Ground Report: Worst floods in 122 years; over 4 million affected in the second wave of floods in north-east Bangladesh

Bangladesh is no stranger to floods. Almost every year, the country battles them during the monsoon season. However, this year unprecedented heavy rainfall has brought devastating floods, earlier than usual in the month of May. It's been almost two months and the north and northeastern regions of the country are still struggling as flood waters have washed away millions of houses and inundated hundreds of thousand hectares of farmlands. A ground report from the flood-hit Sylhet region.

Rafiqul Islam MontuRafiqul Islam Montu   4 July 2022 9:30 AM GMT

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Ground Report: Worst floods in 122 years; over 4 million affected in the second wave of floods in north-east Bangladesh

Many people in Sylhet-Sunamganj of Bangladesh have been living with the flood waters for about two weeks. All photos: Rafiqul Islam Montu

Fenchuganj (Sylhet), Bangladesh

Floods have once again crippled Bangladesh leaving more than seven million people in urgent need of food supplies, shelter and flood relief. The north-east region of the delta country, especially Sylhet, is the worst affected and inhabitants say this year's flooding is the 'worst flood in living memory'.

The country has been reeling under floods since May this year. And now, a second wave of floods has displaced and left millions in desperate need of help.

Niaz Ali, a 72-year-old resident of Sonapur village in North Kushiyara Union said there was still about four feet of water inside his house. "Last year this time there was a crop on the village fields. There is nothing this year," he lamented.

About 43,000 people live in North Kushiyara Union, and almost all of them have lost their homes to floods. The Red Cross has put a figure of those affected by floods at seven million. And as per news reports, at least 101 people have been killed due to the floods.

"Such floods have not happened in Sylhet-Sunamganj in 122 years," said Md. Enamur Rahman, state minister for disaster management and relief.

Niaz Ali's house is still about four feet under water.

Bangladesh is no stranger to floods. Almost every year, the country faces floods during the monsoon season. However, this year an unprecedented heavy rainfall has brought devastating floods, which arrived in the month of May itself, earlier than usual. And it's been almost two months and the north and northeastern regions of the country are still facing floods that have washed away millions of houses and inundated hundreds of thousand hectares of farmlands.

The North Kushiyara Secondary School in Fenchuganj upazila of Sylhet is not holding classes anymore. Instead, it is now a shelter for Hasina Begum, her sister Bachina Begum and many other flood-hit families for two weeks. School benches have been pulled together to make makeshift beds. Many sleep on the floor. Women and children use the flood waters on the school ground to wash dishes.

Almost every year, the country faces floods during the monsoon season.

Every classroom in the two storey school building is sheltering people. Their cows, goats and sheep occupy the verandah on the ground floor of the school.

"There had been heavy rains in April and May even before the monsoon season this year. That is why the level of water in rivers were near the danger level. Due to heavy rains, the flood situation has worsened in a short time," Arifuzzaman Bhuiyan, executive engineer of Flood Forecasting and Warning Center, under Bangladesh Water Development Board, told Gaon Connection.

'... the worst in living memory'

While floods are not uncommon in parts of Bangladesh, this year has turned out to be one of the worst in living memory. According to the Flood Forecasting and Warning Centre, Sylhet Division has broken all previous records for floods. The second phase of the floods from the upper reaches submerged most of the area. Sunamganj was isolated from the rest of the country. And, even two weeks after the floods, many villages remain cut off.

"We have never faced such a flood before. For the first time in my life, I was forced to leave home and come to the shelter," 43-year-old Abdullah Mia of Khilpara village in Fenchuganj upazila of Sylhet, told Gaon Connection.

The tube wells in the flood-hit areas are under water. There has been an acute shortage of drinking water in many places.

The flood has disrupted lives, livelihoods and destroyed property. "My husband and I have been sheltering at the Hajiganj Primary School. The flood waters have still not receded in our home," Shelly Begum, a 38-year-old inhabitant of Moghla Bazar in South Surma upazila of Sylhet, said. Her husband Moinuddin Mia is a daily wage labourer, and ever since the floods hit, he has not earned anything.

And as if the first wave of the floods was not enough to uproot millions, the second wave of floods in June end has brought more misery to the flood-hit inhabitants.

According to Arifuzzaman, "The previous floods in Sylhet were mainly confined to the haor area (a wetlandeco-system in North Eastern Bangladesh) and its adjoining areas. But this time villages, towns and highlands have also gone under water," Bhuiyan of Dhaka-based Flood Forecasting and Warning Centre told Gaon Connection.

On June 18, Sylhet Divisional Commissioner Muhammad Mosharraf Hossain said four million people were affected by the floods in Sylhet and Sunamganj. However, since then the flood waters have spread to 16 districts in the northern part of the country, and many many more people have been affected. The three districts worst hit by the floods are Sylhet, Sunamganj and Netrokona. However, the administration is yet to finalise the numbers of those affected.

Map: Flood situation in Bangladesh

Majeda Begum, a resident of Sylhet city, had never before experienced such floods. But this year she has been forced to go to a shelter to save herself. Not once, but twice this year. It was the same story with Mansur Ali and Syed Emran Hossain, both residents of Sylhet city.

Mansur Ali repairs rickshaws for a living. He came to Sylhet to find a livelihood 30 years ago. "I never dreamt the city would be so affected by the floods," Ali said. "We are afraid now," he told Gaon Connection.

"Our struggles have intensified over the years. The heat in the summer months is much more than what it used to be, and now these floods are something we have never seen before," Pakhi Mia, a 40-year-old from Sonatala village, told Gaon Connection.

Record breaking heavy rainfall in Cherrapunji in Meghalaya, India has led to unprecedented floods in Bangladesh. "The distance between Cherrapunji and the Bangladesh border is less than 25 kilometres. Run off from the mountains has flooded the plains of Bangladesh," Saiful Islam, professor, institute of Flood and Water Management, Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology, told Gaon Connection.

Map: Flood situation in north-east Bangladesh

Relief operations underway

People affected by the floods are worried about their future. Emergency relief assistance is being provided by the government and non-government organisations in the flood-affected Sylhet-Sunamganj area. The Bangladesh Army is involved in the relief operations.

"Many people are stranded in more remote areas. Rations etc., are being distributed only in areas along the main road," Abu Sufian, central president of the Haor Bachao Andolan, told Gaon Connection. Many have complained about the lack of coordination in the distribution of relief. They say marginalized victims are getting less relief. Only emergency food aid is being provided. There is no post-flood rehabilitation initiative. Immediate rehabilitation measures should be taken for the affected people to return home, he said.

Rehabilitation is going to be an uphill task. While some people have returned to their homes, the others have no homes standing to return to. Many houses have been razed to the ground.

"Food and shelter are the foremost concerns. Rehabilitation has to pick up pace," Hossain Tawfiq Chowdhury, a local civil society leader in Sunamganj, told Gaon Connection.

According to Ahmed Jilu, chairperson of the North Kushiyara Union "We have provided as much emergency food as possible to the people affected by the floods. But after the floodwaters recede, they have to start from scratch. They need financial help," he pointed out.

Wendy McCains, country director for the Norwegian Refugee Council in Bangladesh, said that about 80 per cent of Sylhet is under water, schools are closed indefinitely, and thousands of people have been forced to flee their homes in search of dry land. "We urgently need funding to respond to this crisis, so we can work with local partners and authorities to provide immediate life-saving assistance," she appealed.

Many flood victims are still in shelters.

Climate crisis

Rashed Chowdhury, researcher and adjunct faculty at the School of Sustainable Engineering and the Built Environment, Arizona State University, said, "La Niña (that started in September 2020 through to May 2022) will cause more rainfall across the Ganges and Brahmaputra basins, which will cause floods. There is a direct link between La Nina activation and floods in Bangladesh," he said.

La Niña is an ocean-atmosphere event that usually brings down global temperatures. During a La Niña event, cooler-than-average sea surface temperatures prevail over the east and central Pacific Ocean, due to which the trade winds above the sea surface change in character because of a difference in the wind pressures. There are chances that the current La Niña could continue through the southwest monsoon season, winter of 2022 and even early 2023. La Niña is often linked to devastating floods in the Indian subcontinent region.

"There is silting up of the rivers and unplanned construction in the haors. This is obstructing the flow of water from the hair to the river," Islam of the Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology, explained. "The rivers have lost their navigability, and the flow of water has slowed down. This has caused the floods along with the heavy rainfall in Cherrapunji," he added.

In August last year, the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) assessment report said that the effects of climate change will increase rainfall, cyclones, tidal surges and floods in 11 countries, one of which is Bangladesh.

"The length, width and depth of the Surma and Sari rivers of Sylhet should be increased by excavating them scientifically and methodically. Indiscriminate cutting of hills and filling of ponds in Sylhet also must be stopped," warned Mushtaq Ahmed, a professor in the Department of Urban and Environmental Engineering at Shahjalal University of Science and Technology in Sylhet. "Long-term plans need to be adopted to protect Sylhet from floods," he told Gaon Connection.

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