HUGH BRAMMER discusses the general approach and current
activities of the Bangladesh Flood Action Plan.  

THE DISASTROUS FLOODS which struck Bangladesh in 1987  
and 1988 killed more than 3,000 people. They destroyed
millions of homes, devastated crops on several million
hectares of land, killed over 200,000 farm animals and 
did enormous damage to the country's economic
infrastructure. Direct capital losses were estimated at
$1.8 billion. Indirect economic losses may have been
even higher.

Not quantified was the enormous human distress. The 
1988 flood submerged about two-thirds of the country,  
directly affecting some 45 million people, urban as
well as rural. Many lived for weeks under appalling
conditions, with inadequate shelter, food, water,
sanitation and health care, without employment, and
dependent on government and voluntary relief.    

These successive disasters stimulated the international
aid community to support the Government of Bangladesh 
in seeking a lasting solution to the country's chronic
flood problem. Following a diverse range of preliminary
studies, a Flood Action Plan (FAP) was prepared in 1989
and launched in 1990.

The FAP comprises 26 components. It is supported by 15
donors and is coordinated by the World Bank, at the
request of the Government of Bangladesh. The cost of
the first phase (1990-95) is about US$150 million.     
Local coordination is through the Flood Plan
Coordination Organization (FPCO) set up under the  
Ministry of Irrigation, Water Development and Flood
Control. FPCO is supported by international and local
specialists, the so-called Panel of Experts.     

The aims of the first five-year phase are:

o  to establish the principles and criteria for
sustainable flood mitigation;

o  to undertake comprehensive planning studies; and

o  to begin the implementation of high-priority

Contrary to assumptions made by some of its critics,   
the FAP is not a construction plan. It mainly comprises
studies and pilot projects which aim to identify the
most appropriate flood mitigation measures,
non-structural as well as structural, for different  
parts of the country. The objective is to identify
projects for donor funding. Non-structural activities
include the strengthening of existing flood warning,
disaster management and hydrological modelling systems.
Reviews have been made of the past performance of flood
protection projects and of land acquisition procedures,
how people responded to the 1988 floods, and means to
flood-proof settlements, infrastructure and services.

A number of special environmental studies have been
made, and a comprehensive study of floodplain fisheries
is in progress. Guidelines on project economic
assessment, environmental impact assessment and public 
participation have been prepared for FAP consultants.  
Projects have been assisted in obtaining topographical
surveys, aerial photography and satellite imagery, and
a Geographical Information System has been set up.   

Structure-linked activities include feasibility and  
design studies for the rehabilitation of two major  
embankments. These are the Brahmaputra right
embankment, frequently breached by river erosion, and  
the south-eastern section of the coastal embankment
which had fallen into disrepair (and was subsequently
virtually destroyed by the 1991 tropical cyclone before
rehabilitation had started). Feasibility studies have
also been carried out for works to protect Dhaka city
against floods and several regional towns (including   
Chandpur) mainly against river erosion.

To date, three out of five regional planning studies   
have been completed. These have led to feasibility
studies being made in three identified flood control  
project areas which are expected to proceed to detailed
design in 1993. Ultimately, it is envisaged that the
regional flood management plans will be integrated into
the National Water Plan.

The FAP does not specifically address possible impacts
of global warming. However, the Meghna Estuary
subregional study, due to start in 1993, will examine
the implications of a rising sea-level in that
vulnerable area. Since all climate models forecast
increased monsoon rainfall for the Bangladesh region as
global warming develops, floods may become even more
frequent and severe than at present in future decades.
This will need to be taken into account in future FAP
planning and modelling.

Except for urban areas, the FAP does not advocate total
flood protection. For rural areas, the policy is that
of `controlled flooding'. River embankments will be
provided with regulators to allow the continuation of
the `normal' flooding to which farmers are accustomed
and which provides benefits to fisheries, soil
fertility and navigation. The regulators would be
closed to keep out unwanted high or untimely floods
which cause damage. Secondary embankments behind main
embankments would divide the protected area into
compartments, enabling water flow across the land to be
controlled. The objective is to give farmers a more
secure environment for investment in crop production in
the monsoon season.

The concept of controlled flooding is being tested on
the compartmentalization pilot project (FAP20). It
involves detailed hydrological modelling and intensive 
public consultation. The latter aims to ascertain
people's needs, identify potential conflicts of
interest between different groups (for example, farmers
and fishermen who might want water on or off the land
at different times) and develop institutional 
arrangements for local project management to the extent

A major reason why some critics oppose the FAP is the
poor record of performance of flood control projects   
implemented in the past.

About 6,000km of flood embankments already existed
pre-FAP. Both sides of the Ganges and Teesta rivers are
fully embanked. Most of the Brahmaputra right bank and
about half of the left bank are also embanked, as well
as substantial sections of the Padma (the combined
Brahmaputra and Ganges) and Meghna rivers. So are many
eastern rivers which are subject to flash floods from
adjoining hill areas. In addition, several thousand
kilometres of embankments exist around polders in the
coastal zone. A number of inland areas have been also
been empoldered, some of them provided with pump

While there have been some successes, such as the
Chandpur Irrigation Project, there have been many      
partial or total project failures. The FAP12/13 studies
found that, amongst many contributory factors, the main
reasons for poor performance were:

o  inadequate attention to internal drainage behind   
embankments (flooding results from heavy local rainfall
as well as river floods);

o  inadequate fund allocations for maintaining

o  the blue-printing of projects over the heads of   
local residents; and

o  conflicts between farmers and fishermen, and between
those living outside and those inside embankments.

The consequence has often been public cutting of
embankments during floods, with substantial loss of
benefits and even additional damage.

Attempts are being made under the FAP to strengthen   
consultation and public participation. This is not an  
easy task in a strongly hierarchical society, and it
would be unrealistic to expect overnight success.

Also, the Government of Bangladesh has made
environmental impact assessments (EIAs) mandatory for
all new projects. But again, carrying out EIAs is not
an easy task in a country where there is a dearth of
factual ecological information and which has already
been strongly impacted upon by dense human settlement  
and intensive land use.

One of the principles of environmental management
adopted is that any people who might suffer adverse
effects as a result of a project intervention should be
adequately compensated.

An example being studied is that of people living on   
unstable alluvial islands (chars) in the main rivers.
There is concern that such people might suffer from
increased flood levels and channel instability if new
embankments confine the main channel. It is impossible
to resettle such people elsewhere. There is nowhere for
them to go. (Ideally, they should not have been allowed
to occupy such hazardous land in the first place.) One
form of `compensation' being considered is flood
proofing: for example, raising the level of homestead  
mounds, providing flood refuges, and strengthening
community services. It is hoped that an NGO-led pilot
project will get under way in 1993.

The single most expensive item (about US$40 million) in
the FAP programme is the river training pilot project
(FAP21/22). This aims to test methods of river training
and bank defence on selected reaches of the Brahmaputra
river. The active channel of this river is 10-15km   
wide. It is strongly braided, constantly creating new
chars and washing other land away.

Historically, the Brahmaputra has shown a preferred
tendency to erode its right bank, advancing westward at
an average rate of about 100m a year. This erosion has
destroyed about half of the 220km length of the 
Brahmaputra right embankment built in the 1960s,
necessitating recurrent rebuilding of threatened or
eroded sections. Encroaching onto long-settled
farmland, this erosion causes great distress to
established families who are rendered landless.
Understandably, there is strong public pressure to halt
this erosion.

This is not an easy task. The Brahmaputra is a
formidable river. So are the Ganges, Meghna and other
rivers which also suffer bank erosion. Mean peak flows
of the Brahmaputra and Ganges rivers are 65,500 and
51,500 cubic metres per second respectively; peak flows
in 1987/88 were 50 per cent higher than these levels.
The rivers run through soft alluvial sediments, and can
scour channels 30-50m deep. There is no suitable rock 
for making structures. The cost of building groynes and
revetments is, therefore, very high.

One approach to be tested is that of selective
intervention (such as closing off or dredging channels)
to `steer' the river away from critical bank sections.
The Chinese appear to have had some success with this  
technique on the Hwang Ho River.

Will the FAP succeed? It is too early yet to be
certain, one way or the other. However, whether
additional embankments are eventually built or not,   
considerable benefits should accrue from the greater
technical knowledge acquired from the multidisciplinary
studies and from new approaches in public
participation, environmental impact assessment, flood  
proofing, and so on.

One has to ask, what is the alternative to flood
protection in Bangladesh? The population, now over 110
million, is expected to double by around 2030. That
population lives predominantly on the country's
floodplains which occupy 80 per cent of the total area.
Agriculture is the mainstay of the economy and seems   
likely to remain so.

Whilst significant increases in crop production have
been achieved in recent decades through the expansion
of dry-season irrigation, the potential for further   
expansion could be exhausted by the end of the century.
Thereafter, further increments in food production to   
support the country's burgeoning population must come
from production in the monsoon season. For that,
protection from the risk of recurrent floods will be
essential with or without global warming.

The FAP has a vital role to play in establishing sound
technical, institutional and environmental procedures
for flood mitigation and management for the long-term
benefit of all the country's people. That is the
rationale for the strong international donor support   
for the FAP.

Hugh Brammer is a member of an international panel of
experts for the Bangladesh Flood Action Plan and is  
also a participant in the Bangladesh Global Warming   
Impacts Study.



ACTIVITIES                                   DONORS   

Main components

FAP1 Brahmaputra training study         IDA
FAP2 Northwest regional study           UK-Japan
FAP3 N. Central regional study          EEC-France
FAP4 Southwest regional study           ADB-UNDP
FAP5 Southeast regional study           IDA-UNDP     
FAP6 Northeast regional study           Canada
FAP7 Cyclone protection project         EEC-IDA
FAP8a/b Dhaka town protection           Japan/ADB
FAP9a/b Secondary towns                 ADB/IDA
FAP10 Flood forecasting                 UNDP, Japan
FAP11 Disaster preparedness             UNDP

Supporting activities

FAP12/13 Agric. review/O&M              UK-Japan
FAP14 Flood response study              USA
FAP15 Land acquisition study            Sweden
FAP16 Environmental study               USA
FAP17 Fisheries study                   UK
FAP18 Topogr. mapping              Finland, Swiss etc
FAP19 GIS                               USA
FAP20 Compartmentalization              NL-Germany
FAP21/22 River pilot projects           Germany-France
FAP23 Floodproofing study               USA
FAP24 River surveys & studies           EEC
FAP25 Flood modelling                   Denmark etc
FAP26 Institutional prog.               UNDP, France etc