Open Access
1 May 2008 Floods in Bangladesh: History, Dynamics and Rethinking the Role of the Himalayas
Ian R. Calder
Author Affiliations +

Floods in Bangladesh: History, Dynamics and Rethinking the Role of the Himalayas by Thomas Hofer and Bruno Messerli. Tokyo, Japan: United Nations University Press, 2006. xxx + 468 pp. US$ 45. ISBN 92-808-1121-5.

* * *

Thomas Hofer and Bruno Messerli's book brings a much-needed scientific perspective to the question of how forests can affect floods, an issue which has long been the subject of controversy and myths.

Whenever devastating monsoon floods are reported in the Himalayan region, the traditional, self-reinforcing message from the media is that the farmers are to blame for deforesting the mountain slopes. The simplistic, popular underlying narrative assumes that the frequency and severity of floods in the region have increased in recent years because of the deforestation.

Primarily using data from a 5-year research project investigating highland–lowland linkages in the Ganges–Brahmaputra–Meghna Basin, the authors show that the factors determining big floods in Bangladesh are far from simple. Their study indicates a complex combination of factors including simultaneous discharge from the big rivers, high runoff from the Meghalaya Hills, heavy rainfall, high groundwater tables, and spring tides. They also show that, on examination of the historical data since 1890, there is no statistical evidence for an increase in the frequency of major floods in Bangladesh. This lack of correlation with the recognized deforestation that has taken place in the Himalayas over parts of that period also undermines the simplistic narrative which attributes deforestation as the cause of the big floods. The authors, however, underline that this finding does not relieve the mountain people of their responsibility to use their environment in a sustainable manner. They also note that politicians and engineers often focus on monsoon floods as the main problem for Bangladesh, whereas the flood-affected people themselves report that problems that are more related to lateral erosion of rivers, landlessness, and economic survival.

This book is highly commended to all those interested in flood issues, particularly development-workers, hydrologists, and engineers. It is timely for the message it contains to be communicated to the media, politicians, and development organizations: this will allow us to move away from placing unwarranted blame for flood damage on frequently poor upland farmers, and towards initiating efforts to understand and address the real causes of distress related to flooding and the general underdevelopment in the region.

Ian R. Calder "Floods in Bangladesh: History, Dynamics and Rethinking the Role of the Himalayas," Mountain Research and Development 28(2), 180, (1 May 2008).
Published: 1 May 2008
Back to Top