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Farakka, worst natural disasters, s Bangladesh, populated countries, Indian border

In the 1990s Bangladesh had to contend with some of the worst natural disasters in its history. In 1991 more than 120,000 people were killed and millions left homeless when a powerful cyclone struck the coastal areas in the Ganges River delta. United States Marines who had served in the Persian Gulf War offered much assistance in the wake of the disaster. In 1998 the country experienced the worst monsoonal flooding in a decade. Natural disasters have continued to be a recurring problem in the country, causing loss of life as well as extensive infrastructural and agricultural damage.

In the early 1990s Bangladesh’s already devastated economy was further strained by an influx of an estimated 270,000 refugees from the Arakan province of Myanmar (formerly Burma). The refugees were Rohingya Muslims, an ethnic minority in Arakan, who claimed to be fleeing political persecution under the new military regime of Myanmar. Many of the refugees were subsequently repatriated to Myanmar, but some returned to Bangladesh in the late 1990s.

In 1996 Bangladesh and its most powerful regional neighbor, India, reached an agreement on the sharing of the waters of the Ganges. Relations had been strained since 1975, when the Indian diversion barrage at Farakka, just inside the Indian border, began to route water from the Ganges into the Hugli (Hooghly) in order to alleviate a siltation and salinization problem at Kolkata. During the low-flow months of April and May, the diversion of water created a problem for irrigation systems in southwestern Bangladesh. The treaty, designed to facilitate more equitable water sharing, thus addressed one of Bangladesh’s most prolonged and troublesome foreign relations issues.

In 1997 the government took steps to resolve a longstanding insurgency in the eastern Chittagong Hill Tracts District. Some minority ethnic (or tribal) groups, primarily Buddhist Chakmas, had demanded autonomy in the region since the 1970s, often resorting to guerrilla warfare. In the early 1990s the insurgency resulted in a flood of Chakma refugees into India. Most returned to Bangladesh after a 1997 peace agreement guaranteed the tribal groups in the Chittagong region greater powers of self-governance.

Bangladesh’s continuing economic problems, combined with its status as one of the world’s most populated countries, poses one of its biggest challenges in the years ahead. Widespread poverty has remained a pervasive problem in Bangladesh, as successive governments have generally failed to attend to the welfare of the people. Although the economy has grown regularly since the late 1970s, the benefits of that growth have not filtered down to the average person. Bangladesh remains at or near the bottom of almost all international lists measuring economic and social development, while being placed at the top of lists for corruption in government. Meanwhile, Bangladesh has received only minor foreign direct investment in comparison to other Asian countries.

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