Sylhet faces another severe flood crisis as relentless rainfall and upstream surges in the transboundary rivers shared with India have caused these rivers to rise rapidly, submerging large areas. This, the second bout of flooding in the division this year, started with three rivers in Sylhet exceeding their danger levels, affecting communities in Companiganj and Gowainghat upazilas.

As of Tuesday (June 18) morning, the day after Eid ul Azha in Bangladesh, more than 2 lakh people were affected, with nearly 50,000 residents of Sylhet city experiencing severe waterlogging. On Eid day (Monday), the district administration distributed sacrificial meat, dry food, saline, and medicine to the flood-hit people, providing some relief amid the crisis. But things were only about to get worse.

Assistant Meteorologist Shah Md Sajib Hossain of the Bangladesh Meteorological Department reported that Sylhet received 153mm of rainfall between 6am Monday and 6am Tuesday. An additional 44mm was recorded in just three hours after that, and more heavy rain was on the way.

The Indian Meteorological Department (IMD) also reported 395mm of rainfall in the 24 hours from Monday to Tuesday morning, contributing to the surging river levels. Precipitation was highest in Assam and Meghalaya, the two states bordering Sylhet on the north, where it was 223% above the mean.

This marks the second wave of flooding in Sylhet already this season, within hardly 20 days of the first - that hit on May 27, eventually affecting 750,000 people across 13 upazilas. The north-east region of Bangladesh had not even fully recovered from that first bout, when torrential rains and upstream surges hit again on June 15 (Saturday), leading to widespread flooding in the division within a day. On Eid ul Azha (Monday), Sylhet city, including many of its key roads, became submerged, disrupting daily life and mobility.

Low-lying areas of Sylhet city, particularly Shahjalal Uposhohor, are severely impacted, with waist-deep water in many homes. Other affected areas include Jatarpur, Mendibagh, Shibganj, Raynagar, Sobhanighat, Kalighat, Kamalgadh, Mashimpur, Taltola, Jamtola, Kazirbazar, Madina Market, Darga Mahalla, Akhalia, and Mejortila.

Sylhet City Corporation Mayor Anwaruzzaman Chowdhury said, "We were able to celebrate Eid beautifully on Monday despite the rain. But today (Tuesday) the Surma's water is flowing above the danger level. As a result, water has risen in our wards numbered 26, 28 and 29. We have already cancelled the leave of all our officers and employees."

The district administration meanwhile has prepared 538 temporary shelters. The number of people taking refuge in these shelters rose rapidly. Many residents struggled to perform ritual sacrifices on Eid due to the flooding of homes and businesses. Rural roads in several upazilas, including Gowainghat and Companiganj, were underwater, disrupting road communication and flooding agricultural fields. Fish from ponds have also been washed away.

According to the Sylhet Water Development Board, as of 9am on Monday, the Surma River at Kanaighat point was 133cm above the danger level, and at Sylhet point, it was 22cm above the danger level. The Kushiyara River at Amolshid point was 15cm above the danger level, and at Fenchuganj point, it was 79cm above. The Sari River at Sarighat point was 35cm above, and the Sari-Gowainghat River was 16cm above the danger level. All rivers continued to rise.

Executive Engineer at the WDB's Sylhet office, Dipak Ranjan Das, stated that rainfall in Meghalaya, India, has been the biggest contributor to this round of flooding, causing large surges upstream in the network of transboundary rivers in the area. The increased water levels in these rivers have only one place to go, and that is to flow downstream into Bangladesh en route to the sea.

The situation is expected to improve once rainfall decreases in India. In Gowainghat upazila, the flood situation was deteriorating, and authorities have been instructed to prepare for rescue operations, shelter management, and relief distribution.

Meanwhile, all tourist centres in Sylhet have been declared closed due to the flooding. Sylhet Additional Deputy Commissioner (General) Mohammad Mobarak Hossain announced the decision on Tuesday afternoon.

In Sunamganj, the flood situation worsened despite no local rainfall, with onrush of upstream waters causing rivers to start swelling from approximately 5am on Tuesday. By noon, the Surma at Shologhar point in Sunamganj municipality was flowing 69cm above the danger level.

Sunamganj Deputy Commissioner Mohammad Rashed Iqbal Chowdhury said shelter centres have been kept ready. There are also adequate relief materials. "We are also contacting the ministry for additional relief materials," he added.

Floodwaters have inundated various parts of Sunamganj town, forcing residents near the riverbanks to evacuate and seek refuge in shelters. The WDB has indicated that water levels will continue to rise in the district, leaving locals to apprehend what fresh misery lies ahead for them, as the situation looks set to get worse, before it gets better.

Continuous heavy rainfall and the onrush of water from upstream over the next three days (till Thursday, June 20) left Sylhet district inundated, with more than 8 lakh people stranded.

"Around 825,256 people are marooned in 106 unions of the district," Sylhet district administration sources said. In the metropolitan area alone, 50,000 people across 23 wards have been affected by flooding.

The water from the first phase of flooding had not fully receded when heavy rainfall and hill torrents hit again on June 15, worsening the situation by Eid day (June 17). Sylhet experienced the first phase of flooding on May 27, affecting approximately 700,000 people across all upazilas.

As of Wednesday afternoon, the waters of three rivers in Sylhet were still flowing over the danger level at six points. The Water Development Board in Sylhet reported that by 3pm today, the Surma River at Kanaighat point was 94cm above danger levels. At another point in Sylhet, it was 36cm above the danger level. The Kushiyara River was 56cm above the danger level at Amalshid, 99cm above at Fenchuganj, and 20cm above at Sherpur Point.

Additionally, the water of the Sari-Gwain River was flowing 0.5 cm above the danger level at Sarighat Point.

A total of 656 shelter centres have been opened in the district to accommodate the people. Of these, 80 are in metropolitan areas. In the meantime, a total of 19,959 people have already taken shelter in these centres by Wednesday. However, most people are not willing to leave their homes and go to shelters.

The people of Sylhet Sadar, Gowainghat, Jaintapur, Golapganj, Companiganj, Kanaighat, Zakiganj, Biswanath, and Osmaninagar upazilas are the worst sufferers.

Low-lying areas of the city are particularly hard-hit, with the Shahjalal suburb completely submerged and water reaching neck level in many homes. Other severely affected areas include Jatrapur, Mendibagh, Shibganj, Raingar, Sobhanighat, Kalighat, Kamalgarh, Machimpur, Taltala, Jamtola, Kajirbazar, Madina Market, Akhaliya, and Mezortil.

Several important roads in the city are also flooded.Moreover, the local Met Office forecast continuous heavy rainfall for the next three days. Meanwhile, control rooms have been set up in the office of the District Commissioner and the offices of the Upazila Nirbahi Officer to monitor the overall flood situation.

Frequency of floods in Sylhet

The frequency and intensity of flooding have been on the rise in recent years in Sylhet region, the northeastern part of Bangladesh, with apprehensions that more terrible floods will hit the region and its adjacent regions in the coming years.

One major issue is that the flood waters cannot flow to the Bay easily like in the past. Some rivers in Sylhet region have lost navigability and water-carrying capacity in their certain segments following construction of major bridges, such as the Bhairab Bridge built over the Meghna River, where the Surma and Kushiyara rivers merge, thus posing one of the major reasons for the terrible floods in Sylhet region.

Construction of roads and dams in haors is another major reason for the frequent flooding in Sylhet and Mymensingh regions, while destruction of natural forests in India's Meghalaya for commercial and agricultural purposes, hill-cutting in Bangladesh and unplanned urbanisation and development projects are also responsible for floods.

In 2023, Sylhet and Sunamganj experienced the worst flooding in recorded history of 122 years, according to the Ministry of Disaster Management of Relief. There were three floods in three months last year in the two districts. The first flash flood hit the districts in early April, while the second flood hit in mid-May and the third began in mid-June which inundated 80 percent area of Sylhet district and 90 percent area of Sunamganj district.

The three devastating floods hit Sylhet and Sunamganj districts after highest rainfall in Cherrapunji in the Indian state of Meghalaya, adjacent to the two districts. Cherrapunji had received over 4000 mm of precipitation during ten days from June 10 to June 19 in 2023. This amount of rain in such a short period was rare even for Cherrapunji, which is known for having the highest rainfall in the world.

The construction of a 29.73-km "all-weather" road in the haor of Kishoreganj for smooth communication in three upazilas of the district (Austagram-Mithamaoin-Itna) is also responsible for flooding in Sylhet and Mymensingh regions. Most of the haors in Sunamganj and Sylhet districts connected with the haors in Kishoreganj as well as greater Mymensingh.

Water from incessant rain upstream in Meghalaya and Assam (India) flows down to the Meghna River in Kishoreganj through rivers and haors in the Sylhet region. Many locals say the road in the middle of the hoar disrupts the free flow of water.

Weather experts and environmentalists say Sylhet can no longer hold up to the pressure of flood and heavy rains in any way. Most parts of the district are being inundated by upstream and even scanty rains as a the city corporation project to solve waterlogging worth more than Tk 10 billion didn't come to any work. Besides, there is lack of proper and effective dredging of the rivers Surma and Kushiyara.

In this situation, all rivers in the district, including the Surma and the Kushiyara, need to be dredged immediately.

The residents of Sylhet city feel the flood situation in the city would not worsen this much had the river been dredged and eviction drives were conducted to keep the banks free of occupation. Besides, the rivers and streams (natural canals) should have been deepened in a planned way. The streams flowing through the city have lost capacity to hold water due to lack of proper maintenance and dredging.

State Minister for Water Resources Ministry Zahid Faruk on Thursday said the government will take steps to dredge the Surma River to protect Sylhet city from early floods.

The construction work of nine dredging stations across the country is underway and steps will be taken for dredging of the Surma River soon, he said while talking to reporters after visiting the Shaadi Canal in Tukerbazar area of Sylhet city on Thursday.

Water from upstream brings silt that obstructs the normal flow of the river, said the minister adding, "We have talked to the engineers that the dredging of the Surma River will begin soon."

All necessary steps will be taken to deal with the flood situation, he said.

Sylhet City Corporation Mayor Md Anwaruzzaman Chowdhury, and concerned officials of Sylhet Water Development Board and local administration were present there.

Monsoon floods arrive

It is true of course, that the monsoon brings with it floods in many parts of Bangladesh every year. According to the latest information available from the forecasters, the flood situation in some low-lying areas of Netrakona district and Sylhet, Sunamganj districts in the northeastern part of the country was expected to remain unchanged over the next 24 hours commencing 9am on Thursday (June 20).

The flood situation in Moulvibazar and Habiganj districts along the low-lying areas of Manu-Khwai river may improve, according to the Flood Forecasting and Warning Centre (FFWC).

Except Surma, major rivers in the north-eastern region of the country were on a rising trend

which may continue in the next 24 hours.

The Brahmaputra and Jamuna rivers are in rising trend and may continuously rise for the next 72 hours with a chance of reaching the Warning Level at some points.

Besides, the Padma river is on a rising trend, which may continue in next 48 hours, it said.

The water levels of the Dudhkumar, Teesta and Dharla rivers in the northern part of the country may rise and flash floods may hit some low-lying areas of Kurigram, Lalmonirhat, Rangpur districts.

River Teesta may cross danger level at Dalia Point in next 24 hours for a short period of time. According to the information from the Met Office, medium to heavy rainfall is expected over the northern and adjoining upstream region and heavy to very heavy rainfall is expected over the north-eastern, northern and adjoining upstream parts of the country in 24 to 48 hours.

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