Photography by Antim.
By Sheikh Mohammed Belal, Ambassador of the People’s Republic of Bangladesh to the Netherlands.
Sensing my absorbed meditating mood, my wife, on her arrival at the Schiphol Airport recently, threw out a religious challenge: “When did you become so religious?”
What sounds like a light-hearted query lead us to a formidable discussion on how I tend to see my tenure in the Netherlands as nothing short of a water pilgrimage. To make my point on how the Netherlands remained so dry amidst all these water, I offered her a romantic plot. Informing her that Schiphol Airport’s lowest point being 3.5 m below sea level, I would have been waiting on the shore of a river to grab her outreached hand from a colourful boat in Bangladesh. So we were on a joy ride, in a boat, if she were to arrive in Bangladesh, instead of the Netherlands.
When my first ever Ambassadorial assignment landed me in the Netherlands in March 2014, I think it also gave me an opportunity to do something immediate and practical about my old obsessions-how could we remain afloat in Bangladesh even if we go under water? What is the way out?
As I make my slow pilgrimage through the watery landscape of the Netherlands, a sense of awe and mystery seems to gather and grow. The process of my transformation came to a head with my discovery of water being at the front and centre of whatever they do here in the Netherlands. It is next to impossible leaving a gathering of even three to four professionals in the Netherlands without meeting a water expert
I came to believe that there is a sacredness in Dutch water. It was never a mark of weakness, but of power. Dutch showed the world how to keep one’s head above water even if forces of nature prove seemingly insurmountable. What was their weakness, the Dutch turned it into an overwhelming reservoir of expertise and resilience
When we talk about resilience, the world came to witness, the people of Bangladesh are no less endowed with their ability to bounce back.
Among its immediate neighbours, Bangladesh has the highest life expectancy (68.3 years), the lowest infant mortality rate (42 per 1000 live births) and one of the lowest maternal mortality ratios (194 per 100 000 live births). But it remained trapped to its geography.
Geography made Bangladesh a virtual playground of world’s three of the largest river systems – Ganges-Brahmaputra-Meghna (GBM). It is located on an active sedimentary basin and the intricate network of alluvial rivers that carries an average quantity of 0.5–2.8 billion tons annual discharge and sediment load from the Himalayas.
More or less like the Netherlands, Bangladesh is also a floodplain. The altitude normally does not exceed 11 m above the sea level except in the hilly areas of Chittagong and Sylhet. About 80% of the total land area constitute floodplains while terraces and hills account for about 8% and 12% respectively.
To make it even more challenging than the Netherlands, Bangladesh houses 57 cross-boundary rivers, of which 54 are shared with India and the remaining three with Myanmar. Bangladesh is the common lower riparian of all these trans-boundary rivers. The combined discharge of water from the GBM rivers is second only to that of the river Amazon.
Defending against floods from such massive network of cross boundary rivers require a regional framework in the Himalayan basin area which is not there yet. Hopefully, countries in the Himalayan basin will, someday, take a page from the European networks of cooperation in the water sector to develop a basin wide framework for water cooperation.
As amazing as it may sound, some sources suggest that there were primitive flood defences in what is now the Netherlands as far back as 500BC. Windmills, for which the country is famous, have been helping to pump water off the land for more than half a millennium. Therefore, it is no wonder that the Netherlands, with almost half of her population living below the sea level, remained floodproof. They learned how to protect against flooding and developed a sophisticated system of almost 3,800 kilometres of flood defences, including earthen levees along the main rivers as well as sand dunes, coastal dikes and five major coastal protection works and storm surge barriers along the coast.
The first component is a primary sea defence system constructed as a system of closure works and Storm Surge Barriers in the tidal inlets. It is connected by a system of natural dunes and man-made sea dikes that are capable of withstanding 1 in 10,000 year flood events. Now they embarked on a plan to make more room for waters as a part of their Delta plan.
After years of workings, finally in 2014, we, in Bangladesh, have been able to conclude framework with the Netherlands for a holistic, long-term, vision- aptly called “Delta Plan 2100”. This long-term vision, combined with the use of scenarios as well as incorporating our own initiative for “Blue Economy” with that of the Netherlands “Blue Gold”, will hopefully put in place a plan to make Bangladesh as floodproof as possible.
More than flood proofing, what I would personally like to see in Bangladesh is the inculcation of the Dutch way of thinking where disaster avoidance generally takes precedence over disaster relief. To the credit of our thousands of innovative people, Bangladesh is globally known for its excellent post disaster management skill. But working to avoid disaster is completely different from working after a disaster.
This is what I long to learn as I continue this pilgrimage for the rest of my tenure! Hartelijk bedankt, nederlandse vrienden!