Farmers in the haor areas of Sylhet, Netrakona and Sunamganj are living in fear that they may be deprived of their boro paddy's harvest, as flash floods following incessant rainfall in India's bordering hilly areas have largely inundated their fields.

Besides the affected farmers, the overt similarities with a similar chain of events in 2017 will have people worried across all sections of society. Back then, it prolonged a hike in the price of rice. Policymakers will be hoping and praying there is no repeat of that, given the upward pressure on prices that is already a reality gripping the populace.

Flooding that begins within six hours, and often within three hours, of heavy rainfall (or other cause) are considered flashfloods - one of the main natural disasters of the Northeast region of Bangladesh. Every two or three years, flash flooding devastates the region. It affects the primary production sector of agriculture and thus threatens the lives and livelihoods of the inhabitants.

The 'haor', a very low lying river basin area, is covered by water almost a half of the year starting from the monsoon season. Most of the lands here remain inundated six to seven months from June to November. People here are used to living in this condition although it causes numerous sufferings to their lives. It almost confines them to their small homes, limits their mobility, and practically eliminates the possibility of finding jobs, if not in the fields in other regions of the country.

Geographically, most of the haors are situated in seven districts, Sunamganj, Kishoreganj, Netrokona, Sylhet, Habiganj, Maulvibazar and Brahmanbaria of the North-East Bangladesh. These haors are an important source of agricultural production for a large number of vulnerable people. During winter, cultivated land of the area produces paddy with minimum efforts while during monsoon the same is turned into breeding place for open water fishery, hosting a wide range of water biodiversity. Haors are important areas for Boro cultivation which is a large mono-cropping agriculture system here. Almost 80% of these haor areas are covered by Boro rice while 10% area is covered by T-Aman production including other hybrid rice varieties.

Flash floods generally occur in the north-eastern haor and southeast (Chittagong) regions of Bangladesh. However, the northeast region of Bangladesh is highly vulnerable to flash floods due to surrounding hilly areas and presence of numerous large, deeply flooded depressions. When heavy rainfall occurs in the Assam and Meghalaya hilly region of India, flood water quickly moves towards the haor area of Bangladesh through the trans-boundary rivers and eventually enters into the haor. In most of the cases, farmers don't get enough time to harvest their standing Boro crop. Thus flash floods before harvesting of Boro crops not only create a negative impact on the food security of the northeast region but also damage the national economy.

Therefore, a dedicated early flashflood warning system that covers the entire region that is vulnerable to the phenomenon is not only urgent for the survival of the people living here but also necessary for saving the economy of the country.

An early test for the system

In Netrakona, the farmers of haor areas in Khaliajury upazila are busy harvesting their green and ripe paddy, fearing losses caused by onrush of water downstream.

Executive Engineer of Netrakona Water Development Board ML Soikat said "The water level of Dhanu River has risen 10 cm on Monday noon due to rainfall in India's Cherrapunji. As a result, the Dhanu river was flowing 58 cm below the danger mark."

Jashimuddin, upazila agriculture officer, said 370 acres of land in Kirtankhola, Laxmipur, Chunai, Baiddarchar, Katkailer Kanda, Taktar, Monijan, Lebria, Hemnagar, Gangabadar, Nayakhal, Bagani,Boilong and Dakatkhali haor area has been inundated, creating panic among the upazila's boro farmers.

Many farmers are trying their best to harvest their boro paddy before it matures, in order to cut down on their losses. Sujon Mia and Anwar Hossain, two farmers of Puranhati and Laxmipur villages in the upazila, said normally they would give it another 10-15 days to harvest the paddy, but they became helpless and went for early harvest -in which case their immature paddy would be used as fodder.

On a positive note, Engineer Soikat said there is no report of damage along the 183-km embankment in the haor area, and they are trying to reinforce it by dumping bamboo and GO bags.

In Sunamganj, the residents of Shantiganj upazila have been spending sleepless nights to protect the Shaldia Haor flood protection embankment since a crack was discovered on the surface.

The water level of Surma has touched its danger level, and the water level of all the rivers including the Jadukata, Rokti, Boulai, Patlai, Naljur, Kalni, Chalti, Dharain and Chela, has increased due to the sudden onrush of hill water.

The crop lands in Tahirpur upazila in the district are the worst-affected, as the flood control embankment for the Tanguar haor collapsed. Crop fields in Choto Kanlar Haor of Sadar upazila and Manuarkhola haor in Shalla upazila are also submerged for the same reasons as above.

On the other hand, 25,000 hectares of boro paddy are at risk of inundation as a crack developed on the protection embankment at Karchar Haor in Bishambharpur upazila on Tuesday morning) (April 5.

Bishambharpur Upazila Nirbahi Officer Sadi Ur Rahim Zahid said they are trying their best to protect the crops. Deputy Commissioner Jahangir Hossain said this year, a 530-km long levee has been built, and it is difficult for the Water Development Board to protect such a long embankment. As such, he sought help from all stakeholders in taking steps to protect the dam.

According to Sunamganj office of the Department of Agriculture Extension, some 222,805 (2 lakh 22 thousand 805) hectares of land have been brought under boro cultivation and they set a target to produce boro paddy worth Tk 3,200 crore.

In Sylhet, farmers of Companiganj upazila are a worried lot, as their paddy fields too lie submerged, following the sudden onrush of waters in the last two days. Some 400 bighas of cropland are already under water in Companiganj, according to the upazila agriculture department. And the worst hit areas are Fuksha Haor, Bhai Kuri, Moter Kuri, Dewar Kar, Kapna Kuri, Daila Haor, Akhai Kuri, Kanglaghati and Daram Haor of the upazila's South Ranikhai Union.

Deputy assistant agriculture officer Pankaj said that although only 50 bighas of paddy land in Ichakals union is under water, the Patharchauli Haor protection dam is liable to be breached at any moment. "A disaster is waiting to happen," he told our sister newsagency UNB.

Alamgir Alam, chairman of East Islampur union parishad, said that with the help of locals, a dam was built in Rauti Haor. "However, the dam breached in strong currents, submerging paddy fields," Alamgir added.

Raihan Parvez Rony, upazila agriculture officer, said, "If the flow of hill water continues, all the boro crops in the upazila will be damaged." Boro has been cultivated across 5,850 hectares of land in the upazila this year, said the officer.

Fakhrul Ahmed, deputy assistant engineer of the Sylhet Water Development Board, said that an 8.561 km-long crop protection dam has been constructed at Haor area in Companiganj. And yet he adds: "Although the dam is strong enough, it will be difficult to protect the area's crops in case of an overflow."

Upazila nirbahi officer Lusikanta Hajong said the low-lying areas were flooded by the sudden onrush of hill water. "However, our crop protection dams are still in the safe zone. A list of affected farmers is being prepared."

Coverage needs to expand

Today, the memories of the devastating flood of 2017 remain fresh across north-east Bangladesh's Haor Basin. Over 200 tonnes of fish, 1.3 million livestock and 3.2 million ducks and poultry were swept away. About 90 per cent of the Boro rice harvest was destroyed, too - a significant loss, considering that this region provides a sixth of Bangladesh's production of this rice variety. Anjuli Rani Das is one of those who lost her farm and animals, while her husband, an agricultural wage labourer, lost his income during what would have been harvest season: there was nothing left to be harvested.

"Life in the Haor region has always been unpredictable," says Anjuli. "I grew up watching houses being washed away each year. My village was unprotected and exposed to waves and water."

The villagers had always done their best to protect their homes from the recurring floods, but the costs were beyond them. "Every year, we collected money to try to protect the villages," Anjuli explains. "Obviously, everyone wants to contribute, but with the very limited income opportunities during the monsoon season, these donations are a financial burden for most families."

Although flooding during the monsoon season has always been a part of life in the Haor Basin, things have changed since Anjuli's childhood. Rising temperatures due to climate change are increasing the intensity of the floods, and deforestation has stripped the natural barriers that once dampened the waves. The rainfall patterns seem to have shifted, too, bringing heavier rains even in the pre-monsoon season - which also coincides with the Boro harvest time in Haor. The area's 20 million inhabitants, many of whom are amongst the poorest in the country, are largely dependent on farming and fishing as their source of income, and their livelihoods are increasingly at risk.

To help local communities adapt to the effects of climate change and reduce crop losses, the International Fund for Agriculture Development, or IFAD-supported HILIP/CALIP initiative has established a Flash Flood Early Warning System. The Water Development Board launched the flood warning system that would alert people about a potential flooding three days to three hours before it struck.

The service is available to Android phone users, who will also be able to learn about the condition of an embankment before and after a flood by using the warning system.

Using data collected from 25 stations, the system combines weather forecasting and hydrological and hydraulic modelling to scan for the conditions that generate flash floods and predict them up to 10 days in advance. Small-scale farmers like Anjuli receive alerts through two channels: from the Bangladesh Water Development Board, which notifies the district administration and local agricultural officers, and through a smartphone app.

The HILIP/CALIP initiative has also contributed to climate-resilient infrastructure designed to protect villages, roads and markets. These include bioengineering methods such as reforestation efforts and the planting of vetiver, a deep-rooted grass that can stabilize slopes by holding onto the soil and reducing erosion, as well as building raised embankments to protect villages against flood-induced damage.

Over 344,000 people in the Haor Basin are now benefiting from the early warning system, while 140 villages are protected against flood damage by the climate-resilient infrastructure. More than 180,000 people from small-scale farming households have joined local common-interest groups and societies established by HILIP/CALIP. Through their membership in these groups, they can access trainings on various methods for adapting their farms and fish ponds to the effects of climate change. These include adjusting the intensity and diversity of their crops; reforesting with bamboo and swamp-growing plants; and how to use the vetiver and other embankment protections to tackle erosion, to name just a few. There are even classes on the ways that gender roles play into these adaptation efforts. Meanwhile, over 11,000 residents now belong to user groups managing beel community water resources designed to increase fish production and biodiversity.

Life is still difficult for small-scale farmers and fishers in Haor Basin, but the infrastructure and trainings are protecting homes and keeping roads open in the five districts where HILIP/CALIP is active, and the alert system gives plenty of warning. People in Anjuli's village now have the ability to protect themselves and their assets from flash floods, and ample time to act.

"As a means to protect their product, the farmers can set aside crops for their consumption and the fishers can sell their fish in advance, even if they are not yet fully grown," Anjuli explains. "That way, we get some financial relief. Otherwise, it would be hard for us to survive."

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