Living on edge: floods and reality

2007 Flood in Gash River (Photo Credit: MOHAMED NURELDIN ABDALLAH/REUTERS)

Taking a long sigh, Mr Mohammed from Kassala said, “Flooding is not a problem, living in flood plain is but we can not abandon this place”. I was surprised to see he knew this clear distinction when most of us are stereotype considering flooding only as one of the worst disasters. Yes, flood is a problem but depending on when and where it occurs. The recent visit to Gash River basin in north-east of Sudan gave me one step closer understanding of flood and society.

For many people living in floodplain is stupidity, a self imposed dangerous risk. But I know why Mr Mohammed can’t abandon his home. He knows the enormous flood benefits from nutrients for land to water for irrigation, from fish for food to means of transport, and many more. Besides, he has emotional attachment with the place. How can someone desert a house where he has a life time memories from his childhood to raising of his children?

Water is key to life, and all major human settlements are located around river banks. Thames flows in heart of London, Danube through Vienna, Bratislava and Budapest, Seine drains Paris, and Kathmandu stands tall at Bagmati bank. From histories, people have both enjoyed the benefits of living close to river as well as suffered from the severe flood damages.

There is a complex interaction between flood and society, and it is really difficult to say whether flood shapes society or society shapes flood. But one thing for sure is people perceptions and flood management approaches have changed in course of time. Philosophies have changed from act of God (accept the vagaries of nature) to man versus nature (flood fighting, defence and prevention) to social responsibility (flood risk management, community involvement and awareness). There were centuries when people tried to protect themselves from the flood (embankments), then they tried to control it (river course diversions) and now there is a shift towards “living with floods” approach (more space for river).

Back in Gash, I see mixed reactions from people. Kassala city dwellers want a strong flood protection measures such as dam and embankment whereas local farmers and fishermen do not want any type of physical interference with the river. But one thing is common, both of them want to know how much water is coming and when. This uncertainty can be addressed by ongoing research on flood forecasting in Gash.

Developing an appropriate rainfall-runoff model with forecasted rainfall would allow the planners and decision makers to anticipate the volume of water in river (particularly in rainy season) both to prepare against unlikely events and better manage the available water resources. But flood forecasting alone is not adequate. A mix of solution of software measure (early warning system, evacuation plans, etc) and hardware measures (detention pools, embankment, etc) are required to reduce the flood damages. Till then, the community will continue to live on edge.