Peter Rodgers, a Harvard University Professor of Civil Engineering, has studied water issues in the Brahmaputra and Ganges delta for several decades. He was member of a fact-finding team sent to Bangladesh by the United States following the devastating floods of 1988. Members of the Bangladesh Support Network, a U.S. based group of Bangladeshis, spoke to Rodgers recently, in Washington, D.C. and we present excerpts of their conversation.
BSN: What measures can be taken to alleviate Bangladesh’s plight?
RODGERS: The issue right now, is how much you can do within Bangladesh, and how much international cooperation you need. Actually, a lot can be done within Bangladesh to deal with the floods, such as providing high ground in each village, constructing helipads above flood waters, improving communications and warning systems, and taking measures to protect food stores and industry. It is cheap and easy to protect cities like Dhaka.
BSN: How bad was the 1988 flood?
RODGERS: The 1988 flood was clearly a massive one. It was very unpleasant and people suffered for a few weeks, but apparently, they bounced back with amazing resilience. The flood may not even show up in the production statistics, even though it reduces the economic potential. A study of agricultural production, since the late 1940s, shows that big floods or small floods do not seem to make any difference to production statistics. Droughts do make a difference, though.
BSN: What are the feasible options?
RODGERS: In some places, dams and embankments have worked, but remember that rivers change course. You can stand up to the rivers when they are rivulets, but by the time they are in Bangladesh, they have a mind of their own. Dredging the main rivers is not a serious option, because we are talking of billions of tons each season.
As you know, the Brahmaputra has changed its course several times. Right now the river is perched on top of its fan and is in an “unstable” position. Building a “river training” work might be all that the river needs, to change its course. Which would be a colossal catastrophe. What is disconcerting is that there are plans floating around for barrages on the Brahmaputra. You could build barrages and a canal to link the Brahmaputra with the Ganges, all at prodigious expense, billions and billions of dollars. But how long will they survive? How long will the river stay put?
BSN: But there must be something that can be done.
RODGERS: One possibility is to intensify the flooding in the areas that are already flooded, so that water is directed away from dry areas. You could store water in areas like the Sylhet depression, by building low impact embankments. If 3 billion cubic metres of water were stored in Sylhet, that would reduce flooding impact downstream on the Meghna. So, why not this scheme? Well, I sat in a minister’s office in Dhaka, and he explained that it was politically impossible, because people don’t want to leave the land. So, are the floods a serious problem? If they are not, then you don’t have to do anything about it. If they are, people have to take serious measures within Bangladesh.
BSN: What kind measure might work?
RODGERS: Some things can be done through the ‘food for work programme,’ like the way they built big storage reservoirs in China. One on the Yangtse has a seven billion cubic metre capacity, and was built in 75 days, with 300,000 people! Now who needs the Japanese or the Americans? First of all, they do not know how to deal with those numbers. It is all organisational skill and local management. Unfortunately, these available skills are not highly prised by the government sector in Bangladesh.
BSN: So how can foreigners help?
RODGERS: Well, they can stop giving conflicting advice. Each high priced consultant thinks he knows the answer. So if you are sitting in Bangladesh, what would you do? What I would do, is just say: “Please go away and leave us alone. We are smart enough to think out these things ourselves.” Unfortunately, the international aid community does not allow people to do that. There is a lot of pressure to accept the advice of consultants, and some of the things you hear, would curl your hair.
Large United States agencies like the Bureau of Reclamation and the Corp of Engineers are very highly regarded, but you would have second thoughts about inviting them over to Bangladesh, if you looked seriously at what these agencies have done in the U.S. The World Bank typically gets consultants who have worked for such agencies. Technically, these are very good agencies, but they don’t have any concept of the political and social implications of what they are doing. They view issues as technical problems and invest in large structures. In the United States where we have a lot of resources, we can afford it, but Bangladesh cannot.
BSN: What would you have Bangladesh do?
RODGERS: The Government needs to do some basic strategic thinking. People who can are not allowed to tackle the problems. There is a tremendous amount of bureaucratic infighting about who gets to control what. It’s a Bangladeshi problem and nobody from outside can really help.
When I was there, I could not find a decent set of survey maps in Dhaka. This, in a country where topography is everything. It is messy and hard to do surveys, but it’s absolutely fundamental.
BSN: Are the floods increasing in severity? And, what about deforestation upstream?
RODGERS: I don’t think deforestation is making any noticeable difference. But the floods are getting worse in economic terms, simply because, the same flood affects more and more people each year. More and more people are living on the flood plains, so there’s more potential for damage. Agricultural damage is predominant. It doesn’t show up over time because, even if one crop is damaged the following crop is good. The economic damage from the floods has been increasing, but not the floods themselves. Throughout history, there have been huge floods in Bengal. About 4 meters of rain fell in five days in 1841. In 1860, 87 feet of rain fell in one spot. With so much water, there must have been tremendous flooding.
So you see, progress can be achieved at relatively low cost, but the question is who is going to do it? Groups in Bangladesh must press for planning by autonomous agencies, and development of basic planning tools, such as mapmaking. They can say these things more strongly than foreigners can. Nobody else can straighten out the problems. Bangladeshis have to confront the issues themselves.
~A Bangladesh Support Network: PO Box 1088, Berkeley, CA 94701, USA