From the Worldwide Faith News archives

Survival in the floods of Bangladesh

Date 01 Oct 1998 11:05:41

Safiuddin's struggle

CHAR NARAYANPUR, Bangladesh/GENEVA, 28 September 1998 (lwi) - Stranded on
small bars of raised ground, called highlands, thousands of families
struggle to survive what may well turn out to be the worst floods in
Bangladesh's history.

"Yesterday, I took the last chicken I owned to the market and sold it to
buy three kilograms of rice for my family. Today I have one kilogram of
rice left. I usually need four every day for my family, but this is all I
have now" said Safiuddin, a 50-year-old man from Kurigram.

Safiuddin moved to this small highland, called Jhunkuti, on July 15, when
the floodwaters reached his house. He brought with him his wife, 35, and
six children. Since then the family has been living here along with 21
other families.

Most are living inside a small primary school with a corrugated tin-roof.
But there is no real safety here either. The school ground has started to
erode from the river current and could be washed away any time. If that
happens, most of the people who took shelter here may end up under the open

The floods in Bangladesh have already lasted two months and submerged
two-thirds of the country, claiming over 500 lives and displacing an
estimated 24 million people. Perhaps the worst of the disaster is that the
flood waters do not subside but sit stagnant, increasing the huge damage to
infrastructure and standing crops. Forty-five of the country's 64 districts
have been hit.

Safiuddin is worried that his youngest son, a six-year-old, may fall sick
and therefore carries him on his shoulders most of the day. But the
intermittent rain makes it difficult to keep dry, especially at night.

Other families have brought their cattle and poultry to the raised ground
in order to save their meager assets from the flood waters. But fodder is
very scarce. They are all waiting for the waters to recede so they can go
back to their houses.

Jhunkuti highland at Char (sandbar) Narayanpur in Nageswari Thana
(subdistrict) of Kurigram District was raised in 1996 by Rangpur Dinajpur
Rural Service (RDRS) of the Lutheran World Federation (LWF). RDRS is also a
member of Action by Churches Together (ACT), a network of churches and
related agencies responding to emergencies. Its largest single implementor
is the LWF through the Lutheran World Service.

In addition to providing a site for the primary school, the highland was
also intended as a flood-shelter. "The project has saved us from the
flood," says Murtaza Ali Dewan, speaking on behalf of the highland
residents. "I have been living here for the last two months with my family.
If there had been no highlands like this for taking shelter, people living
in this char could have been washed away with their belongings.

"We are 22 families living here," he continues. "RDRS has so far provided
relief materials to eight families in desperate need. When more assistance
arrives others may be included in the list. Now practically everybody is in
desperate need of food and fodder for cattle. Once the floodwaters recede,
we will need fast growing cereals and vegetable seeds, so that we can
cultivate quickly to feed ourselves and the cattle. Medicines for
water-borne diseases would also be of help."

"There is no scope for education now," explains primary school teacher
Mohammad Ali. "The school will be destroyed if the floods continue further,
and people will die from malnutrition and disease, especially the elderly
and children. The suffering is immense, and the situation gets grimmer each

A landless laborer, Safiuddin has already sold all his household valuables,
utensils and poultry to feed his family. He has nothing left to sell now
and has no money at all. Yesterday he did not have even two takas (USD
0.04) to pay his boat fare to the market. The boatman was kind enough to
take him for free.

"So far our neighbors and relatives have helped us with food," Safiuddin
explains. "But my wife and I are still hungry most of the time. If this
situation continues and if we do not receive more assistance, it will be
hard to survive." When asked about the future, Safiuddin replies, "Only
Allah knows.

The water came and stayed

"This year's floods are exceptional," RDRS project coordinator Nazrul Ghani
explains. "Water started coming on July 13 and remained a few days. After
that it receded and we relaxed. But on July 21 it started to increase fast,
by almost 30-40 centimeters in 24 hours, flooding vast areas in the
Brahmaputra basin. For more than a month now the water has been here,
stagnant. I suspect the water will stay like this for another month."

A swathe of destruction has been cut across Bangladesh. The severity of the
stagnation, duration and high water levels has surpassed 1988. Whereas the
flood now covers some 60,000 sq. km., as opposed to some 90,000 then, its
duration then was only 15 days, compared with over 50 days now.

Damage to crops is feared to be some 3 million tons, at least three times
that caused by the 1988 flood. Northwest Bangladesh, which is a major rice
producing area, has suffered a loss of about 60 percent of its rice this
year. Jute, a major cash crop, has also been largely damaged. Standing
flood water has damaged at least 50% of the kutche (thatched or temporary)
houses either partially or fully. Infrastructure, such as roads, culverts,
and schools, was also badly damaged, and river erosion threatens the
existence of unstable chars and villages in the Brahmaputra, Dharla and
Teesta Rivers.

"About 70% of the houses in the char areas where we work have been
affected," says Nazrul Ghani. "Some 40-50 thousand families living on the
bank of the Brahmaputra River, the Teesta belt and in the subdistricts of
Kurigram District have lost their homes. A number of other districts have
been affected as well. Many people have had to move to highland shelters
erected by the government and the non-governmental organizations."

According to newspaper sources, some 738,500 people have been affected by
floods in Lalmonirhat and Kurigram Districts, where RDRS is working. RDRS
has distributed relief materials worth USD 30,000 to the flood victims
there as well as in Nilphamari District. Because of the aggravated
situation, RDRS has started a second-phase relief operation, which will
enable RDRS to assist another 40,000 flood-affected families in its working

ACT members Christian Commission for Development in Bangladesh and Koinonia
- the Caring Arm of the National Christian Fellowship of Bangladesh have
distributed food to 16,350 families. Relief materials are distributed in
their working areas in the southern region of Bangladesh and places
adjacent to Dhaka city. Koinonia is also about to start a feeding center
for 1,200 people in a relief shelter. Two other ACT members, Social Health
& Education Development, and the Church of Bangladesh Social Development
Programs work in other parts of the country.

Overall, the five ACT members currently working to assist flood victims are
delivering humanitarian assistance to approximately 150,000 people in the
form of food, urgent medical supplies, cooking utensils and house repairs.
Together they work in 18 out of the 45 flood affected districts. The ACT
Appeal for Bangladesh was issued on July 29 for USD 342,745 and is 71%

ACT members are also considering rehabilitation programs in flood-affected
areas. Programs may include distribution of winter vegetable seeds, for
fast-growing winter crops and cereals so that the food deficiency can be
met quickly. Nutrition, health-care facilities, water and hygiene will also
be a priority. Infrastructure repair, including reconstruction of houses,
schools, roads and culverts, will need long-term planning.

The floods were triggered by heavy monsoon rains and fed by water coming
down the Ganges and other rivers. Recent reports said that rivers were
still rising. High sea levels have also slowed down drainage of the river
basins and thus contributed to the floods.

*       *       *
Lutheran World Information
Editorial Assistant: Janet Bond-Nash

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