Embanked: Climate Vulnerability and the Paradoxes of Flood Protection in Dhaka

Lying in the heart of the world’s largest river delta, Dhaka is both one of the world’s fastest growing cities and one of the most flood prone urban regions in the world. While the city’s first levees or embankments were built under the colonial regime during the 1860s, its first major flood control project was the Greater Dhaka Flood Protection Project (GDFPP), proposed under the Flood Action Plan (FAP) 8A and 8B. Phase I of the GDFPP, intended to protect the more urbanized western portion of the city, was developed in the early 1990’s in response to the devastating floods that inundated two-thirds the city in 1988. Phase II of the GDFPP has yet to be implemented. As such, the eastern portions of the city do not have flood protection infrastructure.

During the summer of 2014, I undertook a program of exploratory research to seek a better understanding of the ways in which Dhaka’s embankments have shaped the city. Through documentary research and interviews with 15 government, NGO, and academic experts, I explored the institutional forces and policy-making processes related to the city’s existing and planned embankments. Through approximately 45 resident interviews and field observation, I sought to learn about the location choices, social networks, perceptions of flood risk, and means of adaptation to risk in several settlements adjacent to the western embankments.

I also conducted interviews and field observation in some of the areas likely to be affected by the proposed expansion of the embankments to encompass eastern Dhaka, in order to explore how the patterns of urban development in this area may be similar to or different from that in the embanked western portion of the city. 

I learnt that large-scale urban embankments can have enormously negative unintended consequences including exacerbating the threats of internal waterlogging, marginalization of the poor, and widespread devastation in the event of catastrophic failure.  In spite of these potential pitfalls, Dhaka, like many other cities, continues to plan for structural flood control infrastructure as climate change creates increased flood vulnerability. Structural flood control measures necessarily define clear zones of inside and outside, thereby creating insiders and outsiders.

Therefore, my experience is that it is essential that planners and policy makers develop a more complete understanding of how such infrastructure shapes the formation, composition, and adaptation of communities on both sides. This research is meant to begin to sketch the outlines of a research agenda that aids such understanding.

Written by Zachary Lamb, Visiting Researcher, ICCCAD August Newsletter 2014