Bangladesh: Living on the Edge in a Flood

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The recent flood waters in Bangladesh, that submerged more than half the country, are now receding from homes and roads. However, water still stands on fields, and the humanitarian situation remains serious for the one million-plus people who have been affected. For the poorest of the poor, the need for shelter, fresh drinking water, and food, exceeds available resources.

CARE is helping with rescue operations, food distribution, emergency shelter, water treatment and disease prevention efforts. Once the immediate emergency needs are met, CARE’s efforts will turn to longer-term support that includes providing seeds to thousands of flood-affected families for early agriculture recovery, and supporting children returning to school. Funds given to CARE to support our flood relief efforts benefit Bangladesh and three other affected countries, or a donation to CARE’s Emergency Response Fund helps with relief efforts in emergency situations when and where the need is greatest.

The following is a story of one woman struggling to survive—and CARE’s response—following major flooding in Bangladesh in July and August of 2007.

Sona Bhan Bibi, forty years old, spends her days in a temporary shelter on a raised piece of road on the outskirts of Baghutia village, in Bangladesh’s Chowhali Upazila, in the Sirajganj district. At the time of the flood, water in the middle of the village was up to a grown man’s chest. Since then it has subsided slightly, but hundreds of people from villages that disappeared in the flood are still living on the roadway, which was designed partly to be a flood barrier. Some flood affected families are beginning to return to their villages, but Sona Bhan Bibi has decided to stay where she is for the time being. Her caution makes sense. While water receded in some of the flooded areas of Bangladesh, it is actually increasing in other areas, and the nearby Jumana River has been steadily rising above danger levels.

When the floods first hit Bangladesh at the beginning of August 2007, Sona Bhan Bibi was not particularly worried. Her house was relatively far from the riverbank, and it was on a raised piece of land. It turned out that nearly everyone had underestimated the force of the floods, or how deeply the water would cut into what had previously seemed like solid land. Sona Bhan Bibi was wakened at four a.m. by a rushing sound and shouting. The ground beneath her bed suddenly became wet, and when she opened the door, water came rushing in. She began screaming for help. When she ran outside, there was pandemonium. Sona Bhan Bibi managed to get a boat to take her and her family to safety. A few grass mats that she saved from the side of her house, provided material to make a flimsy one-room shelter on the side of a raised road where she now lives with ten members of her family. Shortly after, she received a relief package of rice and some candles. Since then, she has been begging for rice from other families camped out on the road. She and her family had breakfast in the morning. They won’t have lunch, and they are not sure of where supper, if any, will come from. Until a few days ago, they had been living on a small amount of rice that came in the first distribution of emergency relief. That temporary aid is coming to an end, and she has no idea of where she will get food in the future. Her son, twenty-five, is looking for work, but there is no guarantee that he will find any in time.

Women are particularly vulnerable when disaster strikes. Like thousands of others who were most affected by the floods in Bangladesh, Sona Bhan Bibi lived in the chars, islands that form spontaneously in the middle of the giant river deltas. Open land is scarce in Bangladesh, but it is possible to live on the chars without owning land, and when they are not underwater, the chars can be extraordinarily fertile farmland. The reason that the land is available is that the chars are frequently submerged during the monsoon season. To understand why flooding in the chars is so terrifying, it is only necessary to take a quick look at the Jumana River. In the flood conditions that are taking place now, the river is easily three to four miles across. If a flood suddenly covers the island, you can find yourself having to swim miles to the nearest shore. Near Baghutia, five entire villages were swept away completely by the flood, leaving no trace behind them. It is impossible to return to them. The river has taken the land that they were on. People in Bangladesh have nicknamed the Jamuna, the river that dances. In the current floods, the river opened new channels that never existed before, and in some places it shaved up to 500 meters off the shoreline, washing away all the villages that had been built there.

Despite the risks, Sona Bhan Bibi will very likely move back to the chars. The chairman of Baghutia’s village committee says that there is no free land for her to live where she is now, and literally nowhere else for her to go. The question is how she will manage to eat and to feed her large extended family. CARE and other humanitarian organizations are trying to provide seeds to get families up and farming again, and they also want to provide work for cash to enable people who have lost almost everything to buy food. In addition, CARE is sending medical teams to villages that are too far away to reach a doctor. But the amount of help that is available depends directly on donations. With so many crises competing for worlds attention, it is relatively likely for a widow like Sona Bhan Bibi, to be overlooked. CARE is trying to see that that does not happen.

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