tampabay.com

World Bank plan to stop floods horrifies Bangladeshis

By REENA SHAH STAMETS
Published October 13, 2006


(Part one of special report published in the Times Oct. 24, 1993.)

To stop the floods, simply spend $10-billion over 20 years to build a system of levees. That's the view of the World Bank and some Western experts.

No, say many Bangladeshis. The floods bring life. The billion-dollar plan to check them is yet another example of high-tech projects run amok in an impoverished country where most people work with hand plows, live in mud huts and earn less in a year than many aid consultants earn in an hour.

It is a clash of two world views - how they view rain and floods and how to cope with them.

Every year the Jamuna River rises and several feet and hides the silt island Sourabh Hossain lives on, covering his rice fields, slipping inside his thatch house. It goes on for about three months - longer than the 40 days and 40 nights of the Biblical deluge.

For millions of Bangladeshis, such flooding is a fact of life, year after year.

"You take a piece of plastic, cover your head with it and sit in a corner till it stops raining," Hossain says.

Every year, 80 percent of his rainy season rice crop is destroyed. But Hossain is resigned to this loss. For the rest of the year, he says, he gets abundant harvests of rice, lentils and vegetables.

The World Bank and French and Dutch aid consultants say they have a plan that might stop the yearly flooding. The proposed Flood Action Plan involves building thousands of miles of embankments along the banks of Bangladesh's major rivers to contain floods.

Although Bangladesh's government seems eager to go ahead with this experiment, Hossain and tens of millions of Bangladeshi peasants are horrified.

"It's going to destroy us more than the floods do," Hossain says. "How can they do this to us?"

In a country that has for the last two decades grown used to being bottle-fed a variety of foreign aid formulas - none of which have helped it develop - the Flood Action Plan has sparked a nationwide protest, uniting farmers, fishermen, environmentalists and intellectuals.

They are appalled at the degree to which the country's geography, and the way people live, eat and move around would change. And they question the plan's secrecy (which isn't unusual, given that multibillion dollar contracts are involved for the country whose bids win).

Rivers define the way Bangladeshis live, the rice and fish they eat every day, the poetry they write. Should technology be allowed to change all this?

"A destructive flood comes once in 10 or 40 years, and it goes away after seven days," says Mujibul Huq Dulu, who administers a village development project. "But these dams and embankments, we will have to live with these for life."

Some people say the whole problem began in 1988, when Bangladesh experienced one of its worst floods. Bangladesh is a low, flat delta criss-crossed by three large rivers and hundreds of streams that overflow every year. The Ganges and Jamuna rivers originate in India and Nepal, and these countries divert their own floodwaters into them during the rainy season. All this water flowing turbulently through flat land makes floods inevitable.

Its geography curses it in another way: Bangladesh sits like a funnel by the Bay of Bengal, sucking in seawater during the rainy season, when swollen tides lash its shore. For a week in 1988, half the country stood under 10 feet of water.

The floods reached even Dhaka, filling swimming pools in the luxurious diplomatic enclaves where embassy officials and aid workers live.

Danielle Mitterrand, wife of the French president, happened to be visiting at the time. She toured the countryside, and French television broadcast her appeals that something long-lasting should be done to help Bangladesh.

France's aid agency came up with the Flood Action Plan, and other countries including the Netherlands and the United States quickly conducted studies of their own. (The United States concluded that small-scale efforts at controlling floods would help more.)

The general opinion of foreign experts is that to control Bangladesh's rivers, they must be walled in.

But Bangladeshis say the remedy might be worse than the disease. The floods in Dhaka streets were themselves caused by an embankment that surrounds the city and prevented rainwater from escaping.

"It is going to create jobs for consultants and engineers and aid agencies in the West, but it will make poor people over here even poorer," says Saleem Samad, a writer who specializes in rural development. He predicts that the plan will ruin the country's ecosystem and agriculture, worsen its debt and make it even more dependent on foreign aid.

The yearly floods are essential for dispersing fish roe into ponds and growing rice and jute, which need several feet of standing water. Build embankments, and river water won't drain out, and flooded rainwater won't have any outlets to drain into. The wealth of silt and fish eggs rivers carry will flow out into the sea.

The intricate network of streams that feed off their rivers provide transportation for rural Bangladeshis, who would otherwise be isolated because their country has few roads.

Most Bangladeshi farmers don't buy fertilizer. The silt deposited in their fields is richer in nutrients than manure. They don't buy fish, either. They get it free from these streams.

And the poorest of the poor live on the riskiest land - beside river banks, or on fragile silt islands, where they can grow just enough rice and catch enough fish to keep body and soul together. They are most likely to suffer if embankments are built.