Dubious wave of flood relief to Bangladesh

As another huge sum is raised in aid, critics say multinational firms in the donor countries will adversely influence the way it is spent. Jenny Cuffe reports
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The Independent Online
GRADUALLY, the floods that covered half of Bangladesh are beginning to recede. Families are packing up their temporary shelters and returning home, bridges are being repaired and roads rebuilt.

But in the village of Rasulpur in the Tangail district north-west of the capital, Dhaka, the water lingers on, a vast, stagnant brown lake where houses once stood. The people of Rasulpur are used to floods. In normal years they are welcomed for bringing fertile silt to their fields, as well as an abundance of fish, but this year heavy rainfall and high tides have turned them into a disaster. What is more, they believe the situation has been made worse by measures that were designed to make it better.

Aid money poured into Bangladesh after the catastrophic floods of 1987 and 1988. Under the supervision of the World Bank, $150m (around pounds 90m) was spent on bringing in consultants from all over the world to draw up a "flood action plan". Professor Shapan Adnan, a longstanding local critic, says a goldrush mentality developed: "Multinational companies flew their representatives into town and set up lobbying agencies... It was a question of getting as many contracts as they could." They were welcomed with open arms by the government of Bangladesh, then under military rule.

Prof Adnan believes that, of every pound given by the British government and individual British donors, only 20p reached people affected by the 1980s floods. The rest went back to the donor countries in consultancy fees and contracts, or was lost through corruption and mismanagement by the Bangladeshi authorities.

In the Tangail district, the action plan led to an experimental project funded by the Dutch and Germans. It involved dividing the area into compartments separated by earth embankments and regulating the flow of water by a series of sluice gates. In July this year the embankment that was supposed to protect the villagers of Rasulpur from the spreading waters of the river Jamuna gave way under their force.

The flood has since subsided, but the embankment stops it draining away, which prevents the fields recovering in time for the autumn rice planting. Farmers blame local politicians for refusing to open the sluice gates, sacrificing country people to keep the town of Tangail from flooding. The chairman of the district council, Mohammed Shamsul Hoque, is unrepentant: the embankment has saved the town from economic disaster.

Similar arguments are forcefully expressed by the residents of Dhaka. At Sharulia Bazaar on its southern edge, Mohammed Ismail, a welder, joined a crowd of thousands one night to stop the nearby embankment breaching. With the help of the army, they filled sandbags and piled them up to stop the water swamping the homes of 700,000 people. "If it had breached," he said, "we would have drowned."

Even critics of embankments say that a city with one of the fastest-growing populations in the world must be protected. A British company, Sir William Halcrow & Partners, is now drawing up plans for an extension of the Dhaka embankment, to be financed by the Bangladeshi government.

The UN's disaster appeal, launched last month, has brought in pledges of $152m for immediate relief from the US, UK, France, Japan and other countries. It will be followed by an appeal for funds to help rebuild the country's infrastructure. Britain's Department for International Development has made clear that its donation of pounds 21m should support immediate needs like road repairs rather than technological solutions to flooding, but embankments are still on the agenda.

According to Prof Adnan, multinational companies in Europe, North America and the Far East are interested in large construction projects, and are likely to influence donors as well as the Dhaka government.

Although there is a growing consensus that the most helpful response would be a series of grassroots projects, preparing people to cope with disaster, improving warning systems and raising schools and pasture on to high ground, the UN disaster co-ordinator, Michael Elmquist, admits that these may not be so attractive to international donors. "That's not where the money is," he said. "Immediate relief is much more sexy."

t Jenny Cuffe reports from Bangladesh for 'File on 4', BBC Radio 4, at 8pm on Tuesday.