Bangladesh: Surviving the flood 2004

Report
from Oxfam
Published on 20 Oct 2004
Much of Bangladesh floods every year during the monsoon season. This year has seen the worst flooding for six years. Besides Oxfam's relief response of food and non-food items to 50,000 households Bangladesh's disaster preparedness programme, known as the River Basin Programme, was put to the test.

The programme concentrates on long-term improvements to sustain people's lives and livelihoods against disasters and works with communities, local partners, a network of agencies, and the government. The programme aims, amongst other things, to mitigate the effects of the annual floods on vulnerable communities.

But this year was different. The floods were early, destroying paddy fields immediately before harvest; the water rose faster and higher than the 1998 flood and the current was particularly strong. Houses, roads and other structures were destroyed or badly damaged. Lives and livelihoods were lost. Work for many will be scarce for the next three months.

Some aspects of the preparedness programme:

Cluster village

A cluster village is a village that has been raised at least seven feet above water level. The villages, of between 20 to 25 households, are in extremely flood prone areas where there is no alternative, eg. no high ground or flood platform

"Before this cluster village life was very hard for people. Every year the area was flooded. Now we feel there's no monsoon because we don't face any of the problems.

"Those who came and took shelter here this year said, "You people are living paradise"!" Mohammed Abu Ysef, Community Leader, Fulhara cluster village, Sirajgani.

Oxfam has funded 64 cluster villages.

"The cluster village has been a particularly successful part of the programme. If we could build more cluster villages we wouldn't need as much relief." Mozibur Rahman, Director, Shariatpur Development Society (Oxfam partner)

The challenge

Whilst the cluster villages are very successful people living here are mainly day labourers who have lost their livelihoods as the floods washed away paddy fields and crops. The challenge now is...how do people earn a living during, and after, a particularly destructive flood?

Flood shelter

Around three to five acres of raised land (around 18 to 35 football pitches) accommodating 100-300 households. People can bring houses and livestock. Facilities include a community room for those without shelter, tube-wells, latrines, fishponds, and areas for vegetable cultivation and trees plantations.

"When the water started raising we were able to move the cattle to the flood shelter...when it was obvious that the house was in danger we contacted a rescue boat and moved everything, including the house to the shelter, and we can stay here for up to six months whilst we look for a new place to live."

Oxfam has funded 19 flood shelters.

The learning

The height of this year's flood exceeded the devastating flood of 1998 and this caused some damage to a few of the shelters. "In future we would now like to build flood shelter ten feet above water level."
Mozibur Rahman, Director, Shariatpur Development Society (Oxfam partner)

Raised homestead

Individual homesteads are raised five to seven feet above water level. To protect the raised earth from erosion plants such as grasses are planted.

"Because these homesteads have been raised they haven't been damaged by the flood. We can grow vegetables like pumpkins on the roof and fruit trees, like mangoes and jackfruit that can be eaten during, or after the floods. This year these households did not go under water so this food is now available to the families living here." Kodvanu

Oxfam has funded 8270 raised homesteads.

The learning

"The current was very strong this year and some of the raised houses were damaged as the current swept between them. In future we'd like to build more cluster villages, or join up more houses."
Mohammed Habib Ullah Bahar, Director MMS (Oxfam partner)

Preparedness committees

The village disaster preparedness committees are made up of 11-13 members, with a high representation of women. They play the key role in disaster preparedness; identifying vulnerability, working with households in being prepared, alerting and organising the community as well as dealing with post-disaster issues.

"Before the flood we discuss, decide and prepare. If we didn't have this kind of organisation we couldn't survive here.

"Previously we just reacted. We'd work together but now we plan before the flood happens. It's meant that, for example, we didn't have to leave this place this year.

"Before the flood came every family had dried food and a portable oven stored. Cattle were moved and placed in a safe place. When we saw that the tube well was going under water we started to store water in pots. We don't have to wait for outside help." Hawa Parvin, President of committee, Langolmura, Sirajganj.

Oxfam has supported 267 committees.

The challenge

"You can train everyone 100% but at a certain level of flood they wouldn't be able to cope. This year it came so fast that one committee was completely taken by surprise. Just one hour earlier they'd met and drawn up an action plan. But then it all happened so fast they couldn't put their plan into action...everyone was affected. They were busy trying to save their own households."

Rescue Boats

As the risk of flood or river erosion increases the rescue boats are located around the areas most at risk, and/or at flood shelters.

Besides rescuing people, the boats collect houses, belongings and livestock taking them to flood shelters and other places of safety. In these remote areas with no road access the boats are used to deliver essential relief, eg food, animal fodder, emergency shelter and other non-food items.

The boats are used all year round for transportation, and when not in use they can be hired out to raise some income.

"We'd spent the night on a raft made up of banana trees. The current was very strong, you couldn't stand up in the water, we watched as it swept our house away. We were scared, as we didn't know how long we'd be able to stay afloat.

"When we saw the rescue boat we knew we would be saved. It was good seeing that boat come for us."
Shaheda and Atiar, North Channel Union, Faridpur

Oxfam has funded 33 rescue boats, equipped with lifesaving equipment like lifejackets and lifebuoys. This year they rescued over 1060 individuals, plus livestock, houses and household items.

"Every year we use the boat to rescue people as river erosion is a continual problem and families can be suddenly stranded. If these boats were absent from our organisation we couldn't rescue people...with them we can save lives, and where we can save their livestock, houses and possessions." Mohammed Habib Ullah Bahar - Director MMS (Oxfam partner)

Radios

Over the last couple of years radios have been given to the committees. News affecting the area can be heard on a particular channel enabling the committee to warn the villages and put preparedness plans into action.

"We heard the news on the radio about how much the water had risen. When we heard it had got to a certain level up stream we started putting our plan into action. We told everyone in the village. We moved the cattle to higher ground, collected bamboo and wood, raised the platforms in the houses, moved the oven and dry food. We put everything we had on the platform to protect as much stuff from the water as possible. Without the radio we'd have been taken by surprise and we could have lost everything." Hawa Parvin, Langolmura, Sirajgani

"When I hear the news on the radio I go straight to the mosque and make an announcement over the mike.

Everyone can hear at the same time and can put the agreed preparedness plan into action. Where we know that somewhere is being badly affected, or eroded, more help can be sent to rescue people, livestock and items." Inman, at Charatra, Shariatpur

Oxfam has provided funds for 205 radios. One (£6) radio covers 4 or 5 villages, reaching around 300 households.

"Certainly the radios have made a big difference. Being able to communicate what is happening has been very valuable. I think that without them more lives would have been lost." Mohammed Habib Ullah Bahar - Director MMS (Oxfam partner)

Lessons learnt

"Although people, their houses, cattle and possessions were saved many livelihoods were lost as fields were swept away. We need to find ways were people can earn money during a flood."

Whilst there are lessons to be learnt from this years disaster Oxfam also responded in the Sunamganj in the Slyhet division. Here there is no disaster preparedness programme and the difference was notable.