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The grand embankment
Bangladesh's floods can be devastating. But an ambitious scheme to control the waters is also causing concern.
1 No country is as profoundly influenced by water as Bangladesh. The land, culture and lifestyles of the people are shaped by three of the world's most powerful rivers—the Ganges, Brahmaputra and Meghna, These spread their floods across one-third of the countryside each summer.
2 The great rivers carry soil sediment from the Himalayas which they deposit in a huge, constantly changing delta at the head of the Bay of Bengal. They bring the fertility which supports 110 million of the poorest people on earth and they can also bring disaster to this low-lying land. The raw power of these unstable rivers is difficult to comprehend. Just one breach of the right bank of the Brahmaputra in the 1988 floods inundated 1000 square kilometres of farmland.
3 For much of the year there is too little water. When the monsoon breaks, the flat landscape changes completely. Boats replace bicycles as the means of local transport and deepwater rice flourishes with the rising floodwaters. All of this is essential for the farming season. But when rainfall is exceptional and floodwaters rise higher than normal, the effects can devastate.
4 The farmers of Bangladesh are adept at making the most of their tiny plots of land. But with 11.6 people per cultivable hectare they are already at the extreme. increased food production in an already hungry land means investing in dry-season agriculture. And this means protection from the floods.
5 After the disastrous floods in 1988 the Bangladesh government sought to determine whether modern engineering techniques and computer-aided technology could solve the problem. Aid organisations of all shapes and sizes offered flood-control assistance. When the reports were presented to the Bangladesh government in 1989, the advice was somewhat conflicting.
6 The French proposal was for embankments up to seven metres high to be built along the length of all the major rivers. They estimated the cost at $10,000 million up front and $150 million for annual repair and maintenance. Such expenditure would plunge the country into massive debt and divert money from other programmes.
7 By no means all the potential investors thought this was the answer. In the end the World Bank was asked to formulate an action plan. They did so, unveiling it in London in December 1989, and the $150 million needed for pilot schemes immediately became oversubscribed. The plan envisages as a first step finding out what social and technical problems the embankments would cause.
8 Many informed observers are extremely sceptical about the scheme. Despite assurances from the World Bank's Vice President for Asia, Atilla Karaosmanoglu, that “the people of Bangladesh will be consulted at every stage”, the British aid agencies involved in disaster relief after the 1988 floods do not believe that people at the grass roots will be adequately involved. By what line of communication can the planners conceivably consult the poor?
9 Steve Jones, the European Community's advisor on the action-plan team says that the embankments are bound to have a huge social impact. Under the French proposal, around 20,000 hectares of land would be requisitioned and 180,000 people affected. Some households would lose everything, adding their numbers to Bangladesh's already burgeoning landless population.
10 Jones also points out that the embankments will take decades to complete and other flood-protection measures—improved flood warning, better disaster management—will be needed.
11 No-one knows more about managing the flood waters than the Bangladeshi people who live perched above them. And it is essential that “experts” brought in to help should be ready to learn from the existing “experts”. Their ingenuity includes floating hen coops and mesh fences to stop fish escaping from flooded fish ponds. Ideas like these could be more widely promoted.
12 Meanwhile there will be profound environmental effects from canalizing such vast bodies of water. Every step forward on the grand embankment plan will have to be watched with care.
Annette Bingham is a specialist in water issues and Asian affairs.
The reading passage, The grand embankment, has 12 paragraphs. For each paragraph find a matching summary from the box below. Write only ONE letter in each space. Note that there are more summaries than paragraphs.
A. An expensive proposal
B. Doubts about Bangladeshi involvement
C. The strong influence of water in Bangladesh
D. Disastrous floods
E. The plan's effect on people
F. Time and other problems
G. Advice from many groups on flood control
H. Environmental effects of the plan
I. The good and bad effects of rivers on Bangladesh
J. Over population problems
K. Poor farming techniques
L. The effect of water change with the seasons
M. Local expertise
N. Putting the proposal into effect
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