The tributaries to flooding

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THE world's response to flood-ravaged Bangladesh is heartening. Millions of dollars worth of food and other aid are moving in as fast as floodwaters allow. Aid will be incomplete, however, unless it also deals with deforestation - a key factor in Bangladesh's worsening flood problem.

This year's flooding is the worst in 70 years. About three-quarters of the country is submerged. Upward of 30 million are homeless. Fatalities are estimated at as many as 1,200. Damage will eclipse the $4.5 billion cost of last year's flooding, the country's worst in 40 years.

The region that is now Bangladesh has undergone annual cycles of flooding throughout its history. The Wisconsin-sized country, with its population of 110 million, sits on a vast, flat, fertile river delta fed by the Ganges and Brahmaputra river systems. Bangladesh also rests at the tip of the Bay of Bengal, leaving the low-lying country open to hurricane-like tropical cyclones.

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The country's flood problem - as well as that of India - has been worsened by deforestation in India, Nepal, and Bhutan. There are fewer trees to hold soil in place and help soil absorb water during monsoon rains. The run-off swells streams and rivers. It also washes soil away, which builds up the river beds and forces water over the banks.

About half of the Himalayan forests in Nepal have been felled since 1950. Researchers at the Center for Science and the Environment in New Dehli estimate that the amount of flood-prone land in India has doubled in the last 20 years.

A regional solution is required. It must include reforestation, flood warning networks, and more coordinated weather forecasting. The international community must channel some of its money, technical expertise, and, if need be, political muscle toward these goals.

If it fails, it will see floodwaters repeatedly flush the fruits of its generosity into the Bay of Bengal. More important, the people of Bangladesh will continue to be penalized for the environmental mistakes of their neighbors.

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