K. Anis Ahmed: After two weeks of flooding, about half of Bangladesh is under water, 140 people have been killed, tens of thousands of families have been forced from their homes and well over a million acres of crops have been destroyed. The poorest, their rural livelihoods in ruins, will most likely have no choice but to head to the cities.
As experts attribute the frequency of immense floods to climate change, the thousands who move to Dhaka, the capital, and other cities should be considered climate refugees.
The floods have disrupted life in Dhaka, a megacity that is home to 16 million people. Roads turned into canals. Some people took to using boats. Some waded through waist-high water.
Dhaka is packed with an estimated 135,000 people per square mile and is already the densest metropolis in the world. Its creaky infrastructure can barely support the existing population. The arrival of thousands of flood victims will strain services further.
The August flood is being compared with two other major floods in the country: one in 1988, which resulted in more than 2,000 deaths; and another in 1998, which killed more than 1,000. The fewer deaths this time signify the country’s increasing capacity to cope with floods. The same floods have taken more lives in the more sparsely populated areas of neighboring India and Nepal.
Bangladesh’s history of frequent flooding and subsequent losses have led to greater investment in flood management. Public schools and mosques are built with a view to their potential use as shelters. Mobile phones, exceeding 100 million, have turned into an important tool for conveying information during a calamity. Bangladesh’s government was quick to deploy the army, its soldiers being best equipped to reach remote villages and help with evacuation.
The August floods were caused primarily by overflow from the Brahmaputra River, which flows from northeastern India into northern Bangladesh. Shafiqul Islam, an acquaintance from the northern district of Dinajpur, told me that his father had never seen water rise so fast or so high in their village.
Monira Parvin, his wife, sought refuge with their 5-year-old daughter at her parents’ village in a dry area. Ms. Parvin is studying for an undergraduate degree, and her husband, who never made it to a college, proudly supports her. She represents a new generation of educated Bangladeshis, who are more aware of emergency practices such as timely flight to safety.
In previous floods, the destruction of agriculture caused acute food shortages. Since 2010, Bangladesh has become a food-surplus state; because of its grain reserves, there is little risk of the food scarcity of the past.
The most pressing concern for the victims of the flood is their reduced purchasing power. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasinahas promised to offer each affected family 30 kilograms of rice at one-fifth the market price. There are other extensive agricultural and social safety support programs in place to help the victims.
There is a limit, though, to what Bangladesh can do by itself. Floods are a transnational affair, and when the big river systems running across China and India and then pouring into Bangladesh go into their seasonal churn, borders mean little. During the floods this time, 800 Indians from the state of West Bengal bordering Bangladesh sought shelter in Lalmonirhat, a northern district of Bangladesh.
India has erected a forbidding barrier of concertina wire along the thousands of miles of border between the two countries. Indian border guards routinely shoot Bangladeshis attempting illegal crossings and kill 50 or more every year.
The Bangladesh border guards, however, did not try to prevent the Indians from crossing to escape the floods. The Indians are reported to have found shelter not just on streets, but also in Bangladeshi homes. A local residentsaid they “stood by the flood-affected Indians.” Common sense and humanity prevailed over jingoism and xenophobia on the India-Bangladesh border.
The increasing frequency and intensity of floods point to the need for cross-border cooperation on shared rivers. India, being both the bigger country and the one upriver, has to take the lead. That means signing water-sharing agreements, which have been pending for two decades. It also means rethinking India’s frighteningly dangerous river-linking project that harks back to an era of grandiose development schemes.
If South Asia cannot work together on shared natural resources, it will be ill equipped to cope with the desperate rush of refugees. Going forward, climate change will displace millions — and there is no concertina wire strong enough to hold back multitudes desperate to survive.
K. Anis Ahmed is the publisher of The Dhaka Tribune and The Bangla Tribune.
Source: NY Times