The Flood Problem in Bangladesh

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The country of Bangladesh is located in South Asia and is bordered by both India and Myanmar. The nation is situated above the Bay of Bengal and covers a total area of 147,570 square kilometers with a total population of 163,477,000. Bangladesh is often referred to as the ‘land of rivers’ due to the extensive river network that weaves throughout the country. There are 230 rivers that run through Bangladesh, including 57 international rivers that enter from both India and Myanmar. The nation is the lowest riparian zone where three major rivers converge. These rivers are the Brahmaputra, the Ganges, and the Meghna. Where these three major rivers converge is the world’s largest drainage and flows directly into the Bay of Bengal. Unsurprisingly due to the high volume of rivers that flow through the nation, Bangladesh is prone to extreme flooding. The nation is also set within a tropical monsoon climate that is subject to seasonal variation in rainfall.

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Another contributor to the flood problem in Bangladesh is the low-lying nature of the nation’s topography, refer to figure one. 80% of the landmass of Bangladesh is comprised of floodplains, while 70% of the nation is less than one meter above sea level. This makes Bangladesh extremely susceptible to coastal flooding following storm surges and monsoon floods along the floodplains of its major rivers.

For those who live in Bangladesh flooding is both a gift and a curse. The annual flooding events have played an important role in the nation for centuries, by contributing to the fertility of cultivable land. There are two types of flooding recognized by the people of Bangladesh: “normal” and “extreme” flooding. A normal flood year in Bangladesh will result in approximately 20% of the nation being inundated and may last for up to 3 weeks. Extreme flooding will result in 35% or more of the nation’s area being inundated and may last 3 weeks to several months. The documentation of extreme flooding in Bangladesh began in 1955 after two catastrophic floods impacted the nation in 1954 and 1955. This can be seen in table 1, which displays the beginning of the flood documentation from the year 1954, comparing the amount of flooded area, along with the deaths associated. After these floods, the Bangladesh Water Development Board was created in 1959 to monitor flooding in the nation and provide solutions to extreme flood events. Since the beginning of flood documentation in Bangladesh, several other destructive floods have ravaged the nation.

One of the worst years for flooding in the nation’s history was in 1988. The estimated damage caused by the flooding was over US $1.3 billion. During this time over 45 million people were directly impacted by the floods and upwards of 2000 people died. The flood engulfed 52% of Bangladesh. Another flood in 1998 submerged even more of the nation, which can be seen in comparison to previous floods displayed in figure two. The flooding engulfed 68% of the country and resulted in damage estimated at US $2 billion. The most recent major floods in Bangladesh occurred in 2017. The country experienced two floods in April, one in June, and another in August. During the course of these floods, up to a third of the nation’s terrain was submerged. The International Federation of Red Cross (IFRC) described it as “the most serious flooding the nation has seen in 40 years”. A large portion of the nation’s population was impacted; however, some groups are more vulnerable than others. Figure 2: Area Flooded during Peak floods Bangladesh (1954-2006).

During the flooding of Bangladesh in 2017, 8 million people across 32 districts were affected. A group that experiences the most hardships during and after a flood event are the farmers of Bangladesh. Those employed in the agricultural sector rely on normal flooding to ensure the fertility of their land. Flooding provides not only moisture to the soil but also fresh silt that are key parts of crop production (Zaman, 1993). However, extreme flooding can result in the destruction of cropland. During the 2017 floods, a total of 61,877 hectares of cropland was completely damaged, while 531 million hectares was partially damaged. Currently, 54% of the population of Bangladesh rely on agriculture as their main source of income, which can prove devastating when this income source is destroyed. Another group that is heavily impacted by flooding are the children of Bangladesh. After the 2017 floods, the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) reported that 2,553,000 children were in need of humanitarian assistance.

There is also a direct correlation between flooding and children not being able to go to school. Schools in Bangladesh provide shelter to those who may be displaced due to flood conditions (“Bangladesh Flooding”, 2018). At the peak of the 2017 floods, 587 schools were closed for shelter use . Even if schools are open during flood conditions and are not being used as shelters, many parents do not let their children go to school due to fears of drowning . The problem of flooding in Bangladesh is widespread and is felt by all those living within the nation. The damage caused each year by flooding impacts the nation’s economy, resulting in a constant deterioration in the nation’s ability to fund improvements to flood defenses. Industries that support this fragile economy are also impacted during flood periods. During the floods of 1988, 1998, and 1999 garment factories were hit heavily by floods which destroyed factories containing raw materials and machines worth millions. Flooding also induces mass displacement among the country’s population. The 1988 flood displaced 45 million people, while the 1998 flood displaced 30 million people.

With floods occurring annually, some citizen’s may decide to migrate within or outside of the country in search of a better life. Floods also have an impact on the health of the nation’s population. Floods result in both the scarcity and contamination of drinking water and have been linked to increases in cases of diarrhea, cholera, and other intestine diseases. Throughout the 1988 flood diarrheal disease was responsible for the death of 27% of 154 flood-related deaths. Unfortunately, the problem of flooding in Bangladesh is only set to get worse. Bangladesh is already a low-lying nation and hovers just above sea level. Due to the impacts of climate change and the melting of the polar ice caps, sea levels across the globe are projected to rise. Sea level on the Bangladesh coast is estimated to rise anywhere between 0.4 to 1.5 meters by 2100.

Currently, extreme flood events driven by high water, storms, and tides occur once every decade in Bangladesh. However, the frequency of flooding is expected to increase to 15 times every year by the end of this century. For Bangladesh, a history of extreme flooding has only just begun, and there is currently no end in sight to their flood problems. The question that remains for the people of Bangladesh moving forward is how will the already drowning nation stay afloat?

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