000 mm in peak years, and this is impounded by the rivers. Embankments simply would replace the rivers in this impounding process and flooding still would occur. Even worse, being permanent. embankments would prevent natural drainage as the river levels fall in the autumn. Apart from the disruption this would cause to the complex of the present crucial subsistence crop, deepwater rice, the consequent waterlogging would prevent the winter cultivation of numerous vital crops (such as mustard, onion, water melon, potatoes). All the crops would suffer if inflow of river water was prevented because of the dramatic loss of the vast quantities of silt which annually replenish soil fertility in much of the floodplains. Studies of silt deposition and agronomic atudies show patterns which support this consensus.

The section titled "Adapting to the Floods" does an injustice to the farmers and to their traditional deepwater rice crop. It is not a matter of "adapting" - that was done thousands of years ago. Mention of 10,000 varieties of "wild rice" is misleading. The deepwater rice may well be the progenitor of most modern rice varieties but it certainly is not wild. A very high degree of sophistication is shown in the careful selection of cultivars for specific depths of flooding and specific periods of flooding. There is no need whatever for fencing (other than to keep the water hyacinth, a serious floating weed, out of rice fields) nor for planting of natural grasses, canes and trees. In fact, interference in the natural pattern of rice cultivation has come from irrigation during the dry winter season (the end result of other donor activity). Increasingly, the farmers are turning to the ostensibly higher yielding winter, boro, rice but the boro harvest comes too late for the sowing of deepwater rice. Thus, the only possible summer crop is being lost. Furthermore, the enlarging area of boro means disappearance of the normal winter break in rice cultivation and the consequent year-round presence of rice in the floodplains is leading to major increases in pest and disease populations. The empty boro fields leave gaps in beels which otherwise would be completely filled with deepwater rice; in windy conditions these gaps allow waves to build up so as to do severe damage to the deepwater rice. Incidentally, deepwater rice also is the major subsistence crop of the floodplains of Thailand, West Bengal, Assam, Indonesia and Vietnam.

The "aid and consultancy" game frequently comes in for severe and, in some instances, justified criticism. There are many who pursue careers in it and do their work conscientiously and effectively. Regrettably, from my own twenty-three years' experience, it is the headquarters staff of aid agencies who "decide" what the results of research projects mean. Years of hard-gained field experience (indigenous and expatriate) commonly are ignored; preference being given to the reports of "Evaluation Missions" staffed by "experts" who usually come from Western institutions and commonly have never lived nor worked in developing countries.

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