Never again: flood-proofing Myanmar

On the banks of the bursting Ayeyarwady River, U Han Soe sits on a bench in the village school – the sturdiest building for miles around.

On the banks of the bursting Ayeyarwady River, U Han Soe sits on a bench in the village school – the sturdiest building for miles around.On the banks of the bursting Ayeyarwady River, U Han Soe sits on a bench in the village school – the sturdiest building for miles around.

The water is receding but the village is deep in mud and livestock remain tethered on high ground. Almost all the rice fields are destroyed, said U Han Soe, the school’s headmaster. Most farmers had just finished planting when the river burst its banks. “Now it’s all gone and so is our seed,” he said.

Innkauk village in Ingabu Township is isolated – around an hour by boat from the nearest town, across flooded fields where snakes thrive and tree-tops poke above muddy water. The need for paddy seed, fertiliser and clean water is urgent.

For now, the village will rely on donors. In the case of Innkauk, the Ayeyarwady Foundation is supplying essential items but no other aid has yet reached the remote location.

Many across Myanmar are in a similar situation, after the country was hit by the worst flooding in years. Since July, more than 1.6 million people have been critically affected by floods and landslides, according to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

But while national and international support has been considerable, it is important that short-term aid is backed up by longer-term flood prevention measures, say experts.

As a first step, a comprehensive flood risk assessment is needed, said Abdoulaye Seck, country manager for Myanmar at the World Bank. The bank will help the government with a post-disaster risk assessment and is in talks to design a disaster risk management project.

Forests and dams

Prevention measures will vary enormously in different parts of the country, say experts.

In the north, for example, excessive rainfall in the mountains between Bangladesh or India and Myanmar can roll like a wave through the valleys and rivers, causing flash floods.

While these are hard to prevent, the damage can be reduced in several ways, said Willem Mak, director for international water affairs at the Dutch Ministry of Infrastructure and the Environment.

A system to accurately predict flash flooding and warn residents, using the recently installed telecoms infrastructure can help to reduce casualties, he said.

Small dams in the valleys can also reduce damage by temporarily storing excess water and slowing the speed of the water flow, breaking flash floods, said Mr Mak, though this option is expensive.

Reforestation can also make a big difference, he said. Myanmar lost 1.15 million acres, or 1.2 percent of its forest, each year from 1990 to 2010 – a loss of almost 20pc of total cover, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization.

Rainforests have water storage capacity and plant roots keep the soil fixed so water can flow without picking up sediment. This significantly reduces erosion and acts as a natural break to water flow.

In other countries, reforestation has proven extremely cost-effective compared to other types of flood defences. However, Mr Mak pointed out that while reforestation is valuable, it is no quick fix.

“You will have a sensitive period for at least five years where the soil is loose and the young trees have very little storage capacity, protection or leaf coverage, so the force of water can easily overcome them, causing flash floods and erosion,” he said.

Multi-purpose dams can also help break the flow of water. However, if the dam is at risk of overflowing, it can be necessary to release water to avoid a collapse. If abrupt, this release can result in a wave of water – similar in impact to a flash flood.

Over the past two months, the Ministry of Agriculture and Irrigation has been forced to release water from a number of dams and reservoirs across the country, which in some cases caused flash floods.

Reliable rain forecasts and flow modelling can make it easier to control dams, which can also be modernised to avoid overflowing.

“The 280 irrigation dams in Myanmar are almost always made of earth rather than concrete. These are deteriorating and spillways are not always sufficient to handle large floods,” said Mr Seck.

Climate change means the original designs of many dams are now obsolete and other factors like sedimentation and earthquake damage may add to the risks for downstream villages, he said, adding that a dam safety program could reduce the risk of disaster and increase capacity at the same time.

Flood control reservoirs can also help, by collecting water in times of heavy rainfall and slowly releasing it over a longer time period.

“Storing water by means of vegetation, soil or wetlands, all of which are capable of retaining water, should have priority over swift water run-off,” Mr Seck said.

Dykes and mangroves

In the delta region, there is more time to prepare for flooding – it takes a few days for excessive rainfall in the mountains to reach central Myanmar and then begin flowing down major rivers, said experts.

The existing dykes and embankments on the Chindwin and Ayeyarwady rivers were built by the British in the late 1800s but have been well-maintained by the government. “The dykes protect the area well, though the lower regions have had quite some flooding and the houses in the river valley flooded to the rooftops,” said Mr Mak.

It may be possible to build more dykes and strengthen the existing ones, he added, but if there are too many, the water will have nowhere to go. “You can also add modern technology like water pumps, to pump water out of the lower lying areas between the dykes, but there is no simple solution.”

High-quality embankments can also help, said Steve Dowall, lead technical officer for the multi-donor Livelihoods and Food Security Trust Fund, also known as LIFT. “The embankment has to be correctly compacted with the right moisture content, if it is to withstand the high water levels of floods,” he said.

Villagers agree that the riverbanks should be raised and barriers reinforced. The residents of Innkauk last year raised money to build 5 kilometres of barrier, but it was not strong enough to withstand this year’s floods.

Sedimentation is also a big problem. When the floods recede, large deposits of sediment are left, which become solid and hard and very difficult to cultivate when dry.

“Farmers growing plantation crops such as maize, beans, peanuts or chilli can’t plant into that stuff. Breaking the sediment up requires machinery at a cost of at least K20,000 per hour – well beyond the means of many small farmers working with plantation crops,” said Mr Dowall..

There is no easy solution to this, but resilient crops that can better withstand floods and droughts would reduce the economic impact of natural disasters.

In the unprotected coastal areas, including Rakhine State and Ayeyarwaddy Region, seawater presents the largest danger, said Mr Mak. “I have seen rice paddy 5 centimetres from the edge of a tidal creek in open connection to the sea, with no buffer. This is very vulnerable to flooding and saline water can really damage the crop,” he said.

In Rakhine, the LIFT funded Tat Lan program has rebuilt and strengthened embankments designed to hold out seawater, that were lost in Cyclone Giri, said Mr Dowall. “This year’s floods caused some breaches but we are pleased with how they held – these have been a significant preventative measure,” he said.

Mangroves can also act as a buffer to floods but in many areas have almost completely disappeared. “The land is used to the limit for agriculture, but if land could be secured, mangrove develops itself quite quickly, and is easier to restore by planting new trees than rainforest,” Mr Mak said.

On a smaller scale, flood-proofing community infrastructure such as food stores, houses and schools can increase resilience.

Other preventative measures can include land-use regulations, public education, community-led development, or economic incentives to promote a risk-based approach to development, said experts.

Prevention costs

Several countries and development agencies are already helping Myanmar with flood prevention measures. The Japan International Cooperation Agency, for example, is helping to build weather radar towers and has been working on an early warning system for natural disasters with the government since 2013.

The Department of Meteorology and Hydrology is responsible for weather forecasts and warnings, but needs to upgrade equipment and capacity, according to the Ministry of Social Welfare, Relief and Resettlement, which oversees disaster management.

The World Bank is working on river basin management and upgrading Myanmar’s water flow forecasting and systems, as well as strengthening communities against future floods, upgrading irrigation systems, monitoring dam safety and strengthening seed systems.

Financing flood protection is a challenge. But in the Netherlands, for example, the cost of regional water management is paid by residents through a special tax. The cost of larger projects is split between the national budget and the water board.

“Myanmar could introduce a flood protection tax, or the government could try to obtain soft loans or private sector funding,” said Mr Mak. In some cases, if an industry needs to protect itself against flooding it could be incentivised to build the infrastructure.

The cost may initially be high but experts believe that prevention pays off. “Putting resources into emergency preparedness is one of the best investments a country can make,” said Mr Seck. “The evidence is unequivocal. For example, US$1 invested in early warning systems can save $2 to $14 of avoided losses.”

Preventing losses can add huge value to an economy – the estimated cost of the 2011 flooding in Thailand was over $40 billion. Myanmar’s government has put the cost of this year’s floods at K165 billion.

Some of the most useful flood protection measures are cost-effective. “Flood protection is, to a large extent, an issue of land use planning. Restricting development in flood plains is one of the best measures Myanmar can take to reduce flood damages,” said Mr Seck.

The cost of building dams can be mitigated by making them multipurpose, to generate income. The International Finance Corporation is looking at the possibility of building such projects in Myanmar.

Flood protection is not a one-time effort but an ongoing process, said Mr Seck.

“Highly flood-prone countries have been investing in flood protection over many decades and will continue to do so,” he said.

“Myanmar is undergoing a crucial transition period – the development choices made by the government in the coming years can build the foundation to a disaster resilient nation.”

“Farmers growing plantation crops such as maize, beans, peanuts or chilli can’t plant into that stuff. Breaking the sediment up requires machinery at a cost of at least K20,000 per hour – well beyond the means of many small farmers working with plantation crops,” said Mr Dowall.

There is no easy solution to this, but resilient crops that can better withstand floods and droughts would reduce the economic impact of natural disasters.

In the unprotected coastal areas, including Rakhine State and Ayeyarwady Region, seawater presents the largest danger, said Mr Mak. “I have seen rice paddy 5 centimetres from the edge of a tidal creek in open connection to the sea, with no buffer. This is very vulnerable to flooding and saline water can really damage the crop,” he said.

In Rakhine, the LIFT-funded Tat Lan program has rebuilt and strengthened embankments designed to hold out seawater, that were lost in Cyclone Giri, said Mr Dowall. “This year’s floods caused some breaches but we are pleased with how they held – these have been a significant preventative measure,” he said.

Mangroves can also act as a buffer to floods but in many areas have almost completely disappeared. “The land is used to the limit for agriculture, but if land could be secured, mangrove develops itself quite quickly, and is easier to restore by planting new trees than rainforest,” Mr Mak said.

On a smaller scale, flood-proofing community infrastructure such as food stores, houses and schools can increase resilience.

Other preventative measures can include land-use regulations, public education, community-led development, or economic incentives to promote a risk-based approach to development, said experts.

Prevention costs

Several countries and development agencies are already helping

Myanmar with flood prevention measures. The Japan International Cooperation Agency, for example, is helping to build weather radar towers and has been working on an early warning system for natural disasters with the government since 2013.

The Department of Meteorology and Hydrology is responsible for weather forecasts and warnings, but needs to upgrade equipment and capacity, according to the Ministry of Social Welfare, Relief and Resettlement, which oversees disaster management.

The World Bank is working on river basin management and upgrading Myanmar’s water flow forecasting and systems, as well as strengthening communities against future floods, upgrading irrigation systems, monitoring dam safety and strengthening seed systems.

Financing flood protection is a challenge. But in the Netherlands, for example, the cost of regional water management is paid by residents through a special tax. The cost of larger projects is split between the national budget and the water board.

“Myanmar could introduce a flood protection tax, or the government could try to obtain soft loans or private sector funding,” said Mr Mak. In some cases, if an industry needs to protect itself against flooding it could be incentivised to build the infrastructure.

The cost may initially be high but experts believe that prevention pays off. “Putting resources into emergency preparedness is one of the best investments a country can make,” said Mr Seck. “The evidence is unequivocal. For example, US$1 invested in early warning systems can save $2 to $14 of avoided losses.”

Preventing losses can add huge value to an economy – the estimated cost of the 2011 flooding in Thailand was over $40 billion. Myanmar’s government has put the cost of this year’s floods at K165 billion ($127.5 million).

Some of the most useful flood protection measures are cost-effective. “Flood protection is, to a large extent, an issue of land use planning. Restricting development in flood plains is one of the best measures Myanmar can take to reduce flood damages,” said Mr Seck.

The cost of building dams can be mitigated by making them multipurpose, to generate income. The International Finance Corporation is looking at the possibility of building such projects in Myanmar.

Flood protection is not a one-time effort but an ongoing process, said Mr Seck.

“Highly flood-prone countries have been investing in flood protection over many decades and will continue to do so,” he said.

“Myanmar is undergoing a crucial transition period – the development choices made by the government in the coming years can build the foundation to a disaster-resilient nation.”

Source: Myanmar Times

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