KYOTO — In Bengali, the word “flood” has a positive meaning, as floods bring fertility to the land.
“Flood doesn’t sound like disaster in our language,” said Hamidul Huq, founder and executive director of UST, a nongovernmental organization in Bangladesh working to improve the livelihood of rural people, especially women.
“If it comes before the harvest,” he said, “it is a disaster, but we want floods for our agriculture.”
Huq, 47, is in Japan to attend the World Water Forum now under way in the Kansai region.
He said that in Bangladesh, where 80 percent of the population lives in rural areas, people have “flood preparedness” — they evacuate and take shelter when alerted to a flood’s approach.
But in recent years, floods have wrought great havoc on Bangladeshis. While major floods occur about once a decade, the floods of 1998 lasted 2 1/2 months, inundated 45 of the country’s 64 districts, claimed 1,085 lives and affected about 30 million people who lost their livestock, houses, crops and other assets.
Huq said human intervention in rivers is partly to blame for the intensity of the damage from floods in recent years.
“Embankments and other physical structures obstruct the (natural) river flow,” he said. “These modern flood-control projects are actually creating more damage.”
Projects to better manage floods have been carried out in Bangladesh over the last 20 years despite strong public opposition. After major floods in 1987 and 1988, the government, supported by donor countries and the World Bank, decided in 1989 to carry out the mega-project Flood Action Plan with an estimated budget of $10 billion.
The plan included the creation of “compartments” in rivers, in which embankments are constructed with gates installed both upstream and downstream to control floodwater.
However, the project met strong opposition from local people who were concerned they would lose access to water and fish. Although the Flood Action Plan was scrapped due to the protests, Huq maintained that many similar projects were carried out under different names.
Huq emphasized how the requests of local residents were ignored by the government, donor countries and international lending agencies. Local people had called for the dredging of rivers to mitigate the adverse impact of floods.
He stressed the importance of making use of the traditional wisdom and knowledge of local people, who have long lived in harmony with nature.
“Water is life in Bangladesh. It is a public property,” he said, expressing concern over the recent trend in which the government and aid organizations deprive people of their control over water resources.
Although people used to drink water from traditional ring wells in rural areas, where water in the bottom of the well is drawn up by buckets, a tube well system, which works under pressure from boring deep into the ground, was introduced across the country by 1998 so water could be manually pumped from underground through a filter.
The idea was that the filter would provide cleaner water.
However, in recent years it has been found that water from some of these wells contained arsenic, as pumping water from underground also pumps up the arsenic in the sediment.
Some residents in these areas are instead now using an improved version of the ring well, Huq said.
While experts suggest water be pumped up from much deeper underground, he said that would require more expensive equipment, which does not suit local conditions.
“Although the World Bank is lending money to the government to do this, it would be manually impossible and the technology requires heavy investment,” Huq said, questioning whether his country can afford it.
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