August 19, 2016

What Triggered the Unprecedented Flood

By Khin Maung Myint, MPT (Retired)

Though it is still in the first half of the Monsoon season and there is still a long period before the Monsoon retreats from Myanmar, the country has already been hit by a devastating flood. The scale of damage due to flooding and landslides was unprecedented. Twelve out of the fourteen states and regions are inundated. Over a million people are affected. The scale of the damage to properties, loss of lives and loss of farm animals and business in various sectors, especially in the agricultural sector can be immense. The costs of the losses could be very high too. The consequences of these effects would definitely affect the economy. However, as I have no access to actual and comprehensive data and statics, I will not be discussing that.
So, what trigged this unprecedented flooding and landslides? Heavy rainfalls and the cyclone Komen that ravaged Bangladesh should be blamed for causing the floods. For that matter, the global warming and climate change should take the blame too, as they are the ones that contribute to the heavy rainfalls. However, in my opinion they are not the main culprits for the extent of damages and losses inflicted. My reasoning is that, it is true we saw heavy rainfalls during the past two or three weeks, but it is not a record-setting one in our country’s history. We had seen rainfalls that were, if not heavier, no less than the present downpours. As for the cyclone, the Rakhine area had been hit with stronger ones in the past.
Then who or what factors are to be blamed? It is quite clear that the deforestations due to over extractions of timber, legally or illegally by unscrupulous persons, are the main culprits. I’m not accusing thus without proof or precedences. Some may argue that my statements are far fetched or irrelevant. I can prove them wrong. It is common knowledge that trees and bushes, even grass can hold and retain water and also the soil on mountains, hills and slopes. Without them the rain water would run down freely dragging away the top soils on the slopes and with heavy rains the mud layers beneath become melted and resulted in mudslides or landslide in hilly areas. Furthermore the earth and stands brought down from higher grounds are deposited into the rivers, streams and creeks as sediments, making their basing shallow. In other words the level of their beds is raised. Even if the rivers are discharging their normal volume of water, the river discharge will occupy a higher and larger area due to the sedimentations. However, when there is more river discharge due to the rainwater coming down the slopes supplement the normal volume, at the stretches of the river where there are heavy sedimentations, the river would overflow into the low lying areas, causing the flood plains to become more larger and higher.
Our major rivers are getting shallower in the dry seasons, due to the silting due to sedimentation. Even the mighty Ayeyawady is not spared. People welling close to the rivers would tell you that it is a real fact. If no action is taken to halt the silting in time, we are bound to lose the valuable waterways in the dry seasons. However, if the rivers are dredged regularly to clear silts and make the rivers deeper to be able to allow more river discharge to flow more freely. This will check the river level from rising out of control and in turn prevent the flood.
To further strengthen my arguments, I would like to cite the consequences of the deforestations that Thailand had to suffer. Thailand has to face with severe flooding and mudslides every year, since over twenty years ago. The experts pointed out that they were the consequences of deforestations. Thus the successive governments strictly imposed the anti-logging law an enforced it diligently. Reforestation campaigns were carried out by the supervision and advice of the King himself. I had been to Thailand every year since my retirement in 1996 and used to stay there for two to three months at a time. During my stays, I had travelled to the remotest places in the North East region. In the earlier years, there were many bare hills without any large trees. After about five years later, those hills are crowned with lush green forest, and learned that they are the results of the Royal sustainable Project to re-forest the depleted areas. Today, wherever you traveled in Thailand you’ll see lush green tropical rain forest flourishing. Even with such drastic measures one may ask whether Thailand is free from the floods. The answer is no. Although these stringent measurers reduced the effects of the floods some-what, some regions, especially in the South had to still face those disasters. However, on the whole they are making some progress, but slow, to ease the flood-woes. It would naturally seem to take long to regain the former conditions. However, if you take into account how long the forest had been exploited without any consideration for the destruction of the ecosystem, the rehabilitation period is nothing. As a layman, I guessed it would take no less than the time taken to gradually destroy the ecosystem, or even more. It is undeniable that deforestations are that root causes of extensive flooding and mudslides.
This disaster is a wake-up call for the authorities as well as the general population to be prepared for more such freak situations to encounter. In my opinion, we should be expecting some more to come even before the Monsoon is out. I am not saying this from my hunch or based on any meteorologists’ and hydrologists’ predictions, but based on my personal experiences with the river systems of Myanmar. I had piled up and down the Ayeyawady River many times in ships. The nature of my job required me to study and learn the nature of the rivers wherever I went. According to my observations, I came to know that the Ayeyawady and other main rivers of our country, rises three times a year. The first rise being in July with the last is near the end of September or the beginning of October, with the second in between the two. My observations were made at Bhamo for two consecutive years, while I was stationed there with a ship during the Monsoon from mid-July to mid-October.
More floods are to be expected as this recent flood coincided with the first rising of the rivers, there are still another two risings for this year. We should be alert and prepared so as not to be caught by surprise next time around. Short and long term plans should also be implemented to ward off the disasters and at the same time, proper and efficient rescue and relief plans should be in place to be able to respond rapidly to such emergencies in the future.


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