They say trouble never comes alone, and to farmers around the country this saying could not have rung truer for the year that passed.
First, there was Cyclone Amphan which damaged crops worth Tk 6.72 billion, according to the agriculture ministry.
Then there was what scientists call the longest flood in around 20 years, completely upending the crop schedule of Aman rice and staple root vegetables.
A statement from the agriculture ministry last week estimated that 1,05,000 hectares of the Aman rice harvest was ruined last year, leading to a production shortfall of 20 lakh tonnes.
Despite counting heavy losses due to extreme weather conditions and natural disasters, farmers still managed to pull through — keeping the nation fed with no major food or grain crisis on their watch.
The Flood Forecasting & Warning Centre (FFWC) predicted floods every single month between June and October.
In June, FFWC forecast that the rivers in the north-east and south-east would cross the danger zone. In July there was the expected monsoon where the FFWC predicted flooding for the entire top half of the country, the centre, and the south-east.
In August, the FFWC forecast rains due to a depression in the Bay, and said that the sea-level was between 1-2 feet higher. It cautioned against floods in the entirety of the south-west.
It further said the water levels of major rivers in these districts were “much higher than even the water level observed during Cyclone Amphan.”
“It was the worst flood in 20 years,” Arifuzzaman Bhuiyan, the executive engineer of FFWC, said. “The magnitude of the flood was unusual.”
By the beginning of August, as much as $42 million worth of crops were destroyed, according to government estimates.
These August floods spelled doom for Abdur Rashed, a fish farmer from Lebubunia village in Gabura union of Satkhira.
“I used to lease about two bighas of land to cultivate fish. Cyclone Amphan flooded my gher [enclosure] and my fish got washed away. My home too was swept away. But that was early in the year and the waters still have not receded… now I am living with my family in a thatched tent on the embankment.”
Rashed’s neighbours stated that prior to the floods, he was doing well, and was not plagued by poverty. While he currently works as a day labourer, it is not often that he finds work.
All three of his children have dropped out of school and his sixth-grader son was sent to work in a brick kiln far away. “But he couldn’t tolerate the working conditions and came back. After all he is very little… only in class six,” Rashed lamented.
The Water Development Board’s north-western zonal chief engineer AKM Shafiqul Haque said, “It is normal for the waters of different beels to be the last to recede, but this time, the floods just kept coming. The zone witnessed five floods, which was unusual. Before the rivers could drain the waters of one flood, another one followed suit.”
These surprise floods also spelled doom for sexagenarian sharecropper Abdus Samad of Kalmati in Lalmonirhat.
“The waters receded by August, so I planted eggplant, radish and coriander, investing Tk 15,000 in my six bighas of land,” said Samad, “but a surprise flood in the last week of August ruined my crops.”
“Then again,” he added, “I planted in September, investing around the same amount. But another flood came in October washing away my investment.”
He has been a farmer for 30 years and lives in a two-room corrugated tin house with six family members — not a family which can easily absorb a Tk 30,000 shock.
Last year was also the year of record rainfall and as reported in this newspaper in November: “the country has witnessed around 50 percent more rainfall in the first nine months of this year, compared to the average rainfall in the corresponding period during the last 30 years.”
This meant that even though Tota Miah’s land in Damua Chala village in Gazipur’s Kapasia was only flooded during the monsoon, the erratic rain ruined 2.5 bighas of crops.
“The force of the wind flattened the young paddy stalks. I got half the yield compared to the year before, and it was so little it was barely enough to feed my family,” he said.
The floods struck when the pandemic was at its most intense, and as rising death tolls dominated the headlines, the farmers of the country waited for sunnier skies.
In fact, even at the end of the year, farmers in pockets of the country were saying that their lands were still too soggy to sustain life.
Abul Kashem, a farmer in Boda union of Panchagarh described how he is still waiting for his land to dry.
“The low-lying land is too waterlogged to grow anything. Even two months ago, we had knee-deep water for around 15 continuous days… that was when the paddy was just beginning to ripen, and the vegetable seeds were just beginning to sprout,” he said.
He was talking about the surprise floods that swept across the north between September and October.
In the beginning of September, the FFWC put out a special report on heavy rainfall in neighbouring Indian states of Assam and Meghalaya. It forecast that the Jamuna river could reach the danger level by September 11 and several areas of the north and northwest would see short-term floods the rest of the month.
“To evaluate the impact of flooding, we need to look at crossing the danger level as well as waterlogging as a function of space [location] and time,” said Professor Shafiqul Islam, director of the water diplomacy programme at Tufts University in the USA.
Farmers continue to deal with the aftereffects of late floods — waters receding slowly, even though the rivers are no longer swelling past the danger point.
Beginning in the monsoon season, Kashem’s land was flooded three times last year. He estimated that he only got two to three maunds of rice per bigha, where in the year before he got 12-13 maunds per bigha.
“The paddy was absolutely infested with pests. I had to spray the stalks thrice, when usually once is enough,” said Kashem.
Tofazzel Hossain, a sharecropping farmer from Chakoler Beel area in Natore’s Gurudaspur upazila, faced a similar predicament early last month.
For him, the flooding was still not over. His land was waterlogged and unable to sustain life — and as one went further into the marshy lowland, the waterlogging becomes more acute.
The 47-year-old sharecropper would cultivate various “Chaitali crops” including garlic and onion before planting Boro paddy in mid-December — it is usual for farmers to cultivate at least three crops on this land.
In 2019, he cultivated garlic on two bighas of land and onion on one bigha. At the end of 2020 though, he was still looking at soggy topsoil that would suffocate seedlings.
“This year is the year of suffering loss,” he said when he spoke to The Daily Star last month.
While the government announced a Tk 5,000 crore stimulus package for farmers last April, as of the end of the year, only around half of that was disbursed.
WORSE THAN THE 1988 FLOOD
Experts point out that the flood peak last year was higher than, for example, that of the 1988 flood — which is still etched in public memory and oral history as the worst flood Bangladesh has ever seen.
In 1988, the maximum water level at the Brahmaputra river was 20.61 mPWD. The maximum water level in 2020 was 20.78 mPWD.
Meter Public Works Datum (mPWD) is a unit used by government departments to refer to water levels, with PWD being a horizontal datum believed originally to be “zero” at a determined Mean Sea Level at Kolkata, India, according to the FFWC website.
In 2019, the maximum water level was 21.16 mPWD and in 2017, it was 20.84 mPWD.
So, the years 2020, 2019 and 2017 actually had higher flood peaks than the “the worst flood” in 1988, and in the last thirty odd years, flood peaks have never been higher than what it is now.
[Our Rajshahi and Lalmonirhat correspondents Anwar Ali and S Dilip Roy contributed to this report]