Living with Floods and Reducing Vulnerability in Sylhet

The worst floods in 122 years have hit Sylhet and Sunamganj in the northwest of Bangladesh. Millions have been displaced, property and livelihoods have been destroyed, highlight once more how vulnerable Bangladesh remains to flooding.

Starting on the 16th and 17th of June 2022, heavy upstream rainfall from Meghalaya and Assam states in India have caused rivers in Sylhet to burst their banks and flooding the division. All of this happened while the political establishment in Dhaka celebrated the country’s middle-income status and officially opened the Padma Multipurpose Bridge. At the same time, around 7.2 million people in Sylhet and Sunamganj and the adjourning northeast districts were affected by flood waters making the present situation and the future ominous. So far, 500,000 people have been evacuated to 1,432 emergency shelters as millions remain displaced among the vast swathes of inundated land. Most of Bangladesh falls within the floodplains of three major river systems – the Ganges, Brahmaputra and Meghna, with over 90 percent of the basin area located outside of Bangladesh. During the annual monsoon rains many parts of the country become flooded, yet, not all floods are equal, nor do all floods lead to disaster. Past floods such as those of 1988, 1998, 2004, 2007, 2017 and 2020, however, are all examples of severe floods in terms of duration and damage. For instance, the 2017 flash floods destroyed the rice harvest in Sylhet. The floods of 2020 lingered on for more than 40 days in 33 affected districts while the country was fighting the coronavirus pandemic and in the context of people having already lost their jobs or incomes due to the pandemic. But why have floods been so devastating in recent times? Some possible explanations to the complex question come down to a combination of climate change, deforestation, destruction of hills, unauthorised development works in the wetland, and the massive loss in navigability in the rivers in the Meghna basin.

Seasonal floods

Although the monsoon season usually starts in June and lasts until October, this year heavy downpours pounded Bangladesh already in March, triggering early floods in late April. In Sylhet and Sunamganj the water level rose to a catastrophic level in the haor area, a bowl shaped shallow depression geologically known as the Sylhet Basin. During the monsoon Sylhet’s traditional wetlands receive surface runoff from adjoining rivers and canals and become vast swathes of water which act as sponges, absorbing excess rainwater. For many years a large swathe of wetlands have been destroyed, and along with more intense floods, the damage caused has been far more significant. With an average elevation of five metres above sea level, this is decreasing over time due to the Indian Plate converging under the Eurasian Plate – a process that created the Himalayan Mountains over 50 million years ago. Following five days of continuous out of season torrential rains, on 9 June 2022, Sylhet and Sunamganj flooded within a short period of time. According to the Flood Forecasting and Warning Centre, Sylhet gets around 840mm of rain in June, but even before the month was over, 1,500mm of rainfall had already fallen, the highest in more than a century. Since 17 May to 3 August, there have been 137 reported fatalities according to the Directorate General of Health Services. When the water levels rose, people not only lost a year’s worth of grain, but also land and property, forcing them to sleep next to their livestock – their only remaining wealth. With 72 percent of Sylhet division affected by the flood, hunger and destitution increased as did exposure to water borne diseases such as dengue, acute watery diarrhoea, as well as respiratory and eye infections.

Climate change and the Sylhet basin

Currently there is intense discussion taking place in Bangladesh among experts and on social media on whether climate change is solely responsible for the recent floods. There is no doubt that global climate change including an increase in greenhouse gasses and a rise in global temperature is having serious consequences on Bangladesh. According to the Global Climate Risk Index 2020, Bangladesh was rated the 7th most vulnerable nation to climate change in 2018. This is primarily because the low-lying Bangladesh delta is susceptible to the existential threat of an increase in extreme weather-related impacts of floods, storm surges, and cyclones. As suggested by recent research in South Asia, climate change can disrupt the annual monsoon which can cause heavier and more unpredictable rainfall. For example, in 2019, the cities of Sylhet and Sunamganj were flooded, but the flood waters receded within three days. Whereas, in the recent floods most of Sylhet division has been flooded, something which has never happened before. According to the Global Report on Internal Displacement 2021 by the Swiss-based organisation Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre, approximately 4,443,230 people were displaced in Bangladesh in 2020, mostly by natural disasters. The World Bank estimates that by 2050, flooding by rising sea levels would leave around 20 million people internally displaced in Bangladesh if immediate action is not taken to mitigate against climate change.

Another reason for the annual floods is the change in the way land is used. Bangladesh has around 700 rivers, making it particularly vulnerable during extreme weather events. For the past seven decades Bangladesh has practiced the Cordon approach through which it has cordoned off the flood plains from the rivers. The destruction of wetlands has mainly occurred through the construction of embankments, roads, and widespread settlements next to the high-risk flood plains. Embankments were constructed to protect agricultural farmland from annual monsoon flooding, but these along with roads became a significant barrier for water to flow both upstream and downstream. The cost benefit analysis of these development projects are rarely disclosed or are hardly scrutinised at a local or national level prior to the construction process. Bureaucratic inefficiencies have meant that embankments are subjected to highly contentious property rights disputes. Because the embankments along with the water bodies and rivers are not controlled at the discretion of the local authorities and are instead often managed by local thugs who have grabbed the land and sold the soil for profit, effectively reducing the depth of the riverbed and making the area further prone to flooding. This has been very damaging for the Sylhet Basin, which already has low elevation that is further sinking due to tectonic movements and where plastic pollution is exacerbating the situation of the Surma River. The government must take immediate remedial actions to rectify the combined effects of its framework for development and investigate all allegations of corruption related to the illegal exploitation of the haors.

Some experts have argued that careless infrastructural changes and destruction of the flood prone haors has led to an increase in frequency and intensity of flash floods. One of the major changes has been the 30km all-weather Itna-Mithamoin-Austagram road, popularly known as the ‘Haor Road’, which has facilitated direct connectivity between the haor region and other parts of the country. According to a recent interview by Dr Md Shamsul Hoque of the Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology (BUET), the Haor Road has been a bad idea from its conception, because “by constructing the Itna-Mithamoin-Austagram road, we have caused huge damage to the fragile and special ecosystem of the haor region. We learnt by paying a heavy price”. Saiful Islam, director of the Institute of Water and Flood Management (IWFM) at BUET, stated that, “Excess rainwater cannot move. Various types of infrastructure has been constructed on Sylhet’s haors. This is obstructing the flow of water. That is why the floods in Sylhet division have been so intense”. Ashiq Iqbal, researcher at the IWFM recently told Al Jazeera that, “The siltation of riverbeds caused by deforestation and solid waste dumping has already reduced the water-carrying capacity of the rivers in Bangladesh”, and due to limited resources, dredging rivers has become a huge challenge for Bangladesh, given that mega infrastructure projects are allocated a lion’s share of development funds.

Disaster management

Bangladesh has a detailed and advanced document called the “Standing Orders on Disaster” (SODs) that provide guidelines and detailed instructions to different actors at national and sub-national levels on managing displacement. So far, the authorities have failed to declare the flood affected areas in Sylhet as a ‘disaster zone’, which it should have according to the Disaster Management Act 2012 (DMA). If this had been done, then local administrations would be empowered to apply for government budgetary support. A proactive influence towards disaster management and humanitarian responses should be prioritised instead of damage control methods currently utilised. There is an overwhelming focus in the DMA in reference to emergency shelter and resettlement, but does not include guidance on how to deal with the various phases of displacement. Planned effective management of emergency shelters providing food, refuge, health, education and safety for children, women, elderly, and the disabled is essential for preventing and responding to protection risks faced by these vulnerable groups. Initial government relief and rehabilitation measures are focused in affected areas, but this remains inadequate as the coverage of relief needs to be expanded as there is a high demand for support. Government relief measures are primarily targeted at people based on their level of poverty; however, the floods have affected people from different socioeconomic backgrounds. Hence, the relief needs to be distributed to people that are facing survival challenges during floods, instead off from a list compiled based on poverty.

The impacts of floods are multi-dimensional, which incorporate both economic and social aspects. Although the floods at present are ongoing, the actual cost of damages will be estimated by the Department of Disaster Management which will provide preliminary reports once the impacts have been assessed. For those affected, the flood is just the beginning of the disaster. Lives and livelihoods will be destroyed and devastated and will take months to rehabilitate the affected population as well as rebuild all of what has been damaged. Despite the opportunity for flood affected people to evacuate to emergency shelters, the primary reasons many people are hesitant about evacuating in the haor areas is because they fear losing their valuables and livestock they have conscientiously bought and cared for over a long period of time. If the local authorities allocated safe spaces for people and their livestock, it would make the evacuation process easier. Public spaces, school playgrounds, and congregational prayer spaces can be allocated as emergency shelters in anticipation of floods. Shelter, food, water, sanitation, emergency healthcare and a space for cattle should be included in this structure. The authorities at a sub-district and union council level should as part of their disaster management plans have a detailed budget, including funds, logistics, key people and volunteers, and transportation. The central government needs to ensure that the national budget reflects the disaster management plans to support the country’s climate vulnerable people.

Humanitarian response

Bangladesh has significantly improved its capacity to cope with floods, which are often testing the country’s ability and resilience to respond. At present, the pressing issue for the government is to provide immediate relief, rehabilitation and recovery to help those affected to ensure their survival. Bangladesh’s Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, at a news conference in Dhaka, stated that: “We haven’t faced a crisis like this for a long time. Infrastructure must be constructed to cope with such disasters”. She added that there was no swift let-up for the country as “the water coming from Meghalaya and Assam has affected the Sylhet region”. She also said that her government was working hard to rescue trapped people in the floods: “We deployed different agencies, including the army, navy and air force to rescue people. In some areas, we have ensured that people are airlifted”, adding that areas downstream were likely to be swamped as flood waters recede. Downstream flooding undermines the governments Cordon approach which is not appropriate for Bangladesh and the country would benefit more from an Open approach, whereby floodplains and tidal plains are kept open and unobstructed to rivers so the water can recede quickly. Reports have suggested that cuts in the roads have allowed the water to pass quickly downstream. According to a 2015 analysis by the World Bank Institute, erratic weather could cause flooding affecting 3.5 million Bangladeshis annually and threaten agriculture, infrastructure and clean water supply.

The initial nonchalant attitude from public representatives such as members of parliament, sub-district and union chairmen, and city and municipality councillors meant that they were absent at the time of crisis. Only a few people like Imran Ahmed, Expatriate Welfare and Overseas Employment Minister, were visible in their constituency to extend humanitarian support to distressed people. But this did not stop Bengalis at home and abroad to mobilise and coordinate humanitarian efforts. Many people of Bengali origin from the United Kingdom and other affluent parts of the world set up GoFundMe pages and coordinated with family and friends in Bangladesh to distribute dried food, water, medicines, soap, lighters, torches and cooked meals to people affected in remote and hard to reach places. Furthermore, many well-known Bangladeshi YouTubers have raised huge amounts of money and are in Sylhet helping with the relief work since the start of the floods. Several youth-based organisations such as Footsteps Bangladesh, Give Bangladesh Foundation, and the Obhizatrik Foundation have been supporting flood victims through actively engaging in relief work and are planning to provide technical and financial support to restore houses destroyed by the floods. Ordinary people ranging from day labourers to school children from all over the country have financially contributed whatever little they can for the relief operation. This unity has given hope to the people affected who feel abandoned by the government, which lacks both resources and the political will. A general lacklustre attitude towards flood management was also seen during the 2017 flash floods, which destroyed the rice harvest in Sylhet.


Bangladesh has always been known as a land prone to natural disasters. Every year when the country gets flooded, around 17 percent of the land remains underwater throughout the year. Regular floods inundate around 18 percent of the country, so, approximately 35 percent of Bangladesh is inundated during regular floods. The recent floods have been worst in a century, primarily affecting the low-lying districts in the northeast of the country. Lives and livelihoods have been devastated by such impacts of climate change. Bangladesh is feeling the brunt of anthropogenic climate change, despite the country itself having contributed very little to global warming. Between 1990 and 2015, the richest one percent of the global population caused twice as much carbon emissions compared to the poorest 50 percent. This extreme carbon inequality highlights how the ostentatious lifestyle of a small percentage of rich individuals in developed countries is endangering the survival of millions of poor people in countries like Bangladesh. Unless there is a concerted global effort lead by the developed world to address the carbon inequality, countries such as Bangladesh will only move from one disaster to another in the near future. Historically, the Bangladeshi people have learnt to cope with the annual deluge, but what is needed is better management of floods with minimum damage to lives and livelihoods as well as the reduction of flood induced vulnerabilities. A key strategy for Bangladesh would be to better adapt to floods, which should be a crucial part of its policy on disaster risk reduction and management.

Not only have the floods severely impacted human lives, but also the economy, infrastructure, and agriculture. Floods are just the beginning of a disaster that trap farmers into the cycle of debt and is the principal reasons why the rate of poverty will remain high for those affected for the foreseeable future. Aid agencies have stated that the community’s worst affected tend to be those that are already impoverished. It will take months to rebuild and rehabilitate the affected population centres. Infrastructure and developmental changes may never be truly enough in a country so close to sea level. Therefore, the government will need to reassess its infrastructure development plans for the haor area and shift its focus to conservation of nature and environment of the wetlands. Risk management needs to include a multi-agency taskforce set up with authorities from Sylhet and Sunamganj. Local authority offices need to be equipped with radio-based communication when the power is down so they can issue flood warnings, efficiently run dedicated emergency shelters and enlist local volunteers to call upon in times of need to streamline rescue operations. These efforts should be coordinated with the numerous organisations and platforms that have been providing valuable relief services during the floods and who have pledged to continue their efforts after the flood waters have receded. As Bangladesh continues to experience an increase in extreme weather causing large-scale damage as of late, the future is not looking too bright if human-induced climate change goes unabated, which could lead to more disasters exposing far greater numbers of people in a densely populated country like Bangladesh.

About the GPI

The Global Policy Institute is a research institute on international affairs. It is based in the City of London, and draws on both a rich pool of international thinkers, academics as well as policy and business professionals. The Institute gives non-partisan guidance to policymakers and decision takers in business, government, and NGOs.