Sylhet’s struggle against relentless flooding

When the Surma River in Bangladesh overflows, large areas of the city are submerged in water and waste for weeks. Discover some strategies needed to address this recurring crisis.

Sylhet in Bangladesh is regularly underwater. Every year, the monsoon brings misery across the city, flooding it as the Surma River overflows and the stormwater drainage system fails to manage the deluge. Large parts of the city remain inundated for weeks and months. Intensifying rainfall due to climate change and the increasingly unpredictable arrival of the monsoon exacerbate the misery.

Sylhet’s residents and authorities grapple with two problems: annual waterlogging, and unpredictable, devastating flash flooding. 

What are Sylhet’s residents telling us?

People here are used to flooding, they say. They’ve built socio-economic systems within their neighbourhoods and have accepted flooding as a way of life. Several families narrowly escaped the fast-rising waters of Sylhet in 2022 – one of the worst flooding that hit the city in years. Still, after the waters receded, many returned to their homes.

As they anxiously wait for the next flood they make it clear what they want.

One family tells us they desperately need better early warning systems from authorities. They need to know how bad a flood will be, and how much time they have. When the waters were rising to unprecedented levels in 2022, the absence of local early warning services led to delayed or undelivered warnings from the nationally controlled flood early warning system (that many communities cannot access).

Flood mitigation strategies by the Sylhet City Corporation (SCC) are the ‘talk of the town.’ These strategies include dredging the river to reduce pollutants and help restore healthier ecosystems.

Some residents have formed groups to clean up their surroundings and water bodies, patiently waiting for the city’s flood management plans to come to fruition. Others are unaware of the city’s plans.

Children play in the polluted river. Photo credit: Nadia Sitompul.

Beyond flooding

Flash flooding can be very powerful. Loaded with debris, it could immediately cause loss of life and property. Heavy and non-stop rainfall and storms can overwhelm water supply and sanitation infrastructure, such as water points, wells, sewers, and urban drains. Urban communities often turn into open sewers by connecting septic tanks to them.

All these factors can lead to untreated sewage entering water bodies, causing pollution, reducing people’s access to clean water, and increasing public health hazards.

SCC takes intentional action

Last December 2022, Dutch financial support enabled the SCC to build one pathway toward climate resilience. Under this five-year project, the SCC has partnered with SNV. Together, we’re co-creating a blueprint to elevate the importance of improved sanitation governance and management in climate resilience strategies and flood prevention.

  • In partnership with the Institute of Water Modelling (IWM) in Bangladesh, we’re studying the main causes and practices that exacerbate flooding and waterlogging in the city. We intend to use the study’s findings to inform and map out actionable plans to protect the personal health and environment-related rights of Sylhet residents.

  • We’re assisting the SCC in improving its spatial planning systems, using available GIS data for flood modelling, waterlogging, solid waste, and sanitation management.

  • Following several conversations with SNV and other stakeholders, the SCC has agreed to construct a faecal sludge treatment plant (FSTP). Set to be financed by the Bangladesh Municipal Development Fund, the wheels for fund release have been put in motion.

The city government demonstrates its stronger resolve to take preventative actions through the above steps (and many more). Although this generation may not completely solve the climate crisis, humanity can find ways to control its debilitating impacts. Effective management of faecal sludge, solid waste, and water can contribute significantly toward achieving this goal. We can pave the way for a more resilient and sustainable future by prioritising these measures.

Contributors: Anjani Abella, Sandra Ryan, MD Imam Hossain, and Patricia Solorzano | Banner photo: Chhatak pond in Bangladesh, a site for clothes washing and bathing. Photo credit: Putri Tarigan.

Read further to learn about some key challenges

Last March 2024, SNV organised the learning event titled, ‘Sustainable Urban Water Cycles.’ During a visit to Sylhet, several participants conversed with representatives of the Bangladesh Water Development Board, a primary school used as a disaster shelter, and households affected by flooding in the Sylhet Sadar sub-district. Below is a summary of challenges to improving Sylhet’s flood management system.

The policy framework regulating the flood management system is there, but enforcement and compliance are problematic.

Stakeholders seated around the decision-making table believe that ‘existing urban policies in Sylhet are of decent quality’ and the main problems are lack of enforcement and compliance. However, not all stakeholders are at that table and there’s limited alignment between interconnected urban policies and codes, e.g., water, land use, sanitation, building codes, and the 2010 city master plan. Flood management desperately needs more space to be available for infiltration but housing and other development are prioritised. Currently, building standards do not require any water resilience measures. Even when the whole city floods, there is no analysis of flood pathways or mitigation options.

Flood management systems must consider everything and everyone.

Stakeholders say the drainage network and the early warning system are the key components of Sylhet’s flood management system but neither functions well. Persistently blocked drainage canals, the high cost of infrastructure construction and maintenance, fierce competition over land use, and communication issues are stalling improvements.

While solid waste management is acknowledged as an obvious solution to poor drainage, the city’s focus continues to be engineering-led, seeking to improve the network of drainage canals. There is little or no consideration for retaining or reclaiming ponds for water retention or to improve soil infiltration capacity. Limited community engagement in policy planning processes is creating a disconnect between the city and its communities who are fearful but also willing to contribute ideas and resources to solve the problem.

Institutional capacities and financing are lacking.

Just like in many other places, managing long-standing problems with the additional complexities of rapid, unplanned city growth, explosion of waste, and climate change means rethinking how we do things and taking the time to learn. In parts of Bangladesh, the responsibility of managing risks is unclear and scattered; the capacity to develop, roll out, and monitor the effectiveness of technical and social responses needs strengthening; and budget allocation practices may no longer be fit-for-purpose.

Current funding for flood management is limited and depends on central budget and national priorities. Local governments such as the SCC don’t always have the authority to decide upon and utilise their revenues. There is no emergency fund for flood-impacted people to rebuild their lives.

Partner with us!

Urgent global action is needed to address the connections between human and solid waste management, water source protection, and flood (and drought) management.

SNV's SUWC project in Bangladesh contributes to this by building on ten years of urban sanitation learning and investments in several cities in the country.