Bangladesh: Helping each other is in our blood

Bangladesh: Helping each other is in our blood

Scene from Sunamganj District in 2017, when a flash flood submerged the region. Zobaidur Rahman/Oxfam

Author: Elizabeth Stevens

NEWS UPDATE: A cyclone bore down on Bangladesh just the first cases of COVID-19 were confirmed in the crowded refugee camps for the Rohingya – these coinciding crises create new challenges and even greater need. Read more.

When faced with the threat of flash floods, a cyclone, and COVID-19, an Oxfam partner in Bangladesh reached tens of thousands with life-saving messages, and more.

In Bangladesh, all eyes are on the water.

As the monsoon unfolds each year in the Meghalaya Hills of India to the north, the runoff rushes south, turning peaceful rivers into raging torrents that often overtop their banks and flood the countryside. In a bad year, flash floods destroy crops and sweep away houses, forcing the poorest families to start over again—from nothing.

Annual floods aren’t disasters in and of themselves. They are natural phenomena. It’s only when poverty and inequality become part of the equation that flooding becomes a crisis: the poorest people live in harm’s way because they can’t afford to live anywhere else.

Many of Bangladesh’s poorest live in the low-lying northeastern district of Sunamganj, where vast wetlands, or haors, dominate the landscape in the rainy season. Here, the fortunes of communities rise and fall with those of the rice crop—which in turn depends on the right amount of water arriving at the right moment of the year. Most people work as tenant farmers or day labourers; one way or another, all are dependent on the harvest to feed their families.

“Every day they sell their labour, and with the money they earn they buy that day’s essentials,” says Mohammed Seraj Islam. “Even before the floods, they are penniless.” Islam is the director of Efforts for Rural Advancement (ERA), an Oxfam partner in Bangladesh.

When flash floods strike, he says, the water comes suddenly. Families make what is often a dangerous journey from their flooded homes to informal shelters on higher ground, but the conditions there are often grim. Drinking water is usually contaminated, and crossing the turbulent water to reach health care providers is not an option. Women and girls may not have safe access to latrines, and may lack privacy for activities like breastfeeding. And there may be nothing to eat but rice. “You just eat to survive,” says Islam. “To stave off your hunger.”

When the water recedes, families that have lost their crops and incomes must sell their livestock and whatever else they can and migrate to find temporary work. But, as Islam says, when they reach Dhaka, employers often sense their desperation and offer terrible compensation.

Preparedness and inspiration

Knowing when and if floods are expected can reduce some of the risks these communities face. Each year, a multi-country network monitors the river flows, issuing warnings if floods are likely. In Sunamganj, ERA makes sure those warnings go the last mile. By late April of 2020, the Bangladeshi government knew flash floods were imminent and was urging an early harvest; ERA and its team of 500 volunteers—linking up with local religious leaders and community organisations—saw to it that the message reached the district’s far-flung communities.

At the time of this writing, ERA was poised to respond to the floods by deploying their contingency stocks, which include soap and detergent, sanitary napkins, antiseptic, oral rehydration salts, megaphones, and plastic buckets, as well as solar lights to make shelter life safer for women and girls. With enough funding, ERA also plans to distribute cash to many of the most vulnerable families—with a particular focus on women—so they can purchase food and other essentials.

ERA is one of 56 Bangladeshi organisations that Oxfam has supported through a three-year program aimed at strengthening their ability to carry out and lead humanitarian work. ERA staff learned how to transfer cash to hard-hit families, and how to launch emergency water and sanitation projects, for example, and now the organisation forms a crucial link between struggling communities of Sunamganj and disaster aid. “Now we are able to respond efficiently,” says Islam.

Disaster upon disaster

When the floods arrive, people take to the high ground and gather in shelters, but during this pandemic, a crowded shelter could be a very dangerous place to be. The cyclone season is also upon the region – with Cyclone Amphan making landfall just last week - but the cyclone shelters that dot the landscape of Bangladesh now look more than anything like future breeding grounds for the virus.

And the record-breaking outbreak of dengue that left hospitals overflowing in 2019? Many fear a recurrence, but it’s hard to imagine how any country could handle COVID-19 on top of such a health crisis. The scary truth is that a series of disasters is almost certain to strike Bangladesh in the coming weeks and months, and people seeking respite from them may put themselves squarely in the path of COVID-19.

ERA is doubling down to protect lives. It has added new elements to its planned flood response, such as delivering food to households where family members may be sick with COVID-19. And volunteers are disseminating messages about how to stay safe in the face of the disease—hoping soon to reach 55,000 people in the district.

But in Sunamganj and around the country, nothing short of a massive national preparedness and response effort—with international support—will keep the virus in check while enabling poor families to survive the shutdown. With income from jobs, day labour, and remittances from abroad slowed to a trickle, poor communities must now depend on the relief efforts of a government that is itself reeling from the effects of the pandemic.

“People confined to their homes are unable to meet their basic needs,” says Oxfam country director Dipankar Datta. “And now they are facing a host of additional crises.” In the short term, they urgently need access to soap and water, and cash to buy essentials like food and medicines—and the organisations that deliver aid need support to do their work. But catastrophes like this don’t just happen naturally, says Datta, and meeting the immediate needs is only part of the picture. “Inequality means some people are born into safety while others must fight for their lives from day one,” he says. “The real disaster here is poverty.”

For poor communities in Bangladesh, the near future looks bleak, but Islam, who was born and raised in Sunamganj, takes the long view.

“The people of this district have been fighting disasters for thousands of years, and we are still here. Forty or fifty years ago in big emergencies, when we had even less government support and worse communications, villagers organised themselves to deliver food to people in remote areas,” he says. “We will be able to face these challenges. We have strength and unity, and we know we are fighters. Helping each other is in our blood.”

In Bangladesh, Oxfam and 23 partner organisations have stepped up work on helping the poorest communities gain access to clean water and sanitation facilities, and the materials and information they need to protect their health through safe hygiene. The crowded camps for Rohingya refugees are particularly vulnerable to the spread of COVID-19; Oxfam and partners are providing water, sanitation, and hygiene support to 173,000 camp residents and 9,000 people in the surrounding communities. With enough funding, we also aim to deliver cash to 100,000 families, enabling them to buy food and other essentials from local businesses that are also struggling in this crisis.

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This disease knows no borders and does not discriminate. For the world’s poorest and most vulnerable, the worst is yet to come as the coronavirus begins to establish itself and spread quickly through communities powerless to stop it, without access to water, sanitation or healthcare.

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