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Flood control intervention sustains when local people participate

  • Published at 05:07 pm January 14th, 2021
Damaged embankments in Bhola district. Photo: Din Mohammad Shibly/COAST

Effective coastal embankment management needs collaborative actions from government, local people, and local leaders

Due to climate change, extreme weather events like cyclones, storm surges, and high tides have been increasing in both magnitude and frequency in recent years. This irreversible change is causing severe damages to the coastal embankments of Bangladesh. If embankments are in place to protect people from the impacts of cyclones, and tidal surges, why are they causing more damage than good?   

An embankment typically represents a wall or bank made of earth or stone, which prevents tidal water from flooding riverside lands. In response to the dreadful back-to-back floods that hit the country in 1954 and 1955, the East Pakistan Water and Power Development Authority (EPWAPDA) was established in 1959 to compensate for the damages caused by floods and to protect agricultural production. Following the independence of Bangladesh, the institution was renamed as the Bangladesh Water Development Authority (BWDB) and set up as an autonomous organization in 1972. The institution has been implementing various interventions to protect Bhola district in the southern coastal region of Bangladesh, from tidal waves and riverbank erosion. Among these interventions, flood control dams are one of the major ones.

Bhola district is the only deltaic island situated in the ancient Ganges basin of Bangladesh. The district is surrounded by two river systems – Meghna on one side and Tetulia on the other. This island, located along the coast of the Bay of Bengal, has an area of nearly 3,500 square kilometers and an elevation of 12 feet from the ocean surface. The ever-changing and unpredictable nature of adjacent rivers has long been a source of suffering for the local people. 

 “If embankments are in place to protect people from the impacts of cyclones, and tidal surges, why are they causing more damage than good?”

Presently, the water levels in the rivers are rising due to climate change. At the same time, the depth of the rivers are reducing as a result of sedimentation, leading to the formation of submarine islands or ‘chars’. These in combination have led to increased incidence of cyclones, high tides, and low pressure exerting substantial stress on the embankment in the area. Damages to the embankment have caused significant adverse impacts on the lives and well-being of people inhabiting this coastal district.

Current situation of embankment in Bhola

As per the plan outlined in the ‘Vision-2100’ of the Government of Bangladesh, BWDB started working on flood and cyclone protection in the Bhola district by separating it into two divisions. The primary measure employed has been the construction of flood control dams or embankments. There are presently 250 kilometers of embankment around Bhola district, 30 kilometers of which have been damaged by recent floods, cyclones, and high tides. Negligence from responsible authorities in terms of maintenance have also affected the durability of the current embankment. As such, in addition to embankment construction, there is a crucial need to improve the maintenance system. 

Aftermath of Cyclone Amphan

Following Cyclone Amphan in May 2020, large extents of the embankment have been damaged across several unions and Upazilas in the district. This includes a total of 644 meters in Ilisha, Rajapur, and Dhania in Bhola Sadar, 150 metres in Lalmohon, 350 metres in Daulatkhan, 500 metres In Borhanuddin, 1 kilometre in Tajuddin and Monpura, and more than 2 kilometres in Charfasson. 

High water pressure resulting from severe high tides, and extreme water flows in the two adjacent rivers - Meghna and Tetulia – have incurred severe damages to various points of the embankment. 50 metres of embankment have been breached by high tide, flooding agricultural lands and households. Apart from that, the majority of the Tetulia river bank remained unprotected, resulting in significant flooding of the area, and damaging households, infrastructure as well as agricultural production. 19 kilometers of embankment in Bhola Sadar, Borhanuddin, and Doulatkhan upazila continue to be vulnerable and would need to be reconstructed using concrete blocks 

Improving embankment management

Currently, the government is focused on investing in embankment construction. Accordingly, a project worth nearly Tk1 thousand crore is under implementation in Bhola district. However, BWDB does not have an embankment management policy in place at present, and this problem has been very apparent during recent high tides. A collapse of 50 meters of embankment could have been easily averted had a management policy existed. Reports show that if swift initiatives were taken to cover up the preliminary cracks and gaps in the embankment, flood damage would have been significantly limited. BWDB presently has limited capacity in terms of technical expertise, and inefficiencies in fund usage has also been observed. Furthermore, BWDB often carries out their operations during the monsoon season, leading to delays in work. 

As a result, flood control interventions are hardly successful in benefitting local people. It is clear that the lack of a robust local level maintenance system is often a key cause for embankment collapse and failure. In light of this, the government should allocate the necessary budget towards embankment construction and management, taking into consideration the current water levels. To sustain the effective functioning of an embankment, it would be vital to develop an integrated plan that entails construction of embankment, setting up concrete blocks, regular dredging, etc.

“A project worth nearly Tk1 thousand crore is under implementation in Bhola district. However, BWDB does not have an embankment management policy in place at present, and this problem has been very apparent during recent high tides”

It is also important to have the participation of local people and the government to ensure optimum utility and benefit from these interventions. For an intervention to sustain, it is important to ensure local ownership. Thus, it is imperative that local people are engaged alongside local leaders, in the implementation and management of embankment projects across all stages. Collective efforts are likely to help enhance the durability and quality of flood control interventions. Considering that Union Parishad is responsible for maintenance tasks after construction is completed, it would be useful for BWDB and Union Parishad could establish a joint committee for undertaking embankment management. 

Various projects are presently being implemented by BWDB to protect the coastal region from the adverse impacts of climate change. However, it is a monumental task for BWDB to operate and maintain such a vast area alone. 

The government should consider immediate steps to overhaul the current embankment management system. Where needed, legal jurisdictions and policies should be revised. It is clear that collaborative participation of the government, local people, and local leaders are in a need for enhanced embankment management in Bangladesh and for building flood resilience for the most vulnerable populations.

Md Zahidul Islam works as the Head of MEAL & Social Development at COAST Trust