Flood protection in Bangladesh – The launch of a new foundation project

Bangladesh is not only one of the poorest countries in the world, but its development also regularly experiences setbacks from weather disasters. Scientists are predicting an increase in risks, one reason more for the Munich Re Foundation to invest in a new flood-warning project for communities at risk. Where possible, elements of the foundation's successful warning system in Mozambique will be applied.

Bangladesh is a fascinating country. Over 160 million people, more than half of whom are not even 20 years old, live in an area less than half the size of Germany. The country at the confluence of the Ganges, Brahmaputra and Meghna Rivers ranks 147th of 187 on the Human Development Index, making it one of the poorest countries in the world. Climate change is likely to exacerbate the situation, as Bangladesh will be one of the most heavily hit countries.

Already today, floods and storm surges are repeated setbacks to the development in the predominantly agricultural country. In the autumn of 2007, Cyclone Sidr left a trail of devastation in its wake. A total of 3,450 people lost their lives, 775,000 houses were damaged, livestock and poultry perished. Even in quite normal years, extensive areas of the country along the rivers are inundated; the inhabitants have learned to cope with the situation. Flood shelters and elevated buildings offer the people a degree of safety, even in cases of extreme flooding. However, when thawed snow and ice from the Himalayas coincides with heavy precipitation, these precautionary measures do not suffice. A change in monsoon patterns can also trigger heavy floods and take people by surprise before they are able to bring their harvests into safety.

Rising sea levels pose a further threat to the south of the country. The water level is climbing 3.2 mm per year, quicker than predicted by the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in 2007. The forecasts at that time already anticipated that Bangladesh would lose nearly 20% of its land surface by 2050. This will cause some 20 million Bangladeshi to become climate refugees and create shortfalls in food production of approximately 30%.

The new project ‒ Winners all round
To help the people at risk, Munich Re Foundation is working to establish a flood warning system. To this end, the foundation has launched a multi-year research and field project in collaboration with the UN University in Bonn and the International Centre for Climate Change and Development (ICCCAD), an institute of the Independent University (IUB) in the capital city of Dhaka. ICCCAD Director is Saleemul Huq, who for decades has been campaigning for improvements in the least developed nations of the world.

The goal is to establish an early-warning system for floods in several communities by integrating the people at risk. The project is a win-win situation for all: for the ICCCAD it offers the opportunity of networking research in its own country with that of western nations. To this end, a Resilience Academy will be held each year in autumn, alternately in Bangladesh and Germany, and will bring researchers and practitioners from the North and South together. The UN University in turn will benefit from the impulses provided by a new partner.

Research on resilience, migration and other important relationships in developing countries is best conducted directly on site. The foundation will be given the opportunity to prove that the flood warning system tailored to Mozambique can also work elsewhere. For this reason, as many elements of that system as possible should also be applied in Bangladesh. However, the most important thing is that the people along the rivers and coasts in one of the poorest countries of the world will be given the chance to bring themselves and their harvests into safety when flash floods strike.

CB, 6 February 2013

Disaster Prevention

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> Christian Barthelt

> Thomas Loster


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