South Asia’s disaster risk reduction policy requires an overhaul

As a transboundary river, the Brahmaputra offers opportunities for multilateral cooperation over water-sharing in South Asia and the Himalayas.

Amidst the coronavirus pandemic, South Asia has been grappling with several parallel crises. Floodings in countries such as India, Nepal and Bangladesh are worsening year by year. Engineering solutions such as flood defences and embankments are proving to be inadequate – and at times, counter-productive. Intense cyclones – Amphan and Nisarga – left a trail of destruction across several parts of India and Bangladesh (in both the Bay of Bengal and Arabian Sea regions).

The acute humanitarian crisis in the region points to the need for implementing “holistic, sustainable, and people-friendly” solutions to tackle disasters like floods. While top-down, engineering solutions continue to dominate the discourse on flood management, early warning and preventive measures are proven to reduce the loss of lives and property during and after cyclonic events. The role of non-structural measures such as forecasting, land use planning and community participation have been emphasised repeatedly by many experts as the way forward, but gaps remain in terms of the technological advancements, integration (policies and actors) and implementation. Similarly, regional cooperation on flood management is also not taking off due to several reasons, including geopolitical tensions and the lack of capacities.

Lessons learnt from the Assam floods in India

Assam, a north-eastern state of India through which River Brahmaputra flows, has been a victim of annual flooding for decades. To tackle floods, the state authorities have built “a network of about 5,000 km of embankments along the Brahmaputra and its tributaries.” However, these embankments, many of which are past their lifespan or are in disrepair, have further aggravated the flood situation. These embankments, coupled with climate change and ill-planned development such as dams, have led to increased vulnerability.

The counter-productive effects of the embankments have led many experts and policy-makers to turn their attention towards non-structural measures. However, as development researcher Mirza Zulfiqur Rahman comments, “It is not easy to implement non-structural measures because of the lock-in effects of various structural measures (including infrastructure-building) that have been put in place for such a long time. You cannot undo them overnight. Moreover, Assam has a thriving, self-sustaining flood/embankment economy that cannot be dismantled easily due to economic and political interests.” He also adds that the ability of people who live along the banks to cope with river flooding has been significantly eroded by such “state interventions.” They were previously able to resort to traditional knowledge and their understanding of the ecological landscape to deal with the river. The embankments have not been able to reduce people’s suffering and in many cases, they have only exacerbated it. For instance, they hinder flow of floodwaters that also affect health and agricultural practices of the local populace.  

Lessons to be learnt from practices in Bangladesh

Compared with Assam, Bangladesh (the downstream country of the River Brahmaputra), has been more successful in transitioning from structural solutions to a more “integrated and participatory” flood management policy, particularly after 1995. This shift in policy approach was triggered by not just the increasing intensity of disasters, but also the failure of top-down approaches to manage floods, which essentially disengaged with other interlinked issues such as livelihood and food security. Although policy gaps still exist, efforts to strengthen a ‘people-centred’ model and policy integration are gaining momentum in the country.

Bangladesh has also been taking steps in forecast-based financing to improve the resilience of its communities when it comes to coping with disasters such as floods and cyclones. With the help of forecasting and early warning, the Bangladesh Red Crescent Society implemented “early actions with forecast-based funds” from the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) “to protect the lives, property and livelihoods”, both before Cyclone Amphan and floods this year. This has reportedly helped many people reduce their losses and bounce back to their normal lives quicker in the aftermath of the disasters.

Regional cooperation in disarray

With both India and Nepal facing severe floods this year once again, joint river basin and flood management should be a win-win situation for both countries. Here again, they have largely employed short-term measures to control floods through cooperation. Moreover, Bangladesh – a downstream country – is not a part of this cooperation, as India traditionally takes a bilateral approach towards transboundary waters.

Currently, the geopolitical tensions between India and Nepal over territorial contentions have further complicated the already less-than-satisfactory cooperation on river water sharing. The Chief Minister of the Indian state of Bihar accused Nepal of not cooperating in flood management and blamed the latter for aggravating the disaster in the state. On the Nepal side, besides factors such as erosion and sedimentation, people and local representatives also point towards the lack of consultation by the Indian engineers and officials with the locals as a major reason for the rupture of trust between the two countries. Nepal is therefore, keener to revise the existing river water sharing agreements, which according to it, are controlled entirely by the Indian side and are not in tune with the current realities (such as the change in Nepal’s federal structure through devolution of power).

South Asia in short, requires an overhaul of both national and regional-level disaster risk reduction policies. On the one hand, the countries in the region need to break loose of the preoccupation with structural and engineering solutions to find long-lasting solutions to natural hazards by enhancing/integrating a greater degree of scientific understanding of natural landscapes such as river systems and people’s traditional knowledge. On the other hand, regional cooperation in terms of sharing knowledge and best practices in flood management and joint management of river systems should be a priority.


Dr. Dhanasree Jayaram is Co-Coordinator at the Centre for Climate Studies and Assistant Professor at the Department of Geopolitics and International Relations, Manipal Academy of Higher Education (MAHE), Karnataka, India.

[The views expressed in this article are personal.]