Strengthening flood risk management

Farid Hasan Ahmed | Published: October 05, 2018 21:30:41

According to the Emergency Events Database of the Université catholique de Louvain in Belgium, more than 2.2 million people have been killed since 1950 by flooding in three countries - China, India and Bangladesh. More than 1,000 people have died in these countries almost every year in the past decade from flooding with millions of dollars lost in flood damages.

The risk and sufferings due to floods with the most severity occurring during the months of June-September mainly hubs around three of the Himalayan rivers - the Ganges, Brahmaputra and Yangtze. About 500 million people in India and Bangladesh with about 300 million more in China live within the flood basins of these three rivers.

In 2017, more than 1,200 people were killed across India and Bangladesh by floods, affecting more than 41 million people. The second wave of floods in Assam, which occurred in July/August 2017, affected 17, 43,119 population across 26 districts. A total of 86,223.19 hectares of crop area was affected.

Statistics provided by the Disaster Management and Relief Ministry of Bangladesh showed that crops on 611,000 hectares of land were completely or partially damaged in 32 of the 64 districts till August 25 last year. The fisheries sector had faced a loss of Tk 3.21 billion merely in 10 northern districts due to the floods. In July 2017, over 12 million people were forced to flee their households across the Himalayas in South China. Inundation caused $430 million in damages and monetary losses In Jiangxi province alone.

Floods almost every year damage property, assets, roads, community affairs, shelter; livestock, crops and trees - thereby adding new miseries and vulnerabilities to the poorest section of people. Flood kills thousands of people each year in the region, the damage exacerbated by weak enforcement of building standards, high rates of poverty and vulnerabilities, and unplanned communities springing up in high-risk areas.

Nowadays, flooding in urban areas is an unavoidable problem for the main cities in these three countries. Daily activities in the cities are getting almost crippled and heavy traffic congestions take place due to stagnant water on the streets and unplanned settlements.

Floods cause great devastation in this region almost on an yearly basis - thereby affecting the most impoverished section who live on the fringes and putting them at great risk of flooding. The poor always face sufferings and difficulties to cope and overcome the losses incurred. In a 2016 research flooding was cited as the most significant risk for the communities and businesses in South Asia.

However, these countries have developed some capacities in flood management and demonstrated some success in this regard too. But there are still gaps, limitations and challenges to overcome. A cross-border approach to flood risk management considering the existing strength, limitations and gaps, instead of interventions based on political boundaries, is very much needed to safeguard the development gains and most vulnerable communities of the region.

Practitioners and experts think that local and isolated initiatives won't be enough to tackle big and common flood risk of the three countries. Rather, China, India and Bangladesh need to cooperate and coordinate with each other to replicate tested good practices across the region and also to avoid  practices that are not good in risk reduction governance and general political arena.

Big river systems do not recognise political borders as they flow across various countries. The combined catchment basin of the Ganges, Brahmaputra, and Meghna measures to 1,758,000 square kilometers, which is more than 12 times the size of Bangladesh. A total of 775 billion cubic meter of water flow into Bangladesh through the main rivers from June to September.

Many of the floods of the region have trans-boundary dimensions and effect. So for an effective flood risk management, it is very important to develop cross-border approach and strategy that include regional information database, early warning system, development and availability of appropriate technology; combining cost effective and smart structural and nonstructural measures; existing knowledge  and tested practices of the vulnerable communities of the region.

Integrating disaster risk reduction into the project/programme cycle management of developmental plans, programmes and humanitarian responses is a must for long term flood risk resilience in the risk prone areas. The structural flood management system in these countries in many cases has been designed long before.

The infrastructure and plans should be reviewed on a regular basis and designed taking into consideration the future flood risks and vulnerabilities. The existing plans should be upgraded to withstand flood risk and environmental aspects. The social and economic aspects of people living in both the upstream and the river basins should be considered. It would further support people to live with and adapt to riverine culture and environment.

It would also be a smart step to promote more durable and flood resistant livelihood opportunities in most vulnerable communities of the river basin areas of the countries to enhance socio-economic and political status of the communities. Protecting lives, livelihoods and assets of the people are the constitutional obligation of the governments. In this regard, a people-created pressure from the conscious citizen groups across the vulnerable countries will be worthy of making governments accountable to people in making their lives less risky and more secure.

There are political complexities in any cross-border approach that needs continuous political, economic and administrative commitment both in lips and land and actions both from parties and individuals in power now or will be in near future across the countries towards improving people's livelihoods, capacity, and resilience for facing/avoiding subsequent flood and reduce poverty in the region.

The success in reducing flood risk and negative consequences of floods could be politically comforting to the political authority in any country of the region. It is also important to achieve sustainable development goals (SDGs) and increase trade across the flood-prone countries in the region.

Border tensions, proposed diversion by China of the Brahmaputra waters and trade imbalance among these three countries should be resolved through diplomatic negotiations for the greater interest of the people and global community. This could contribute towards taking coordinated and shared initiatives for reducing flood risk in this region.

There has been an increasing realisation among the policymakers and politicians of all three countries that they need each other's cooperation in the changing geo-political and economic scenarios at regional and global level. Under such circumstances, it is obvious that common interest like reducing flood risk and vulnerabilities faced by each of the countries should get priority for the sake of millions of masses.

Farid Hasan Ahmed is disaster risk reduction and climate change adaptation expert and development lawyer.


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