Academic journal article Geography

Challenging Assumptions: Controversy in Bangladesh: What Sort of Knowledge for What Sort of Flood Management?

Academic journal article Geography

Challenging Assumptions: Controversy in Bangladesh: What Sort of Knowledge for What Sort of Flood Management?

Article excerpt

Introduction

Traditionally, floods have been perceived as destructive natural phenomena that periodically cause death and destruction for floodplain residents (Wescoat and White, 2003; Smith and Ward, 1998; Smith, 1996). In light of this, flood management has often been cast as a struggle between humankind and nature, with technical ingenuity enabling civilizations to progress and enjoy the benefits of living in close proximity to fresh water while avoiding the dangers experienced by earlier, or less advanced, peoples. However, this view of flood management involves a distinct understanding based on assumptions about the environment, about people, and about how a society should look and behave. The associated knowledge is mobile even though it often stems from people or institutions who have learnt to manage floods in particular places. For example, colonial civil servants brought interpretations of flooding to Bangladesh in the past, just as engineering consultants use particular types of knowledge in Bangladesh today.

The dominant understanding underpinning these interpretations is rooted in the Euro-American context. Thus, floods are conceptualised as a danger, as a negative aspect of a vital resource, and as a natural problem that can be understood and managed through improved knowledge. Over the last 20 years, with growing global awareness of flooding in Bangladesh, a new understanding has emerged; one that is rooted in a different spatial context, and which challenges the Euro-American approach on the grounds that it is incompatible with local (e.g. Bangladeshi) understandings of flood risk management (Rasid and Mallick, 1995; Paul, 1995, 1999; Boyce, 1990). The result has been an impasse between those holding one of two very different notions of what constitutes effective flood risk management, each rooted in culturally specific contexts, longstanding traditions, and assumptions about the nature of the society and environment that is being managed.

Here, with reference to Bangladesh, I challenge some of the assumptions that underpin this impasse. Centring the discussion on Bangladesh is important because of its longstanding position within flood management debates. Furthermore, the controversy has ongoing ramifications for those who continue to live with this environmental hazard. Central to my argument is that successive paradigms have repeatedly reinterpreted flooding in Bangladesh, each relying upon distinct assumptions about what knowledge should inform flood management.

The engineering paradigm

The origin of what is generally understood to be 'modern' flood management can be traced to the United States in the early part of the twentieth century (Wescoat and White, 2003; Smith and Ward, 1998). At that time, numerous factors combined to create an environment where the national government, having recognised the implications of large-scale flood damage, became willing to intervene in the environment to support economic development and the lifestyle choices of a growing population. Major initiatives, such as the Tennessee Valley Authority and the Hoover Dam, were used to address the realisation that water resources were limited, fickle and economically vital, but potentially destructive. These initiatives were based on particular assumptions, namely that floods are geophysical processes caused by extreme weather events (Smith, 1996). For managers, these assumptions enabled a clear understanding: if the problem was 'nature out of control', the solution was to control nature.

The engineering paradigm became established in Bangladesh, and in much of the developing world, as a result of its perceived universalism: scientific knowledge gained through flood research, regardless of context, was globally applicable. The paradigm was married to available technical solutions or the belief that they could be modified and developed for application in new places. Ultimately, decisions were underpinned by either existing knowledge or faith in scientific research and technology transfer. …

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