Early monsoon floods "point to climate change"

The monsoon floods have come early to Bangladesh, with thousands of people losing their homes and crops to river erosion, in what specialists say is a clear sign of climate change.

Most major flooding in the low-lying nation is not expected until July and August.

"Early flooding of the Ganges and the Brahmaputra rivers is an example of climate change caused by global warming," Atiur Rahman, an environmental economist, told IRIN, noting a gradual advance of the annual flooding over the past 50 years.

"Global warming causes the snow-caps of the Himalayas to melt early and in bigger quantities, causing early and extra volumes of water to flow through the Ganges and the Brahmaputra rivers. This adds to the already full volume of the monsoon water and causes early and sustained floods that take a devastating shape," he explained.

More than 5,000 people from six villages in Lalmonirhat sub-district were made homeless in the past five days when the Dharla river broke its banks, with scores now living in the open in the pouring rain.

River erosion in five sub-districts of Sirajganj District on the western bank of the Jamuna destroyed 450 homesteads and 270 acres of cropland over the past week, while rising water inundated many low-lying "chars" or river islands.

Many people have fled to higher ground and embankments in search of shelter.

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Rising water levels

Nizamul Huq Bhuiyan, executive engineer of the Water Development Board, said his office, with the help of army personnel, was dumping sandbags along river embankments to protect areas in Kazipur and Shahzadpur sub-districts.

At Teknaf sub-district in southeastern Cox's Bazar, 25,000 people in 15 villages were marooned for four days by the Naaf river flooding.

According to the Flood Forecasting and Warning Centre (FFWC) on 24 June, of its 73 river water level stations, 35 reported a rise in water levels, 35 fell and three remained steady.

"Floods could be a big challenge for the government in the next crop season, but the people need to face such adverse effects by adopting new technologies," CS Karim, adviser for the Ministry of Agriculture, told the media on 21 June.

Worse to come?

A report issued in April, based on satellite images prepared by the Centre for Environmental and Geographic Information Services (CEGIS), suggested that 2,842 hectares of cultivable land on the banks of the Jamuna and Padma rivers, along with 31 educational institutions, were under threat of being lost to river erosion this year.

Close to 4,000 hectares of land, 40 educational institutions and five government offices were wiped out last year, the report stated.

More than 451 hectares of land with settlements could be eroded this season. Last year it was 530 hectares.

At least 6.1km of district, sub-district and rural roads and 5.16km of embankments would likely be lost due to heavy rains and river erosion this year.

Since 1973, at least 156,780 hectares of cropland in 19 districts have disappeared into the Jamuna and Padma rivers.

Photo: UNICEF Bangladesh
A young boy swims alone in flood waters in the outskirts of Dhaka

Forecasting floods

Ainun Nishat, director of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), told journalists that no one could forecast whether there would be any serious floods in the country this year or not.

"Floods depend on rainfalls, both in the country and upstream. A few days of severe rains in the Himalayas or the catchment areas of the Ganges or the Meghna might change the scenario," he warned.

He insisted on proper dissemination of the existing flood forecasts to rural people. The existing forecasts can warn 72 hours in advance of any ensuing floods, but warnings travel slowly and erratically to those who need them.

Bangladesh owes most of its floods to some 130 Indian rivers that enter the country to converge and then empty into the Bay of Bengal. All these rivers originate from the Himalayan range and its foothills in the north and northeast of Bangladesh.