August 7, 2004 The Economist Magazine
South Asia's floods
In all the wrong places
DELHI AND DHAKA
Human intervention could do much to mitigate the monsoon's annual tyranny
FROM the air, Bangladesh looks less like a country than one vast lake, dotted with thousands of tiny islets, clumps of trees and houses. Few boats ruffle the placid floodwaters: there is nowhere to go. Two-thirds of the dry-season land area has
been under water, much of it for a month. The blessing of the monsoon always brings misery for some. This year it is a huge humanitarian disaster. It is mirrored in Nepal and in parts of India (see map), while elsewhere the worry is not of too much
rain, but of too little, too late. The temptation everywhere is to blame capricious rain gods; but floods and droughts are both man-made in part.
This week saw some respite. In Bangladesh, waters have receded from much of the capital, Dhaka, half of which was submerged. People who have been sleeping at the roadside or on the corrugated iron roofs of their crude shacks are wading back
through the inky, fetid, sewage-contaminated water beneath. But barely half the monsoon season has passed, and more rain is forecast for the middle of August. So relief agencies such as the Red Cross and the United Nations, which have both launched
appeals for aid, insist that the worst may not be over.
Even if it is, the consequences are bad enough. More than 600 people have already been killed. Of Bangladesh's population of about 140m, 31m have been directly affected, and the Red Cross estimates that over 3m in north and central Bangladesh are
marooned, homeless, or both. Crops have been destroyed, and the government estimates that 20m people will need to be fed until December. Diarrhoea has reached epidemic proportions.
The great lake of Bangladesh is in reality a network of nearly 250 rivers. This year, the biggest—the Ganges and the Brahmaputra—both reached their peak levels early, bringing the worst floods, by some reckoning, since 1998. The proximate causes
were an unusually heavy monsoon and the accelerated melting of Himalayan snows. This has also wrought havoc in Nepal, and in Assam and Bihar, states of India bordering Bangladesh, where a further 30m people have been affected.
Bangladesh is the most densely-populated large country on earth. “Too many people, in all the wrong places,” says Douglas Coutts, representative for the World Food Programme and co-ordinator in the country for the UN. Tens of millions live in the
flood plain; millions, in effect, on sandbars. But moving them is not an option: Dhaka and other cities cannot cope. So the best hope is to give people better defences against the annual downpour.
Muhammad Saidur Rahman, director of the Bangladesh Disaster Preparedness Centre, a non-government group, insists that does not mean “flood prevention”. “The entire economy is based on flooding”—not just agriculture, which depends on the billions
of tonnes of fertile silt deposits it leaves behind, but fishing and communications. So what is needed is to reduce the risks to the vulnerable poor and landless, by helping them raise the level of their houses, improving early-warning systems and,
above all, helping them generate an income, part of which they can use to make themselves safer. Mr Coutts hopes an influx of aid will also allow “food-for-work” on repairs and expansions to dykes and embankments; silted-up rivers need dredging.
Some things, however, are beyond the control of Bangladesh and its foreign donors. Many trace the flooding to deforestation and overgrazing higher upstream, in neighbouring India, Nepal and Tibet, which hence absorb less water, increasing the flow
downstream. Yet there is little regional co-operation—even on weather forecasting, let alone on serious flood and drought prevention.
India's water management is itself sadly wanting. This year, while floods have afflicted its north-east, it has been fretting about drought in the north-west. Those fears eased this week with the late onset of the monsoon there. But the rains may
have come too late to save important harvests in the agriculturally rich states of Haryana and Punjab. They have also brought fresh flooding in the western state of Gujarat and in Mumbai. So far this year, floods have killed more than 850 people in
the country as a whole.
The annual phenomenon of too much rain falling in the wrong places has revived talk in India of a visionary scheme, decried by environmentalists, to even things out by “interlinking” rivers across the country through canals. More sensible might be
to stop encouraging the production of water-intensive crops such as rice and wheat in drought-prone regions. >>>
Inputs, such as electricity (to pump water) and fertiliser, as well as procurement prices, are subsidised. According to the International Water Management Institute, a research outfit based in Sri Lanka, India now uses 200 cubic kilometres of
groundwater for irrigation, or three times the annual flow of China's Yellow River.
The grand river-linking project is probably fanciful anyway because of the co-operation it would require, in India's federal system, between states which already fight each other fiercely in the courts over their water supplies. Even so, officials
in India's neighbouring countries are worried. Many gloomy forecasters see water as a likely cause of future wars. As per other sorts of conflict, South Asia is a potential battlefield they have in mind.