New $100M highway through ‘haor’ linked to worsened NE Bangladesh flooding

Kamran Reza Chowdhury
2022.06.28
Dhaka
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New $100M highway through ‘haor’ linked to worsened NE Bangladesh flooding People get on a boat as they look for shelter during widespread flooding in Sylhet, northeastern Bangladesh, June 19, 2022.
[Reuters]

A new, nearly U.S. $100 million highway through a floodplain or “haor” in northeastern Bangladesh may have worsened the effect of floods in that area that have affected millions and killed dozens, officials acknowledged Tuesday.

Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina halted all road-building projects in the greater Sylhet and Mymensingh districts in the area, Planning Minister M. A. Mannan told BenarNews.

The PM’s instruction on Tuesday came after criticism on social media about the 30-km (18.6- mile) Itna-Mithamoin-Austagram highway which residents have blamed for severe floods in the adjacent Sylhet region.

The highway was opened in October 2020 and connects three sub-districts in the floodplain, or “haor,” of Kishoreganj district – sub-districts that normally remain submerged for several months a year.

Md. Shamsul Hoque, a civil engineering professor at the Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology, said the highway was a bad idea from the beginning.

“By constructing the Itna-Mithmoin-Austagram road, we have caused huge damage to the fragile and special ecosystem of the ‘haor’ region. We learned by paying a heavy price,” he told BenarNews.

“‘Haor’ means floodplain. These are connected with rivers. All ‘haor’ remain underwater for seven to eight months a year. Boats and other water vessels are the main modes of transportation in this region. Why should we need to build roads in this region?”

Hoque said planners and engineers should have alerted the authorities to these potential problems before starting to build the highway.

“This is a basic environmental consideration that the ‘haor’ ecosystem must not be hindered through construction of roads,” he told BenarNews.

Floods ‘not over’

Debojit Singha, an official at the Sylhet administrative division, told BenarNews that the ongoing flood in Sylhet and Sunamganj districts affected 4.5 million people, noting 53 people had died.

 “The floods are not over. So, we cannot assess the total cost of damage of infrastructures and loss of resources for now,” he told BenarNews.

Hoque said Hasina’s directive to stop road construction was wise.

Planning Minister Mannan said the PM instructed that no roads would be constructed “in any of the floodplains of Bangladesh.”

“She said this to maintain natural flow of water in the ‘haor’ and save the environment of the floodplain regions,” Mannan told BenarNews.

“I am not an expert on the water dynamics of the haor region. I cannot say for sure that the Itna-Mithamoin-Austagram road was responsible for the latest spell of floods in Sylhet and Sunamganj. But there are discussions among people that this road caused the flooding,” he said.

The government defines haor, with unique hydro-ecological characteristics, as large bowl-shaped floodplain depressions. Located in the northeastern region of Bangladesh, they cover close to 2 million hectares. About 19.37 million people who depend on fishing for their livelihood live in haor regions.

There are 373 haor in the districts of Sunamganj, Sylhet, Habiganj, Maulvibazar, Netrakona, Kishoreganj and Brahmanbaria.

People who live in those regions remain confined to their homes during the rainy season starting in May. Water starts receding in November which allows farmers to cultivate only one crop a year to meet their annual grain requirement.

This year, flooding started mid-April, submerging many standing paddy fields.

“Thus far, we have seen three spells of flooding in the greater Sylhet region,” Arifuzzaman Bhuiyan, the head of the flood forecasting and warning center, told BenarNews.

“We may experience another flooding in July,” he said.

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