Dealing with the really big problems: the lessons from Bangladesh

As we move into 2015 we have to look forward to the 21st session of the Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in Paris. The conference objective will be to achieve a legally binding and universal agreement on climate action from all the nations of the world. The media are referring to this as our last chance for unified action. We personally feel a sense of déjà vu since we’ve seen this pattern before, not for global climate change but for something equally devastating to a country and its people – floods.

Just 25 years ago the south-east Asian country of Bangladesh experienced two devastating floods which put 60 percent of the country under water for two weeks and damaged 7 million homes, including the house of the then-President, General Ershad.

Floods in Bangladesh were, and are, nothing new for a country situated next to the Bay of Bengal and lying on the world’s largest river delta, formed by three of south-east Asia’s largest rivers – the Ganges, the Brahmaputra (called the Jamuna in Bangladesh) and the Meghna. Great amounts of precipitation are swept in every year by the seasonal monsoon. In addition, Bangladesh receives huge inflows from rivers swollen by heavy rainfall in the Himalayas. The terrain is not helpful – 80 percent of the country’s surface lies within active floodplains, and three-quarters of the country lies 10 metres or less above average sea level. Average figures for flood and cyclone damage in Bangladesh include more than 5000 people killed and more than 7 million homes destroyed per year.

What was different back in 1989 was not the rainfall or the geography, but the politics. Madame Danielle Mitterrand, wife of then-president of France François Mitterrand, happened to visit Dhaka on a state visit and was shocked to witness the widespread flooding and accompanying social misery. She raised the issue with her husband who was eager to raise France’s profile in the developing world as a benefactor. This quickly raised the political profile of flood aid to Bangladesh and the issue was tabled at the G7 Conference in Paris in 1989, at which President Mitterrand spoke eloquently of the need to put an end to floods in Bangladesh.

As occasionally happens in international affairs and in real life, one thing leads to another and by 1992 eight nations had pledged support to the so-called Flood Action Plan and had dispatched teams of experts to flood-beleaguered Bangladesh to confront the huge array of technical and social problems. At the personal level this offered a priceless opportunity for one of us (SH) to work as team leader on a multinational project, and an equally great opportunity to the other (AC) to use his knowledge and experience as a Bangladeshi professional within his own country.

Although there was much agreement and bon homie around the meeting tables and in the lounges, rifts between the countries in terms of philosophies, technicalities and policies were not long in making an appearance. The home nation’s Water Development Board openly favoured the construction of massive embankments along the main rivers to contain the seasonal floodwaters and to protect the nation’s extensive agricultural lands, villages and infrastructure. This was to be financed at huge cost by the international community and was touted to have the added benefits of providing employment for huge numbers of construction workers and local professionals and businesses. Representatives for international engineering consortia hovered in the hallways of Dhaka as the prospects for lucrative project construction started to take shape.BanglaMidGraphic2

The U.S., Canada and the Netherlands took a diametrically opposite tack and rejected as futile any attempts at massive construction in a floodplain environment and efforts to control huge rivers such as the Ganges. Our geologists and hydrologists stated flatly that all that would be achieved would be to move the flooding problem from one area to another. We favoured the development of innovative ways of constructing houses and shelters, the widespread flood-proofing of infrastructure, and construction of small-scale structures such as gated embankments as measures to reduce flooding impacts. Our field studies demonstrated that construction of large embankments would create more problems than they would solve. For example, our teams of Bangladeshi biologists and social specialists collected data which showed that three-quarters of the fish caught and eaten by local villagers came from water bodies and small rivers within locally embanked areas which would be cut off from the hydrological system by embankments. We promoted more local control by communities over flood management through training, innovation, adaptation and social development. The rifts between us and the centrally-focused government agencies widened.

BanglaMidGraphicFor three years we persevered along our designated approaches with varied and variable levels of success. The Flood Action Plan used up something like $US150 million. The Water Development Board tabled plans for 3,500 kilometres of embankments, some as high as 7.5 metres, to cost an estimated $10-15 billion. But major donors weren’t playing along. They scaled the commitments down to $5 billion and then gradually abandoned the whole plan, citing the huge and unmanageable engineering, ecological and social complexities.

It is difficult to assess how much of the effort was ultimately wasted. Certainly we achieved few tangible benefits for our months and years of measuring, observing, instructing and arguing. But we were not totally dismayed at the end. Our USAID-sponsored environmental and social team employed and trained 20 Bangladeshi professionals in a wide range of disciplines – ecology, engineering, social and earth sciences. When the Flood Action programme collapsed, the local professional team were morphed into a resource consulting group which is still very active in water management in Bangladesh.

BanglaBottomGraphicThe FAO and UNDP took a long look at the issues and admitted “to date we do not have comprehensive watershed management in Bangladesh, nor do we have effective coordination among various agencies sporadically involved in resource management.” A seminar in Dhaka in the late ’90s urged the Bangladesh government to establish a sub-regional committee with China, India, Nepal and Bhutan to “coordinate efforts to mitigate flood disasters within the Indogangetic river basin through upland watershed management.”

A quarter of a century later we’re still waiting with bated breath for something to happen. The fundamental issues have never been addressed. The governments of the region do not have the resources and are incapable of co-operating in drawing up an overall plan to manage floods. Countries and international agencies that have resources are reluctant to provide them because there is no guarantee that the programmes will be implemented as planned, and no way of making a profitable return on protecting poverty stricken workers and villagers in a country like Bangladesh.

What’s the lesson here for future international efforts to combat the impacts of global climate change? Just stark ones unfortunately. Lofty grandstanding by governments and heads of states and lots of podium-thumping promises mean little. There will be lots of plans and blueprints and consultants running every which way, lots of media coverage, lots of money going down the rat hole. But getting it done? That always comes down to the little men and women – the citizens, the community organizers, the group leaders. Will they be in Paris in December 2015?

We’re happy to concede that Pope Francis is way ahead of us on this issue. He is set to make history soon by issuing the first-ever comprehensive Vatican teachings on climate change. The document will be sent to 5000 Catholic bishops and 400,000 priests who will distribute it to their parishioners. It will urge 1.2 billion Catholics worldwide to take action on tackling climate change. Given the sheer number of people who identify as Catholics worldwide, the pope’s call to tackle climate change could reach far more people than all governments and environmental groups combined. If a few more international leaders could take similar action we might just get a little bit further down the road.

Posted by Stan Hirst & Amin Choudhury



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