A terrible flood struck Bangladesh in 1988, killing over 6,000 people, destroying millions of tons of crops and causing millions of dollars in damages. This was not Bangladesh’s first flooding disaster, nor its last. As recently as 2017, floods left an estimated one-third of the country under water. The problem of flooding in Bangladeshis age-old; so is the debate about what to do about it. During the 1988 G-7 Summit, France — with prompting from President Mitterand’s wife Danielle — urged concerted action to help Bangladesh develop better measures to prevent and control flooding.
John D. Pielemeier was USAID’s Director for the Office of South Asia at the time of the disaster, and represented the United States the ensuing multi-donor effort to address the problem. Differences quickly emerged, however, between those who leaned heavily on flood control measures — like dikes and canals — and those who advocated “adaptive” measures to disperse inevitable floods more effectively and cope better with the consequences. The debate continues today.
Pielemier supported the implementation of adaptive measures because he believed preventive flood-control measures could not stop the destructive force of the periodic deluges, but would ultimately amplify the damages. Pielemeier recognized that periodic flooding was part of the natural environmental cycle in Bangladesh, and necessary to support the country’s agriculture.
When the Brahmaputra River flooded in 1988, Pielemeier had worked for USAID for nearly 25 years. He had previously served in Brazil, Africa and South Asia.
Drafted by Hunter Matthews
John D. Pielemeier’s interview was conducted by W. Haven North on September 24, 1997.
Read John D. Pielemeier’s full oral history HERE.
“The floods would eventually end up in Bangladesh. Dikes would break, there would be flooding, and villages would be wiped out, with thousands of people drowned or otherwise killed.”
France Pushes for Dikes and Canals: We had one major crisis that I was responsible for handling on behalf of AID. There were major floods in Bangladesh. These were periodic floods. The Ganges and the Brahmaputra Rivers came down from two different sides of the Himalaya Mountains. When there was high rainfall in the mountains or the snow melted too quickly, the floods would eventually end up in Bangladesh. Dikes would break, there would be flooding, and villages would be wiped out, with thousands of people drowned or otherwise killed. At a G-7 Meeting, the [French President François Mitterrand and Madame Mitterrand], his wife, who had visited Bangladesh, wanted the G-7 countries to take a major initiative to keep these floods from happening periodically. So the question was: “Are the donors going to set aside some resources and do something on a large scale to protect Bangladesh from future catastrophes?” If such a major initiative were to be taken, what should it involve?
The French view was that the G-7 should finance the construction of a system of dikes and canals and control the Brahmaputra River and that part of the Ganges River that flowed through Bangladesh. The Japanese were expected to provide a substantial part of the funds required, but they didn’t particularly have a technical view on the matter. The U.S. government was going to be involved but didn’t have a lot of resources to offer. . . . We formed an interagency task force, and I was the U.S. Government representative.
Our “task force decided that the worst thing that could be done would be to copy what . . . had been done to the Mississippi River.”
Building Dikes vs. “Adaptive Approaches”: Our interagency task force decided that the worst thing that could be done would be to copy what the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers had done to the Mississippi River. That was essentially trying to control the flow of the rivers in Bangladesh. The view of the task force was that rivers should not be controlled with major dikes. Controlling rivers is very expensive, and, eventually, those controls will break down, with even greater loss of life than we have previously seen and the loss of the capital invested in an unsuccessful effort.
. . . [A USAID-commissioned study by a Harvard University academic] argued against the French position. It said that the worst thing you can do is to try to control a river. Basically, the aid donors should try to do very little in that sense. The report advised that we should do more in terms of preparedness and help villages to be adaptive to their situations. The floods provide the fertility for the soils in Bangladesh. The floods provide the “life blood” for agriculture in this area.
. . . We then tried to convince the Bangladesh Government of the wisdom of this position. However, they wanted lots of donor money. The more money they received, the better. The Bangladesh Government was in favor of the French approach of building dikes and canals to control the river system. We provided technical advisers to the Government of Bangladesh. The other aid donor countries did as well. There was a negotiating process, and there was “medium ground” adopted between the various positions.
Basically, some sorts of controls may be placed on the rivers, but the “more adaptive approaches” involve feeding the water out into the rural areas of Bangladesh, rather than controlling the water along the rivers. One uses sluices, gates, and other things to allow the water, during the peak season, gradually to branch out in a way that provides water to fertilize the ground. This is done rather than trying to control the water by using dikes and canals constructed with concrete and steel.
The villages are located on relatively higher ground. Controlling the way the water moves out from the dike controls and into the countryside makes it possible to prevent the villages from being inundated, under most circumstances. Keep in mind that rebuilding villages costs very little. It costs very little to rebuild a Bangladeshi hut. You just need some reeds, sticks, and a little bit of time, and the huts are there again. So it’s not like what we think of in the States, in the sense of solidly built structures being damaged by rampaging water. While I worked in the region, I was fascinated by programs of the Gameen Bank and other programs that I saw, working with small scale entrepreneurs in Bangladesh.
“The World Bank was part of the problem, from our point of view.”
An Uncertain Future: The World Bank was involved in the water control program, but its input involved mainly engineering. [World Bank] environmentalists had very little say in what the World Bank did in Bangladesh. We had a combination of engineers and environmental specialists working with our team. I think that made a big difference in adopting what we saw as a more balanced approach. We had some social scientists working with us as well. The World Bank people that we dealt with were almost all engineers, and they were talking with Bangladeshi and French engineers, for the most part. This was not at all a multi-disciplinary approach. So the World Bank was part of the problem, from our point of view.
TABLE OF CONTENTS HIGHLIGHTS
BA in Foreign Service Georgetown University 1962-1966
MA in Social Science from University of Chicago 1968-1971
Joined the Foreign Service 1970
Brasilia, Brazil—Loan Officer 1970-1973
USAID/Africa Bureau—Project Development 1973-1977
Office of Southern Africa Regional Coordinator 1977-1981
Monrovia, Liberia—Deputy Director 1981-1984
Budget Office—Policy Planning Staff 1984-1987
Office for South Asia—Director 1987-1989