Dhaka Courier

What nature giveth, and taketh away

Pandemics come and go, once maybe in a century or so. Here in the world’s largest delta though, nature has ordained certain challenges endemic, if not eternal. Bangladesh faces the cumulative effects of floods due to water flashing from nearby hills, the accumulation of the inflow of water from upstream catchments, and locally heavy rainfall enhanced by drainage congestion. As hard as the novel coronavirus demands our attention and resources, the bout of annual flooding that arrives during the summer months with the south-westerly monsoon settling over South Asia hardly ever passes quietly. The rains that usher it in are the region’s blessing, and its curse.

For much of the first half of July, huge onrush of water from the upstream and monsoon rains brought fresh flooding to  the northern and north-eastern districts of Bangladesh. Earlier, during the last week of June 2020, the Bangladesh Red Crescent Society (BDRCS), who are actively involved in disaster management, activated its Early Action Protocol (EAP) to support 3,800 households in three districts which had more than 25 percent of household assets damaged. Although the situation showed a slight improvement at the start of July, it has deteriorated again as major rivers in the country are now flowing above the danger level.

According to the latest forecasts in the disaster management community, this year’s flood has a “50 percent chance to cross 1 in 10 years” on 21 July. Translated, that means of a magnitude seen only once every ten years. Thousands of people in low-lying areas are witnessing the second phase of floods this season due to the rise of water levels of major rivers in the country, according to a BDRCS report issued on July 14.

Over the past week, the flood situation further worsened in the north-eastern districts of Sylhet, Sunamganj and Netrokona; northern districts of Nilphamari, Lalmonirhat, Rangpur, Kurigram, and Gaibandha; north-western district of Natore and north central districts of Bogura and Jamalpur. Many of these districts were affected when the first monsoon flood hit on 26 June and the situation there improved after several days.

The Ministry of Disaster Management and Relief (MoDMR) mentioned in a briefing that the northern Kurigram, Lalmonirhat, Rangpur, Nilphamari and Gaibandha, northwestern Natore, Naogaon, Bogura, Sirajganj and Rajshahi, northcentral Jamalpur and Tangail and central Manikganj districts in the Brahmaputra-Jamuna basin, central districts of Rajbari, Faridpur, Madaripur, Shariatpur and Munshiganj and southeastern Chandpur in the Ganges-Padma basin and northeastern Netrokona, Sylhet and Sunamganj and central district of Kishoreganj in the Meghna basin could face the brunt of a fresh wave of flood.

The European Commission’s Directorate-General for European Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid Operations, or ECHO, issued a daily flash that as of 15 July, over 1,800,000 individuals are affected by the floods in 18 districts. The next day, State Minister for Disaster Management and Relief Enamur Rahman divulged that 8 people had so far been killed in the floods, and put the number affected at nearly 2.25 million people.

Of the lives lost, four died in Jamalpur, and one each in Sunamganj, Lalmonirhat, Sylhet and Tangail. The state minister also said the current flood would ‘not last long because the river water levels have started to recede.

But according to the government’s Flood Forecasting and Warning Centre (FFWC), the situation is expected to worsen in north-west and central Bangladesh over the coming days, with a likely peak on 18 July. Major rivers in the Meghna basin such as Surma River, Jamuna River and Gur River were all reportedly experiencing rising water levels above their danger marks.

A look at the FFWC’s river-based map of the country with its gouging stations marked along the riverways on Thursday night spoke volumes. At every station along the Jamuna River, as the Brahmaputra’s lower stream is known upon entry into Bangladesh, from the northernmost right down into central Bangladesh where it poetically meets the Padma, the water level was marked in purple, signifying at the Danger level, or red, for Severe flooding.

FFWC reported that the precipitation level was at 523 millimeters at Cherapunji on July 11 and Assam and Meghalaya and West Bengal also received heavy rain. For Bangladesh, the country’s highest rainfall of 252 millimeters over 24 hours was recorded on the same date at Lourergarh in Sunamganj. Extremely heavy rains were observed at many places at Sylhet, Sunamganj, Netrokona and Mymensingh.

Over a million people were marooned in dozens of villages from 10 to 11 July 2020 as roaring rivers swept away embankments in the districts where some of the embankments were already under water since 26 June. Thousands of people are expected to leave their homes throughout the beginning of this week to seek shelter in higher grounds as the Water Development Board warned that the onrush of water from upstream would further intensify.

Just do better

As low-lying areas in 23 districts are predicted to experience a month-long fresh flooding in the next week with the rise of water levels in major rivers, the Government of Bangladesh is trying its best to face the flood situation. One thing is for sure, it does not lack experience. Given that  we don’t expect the situation to ever change (and if it did, it would probably be for the worse), what governments must always strive for is to do better each year. The State Minister of MoDMR said in a briefing that the government has taken all-out preparations to protect the lives and livelihoods of people from the approaching flood as the deluge may continue for prolonged period. Directives have been given to ensure preparedness of shelter centers in 23 districts. The GOB already allocated a total 8,210 metric tons of rice, BDT 22,250,000 of cash, 48,000 packets of dry foods, BDT 4,800,000 worth of fodders (animal foods) and BDT 4,800,000 worth of child foods to 23 districts from 28 June to 9 July.

Each district will receive 200 metric tons of rice, BDT 500,000 cash,  BDT 200,000  worth of child food, BDT 200,000 worth of fodder and 2,000 packets of dry foods to ensure timely distribution and local administrations are available to immediately support the affected people. The State Minister of MoDMR said more allocation will be provided based on the evolving needs of the affected people. The District Disaster Management Committee (DDMC) and Bangladesh Water Development Board offices are continuously coordinating and constantly monitoring the flood situation since June to ensure efficient response during monsoon season.

BDRCS is implementing Integrated Flood Resilience Programme (IFRP) in eight communities of Jamalpur (supported by Swedish Red Cross), Lalmonirhat and Nilphamari (supported by MoFA, Government of the Republic of Korea and IFRC) districts where total 200 trained and equipped community disaster response team (CDRT) members are on stand by and keeping continuous communications with the communities. The community-based flood early warning system has been activated. The team is coordinating with district level authorities such as Water Development Board offices and collecting information and disseminating the message among the community regarding the flood situation.  

Communities in Nilphamari and Jamalpur are mostly vulnerable, according to the BDRCS assessment, and likely to be affected by the floods as river water has increased above the danger level. Hence, the community-based flood contingency plan has been activated in each community and community volunteers in coordination with the local government took necessary actions in line with the plan. The community disaster response fund is also available in each community to be utilized as needed.

The United Nations is using the latest in data and predictive analytics to forecast the next major monsoon floods, gauge likely impacts – and take action – before possible disaster hits.

On 4 July a high probability of severe flooding was forecast for mid-July along the Jamuna River in Bangladesh, with one-third of the area’s total population likely to be affected. That warning was the trigger for the UN to immediately release $5.2 million from the Central Emergency Response Fund (CERF) to help communities urgently prepare and protect themselves.

The money went to three participating agencies – the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) and the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) to enable them to prepare to distribute cash, livestock feed, storage drums, and hygiene, dignity and health kits.

On 11 July, the activation trigger was reached when forecasting predicted the floods would reach critical levels in five days. At this point, aid workers began distributing the aid.

The ECHO daily flash on July 15 also said the volume of relief and food aid distributed by individuals and private organisations among the flood victims is significantly reduced this year due to the COVID-19 outbreak.

Suffering the deluge

Around 1.25 lakh people were stranded as Brahmaputra and Ghaghat rivers continued to swell, worsening the overall flood situation of Gaibandha as of July 15. At least 26 unions in Sundarganj, Phulchhari, Saghata and Sadar upazilas were inundated due to incessant rain and onrush of water from the upstream, reported our sister newsagency UNB.

People hit by the flood are suffering from scarcity of food, water and sanitation. Many people have been forced to take shelter on flood control embankments. Road communication was disrupted as many important parts of the roads have gone under water, locals said.

Executive Engineer Mokhlesur Rahman of Water Development Board said the water of Brahmaputra and Ghaghat rivers were flowing 99cm and 71cm above the danger level respectively. The water would continue to rise for another two days, although the flood control embankment is currently functional but emergency protective work is underway at important points, he said.

The situation in Kurigram also deteriorated further this week as all the rivers continued to swell, leaving nearly one lakh people marooned. The Brahmaputra River was flowing 45cm above the danger mark at Chilmari point and 47cm above at Nunkhawa point and the Dharla river 82cm above in Dharla bridge point on July 13, while the Teesta River was flowing along the danger line.

As flood water inundated vast areas, more than one lakh people in 56 unions of 9 upazilas of the district became marooned. Many people were forced to take shelter on roads and dams as water entered their homes. Flood water snapped road communication in some areas.

Water Development Board officials said initiatives are being taken to prevent erosion by dropping sand-filled GO-bags at 11 points. Kurigram Deputy Commissioner Md Rezaul Karim said boats and speedboats have been kept ready to rescue the stranded people. Some 438 shelters, including schools and madrasas, have been prepared and police have taken necessary steps to maintain law and order there, he said.

In Jamalpur, flood water has already entered the premises of 40 shelter centres in Islampur upazila while grounds of all five shelters in Dewanganj upazila have gone under water, reported the Daily Star. The overall flood situation in Jamalpur further worsened on Thursday as water level of the Jamuna rose 129 cm above the danger mark at Bahadurabad Ghat point in Dewanganj upazila, according to WDB. Around 6 lakh people are paralysed by waterlogging in the district.

In Natore, State Minister for ICT Zunaid Ahmed Palak visited flood-hit areas in the afternoon. He informed that 10,000 people in five unions in Singra upazila were affected.

Even in Faridpur, Padma river water was flowing 83cm above the red mark at Goalanda point on July 16, reported the UNB local correspondent. People of four upazilas were marooned in the district while road communication between villages and town halted for the flood. Faridpur WDB executive engineer Sultan Mahmud, said, “The extent of rising water this year is higher than any time and new areas are being flooded every day.”

A region’s plight

Perhaps nothing binds the people of South Asia like their experience of the monsoon - the thrill of its bounties, the inevitable tragedies. The etymology of the word monsoon is not wholly certain, but the English ‘monsoon’ is said to have come from the Portuguese monção, and ultimately from the Arabic mawsim ( “season”), which is almost identical to the Hindi mausum, and of course very close to our own moushum in Bangla, meaning season. We may delight in the subtleties of the six seasons here, but for the vagaries of nature to really impact the lives of people, it really only matters whether it’s the monsoon or not.

At least 213 people have been killed in floods and landslides triggered by heavy monsoon rains across the region over the past month, officials said Thursday. More than 1 million people have been marooned in Nepal, Bangladesh and India and hundreds of thousands have fled their homes for higher ground. Majority of the fatalities occurred in India, as may be expected, but Nepal too has suffered disproportionately. Bangladesh, based on official reports, has gotten off relatively lightly till now. 

Indian officials said floods and mudslides killed 16 more people in the country’s northeast, raising the death toll in the country to 93. Nepal reported at least 117 deaths over the past month.

Incessant rain caused the Brahmaputra River, which flows through Tibet, India and Bangladesh, to burst its banks in India’s Assam state late last month, inundating large swathes of the state, triggering mudslides and displacing about 3.6 million people, officials said. Vast tracts are still underwater, with 26 of the state’s 33 districts badly affected.

Authorities rescued about 4,000 people trapped by the surging flood waters in various parts of Assam, said M.S. Mannivanan, chief of the state Disaster Management Authority. About 36,000 people whose homes were destroyed or submerged have taken shelter in nearly 300 government-run relief camps, he said.

The floods also inundated most of India’s Kaziranga National Park, home to an estimated 2,500 rare one-horned rhinos, authorities said.

In the eastern state of Bihar, at least nine rivers swollen by heavy downpours in Nepal rose beyond their danger levels and inundated many villages. One of them, the Gandak River, swept away the connecting roads of a newly built multimillion dollar bridge in Bihar’s Gopalganj district, disrupting transportation in the area. The Meteorological Center in the state capital, Patna, forecast heavy rain over the next 48 hours.

Nepal’s Home Ministry said 117 people have died in the Himalayan nation in monsoon-related incidents. It said the rains triggered landslides in mountainous areas and flooding in the southern plains. At least 47 people were reported missing and 126 have been injured in the past month, it said.

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