Field Exchange Nov 1999: Summary of the Oxfam Review of Bangladesh flood response

Between July and October last year Bangladesh suffered severe flooding regarded as the worst in living memory: two-thirds of Bangladesh was affected resulting in widespread disruption and damage to homesteads and crops. The Oxfam Bangladesh Office (OBO) responded to the crisis by supporting flood relief and rehabilitation activities in charland (river eroded areas) through eight core partners (non-government). Oxfam also supported long-standing partners to deliver health services, food supplements and livelihood support in other severely affected urban and rural areas.

Oxfam commissioned a review* of this programme which was carried out over a two-week period. It focussed on three key areas: targeted food distribution, supplementary feeding and emergency health services.

Some of the main findings of the review that relate to the targeted food distribution and follow up rehabilitation activities were as follows: activities in the relief phase of the flood response programme included targeted distribution of food and non-food items and a supplementary feeding programme.

The rehabilitation phase involved a continuation of the above as well as:

  • Provision of interest free loans
  • Cash-for-work
  • Agricultural rehabilitation support
  • Targeted food distribution
  • Core partner organisations, because of their long-standing work in disaster preparedness and management with char communities, were quickly able to update the ongoing 'distressed persons list' (DPL) which groups households according to pre-defined criteria for poverty and vulnerability in relation to flood impact and food insecurity. The criteria were:
    • Severely flood affected
    • Level of household food stocks (< 4 days, 5-10 days and 10 days)
    • Employment status i.e. landless households normally dependant on daily paid labour given priority
    • Female headed household
    • Pregnant and lactating mothers
    • Households with malnourished children
    • Disabled
    • Elderly

Although food distribution was primarily determined by the level of contingency funding immediately available to OBO and the capacity of the partners to purchase and distribute food, the DPL was the basis for targeting initially limited food assistance.

During the flood, it was apparent that access to food, although limited, was possible. Markets were functioning and fishing was being widely practiced (there was an abundance of fish in the early stage of the flood). OBO decided therefore to distribute food parcels containing approximately 80% of calorie requirements (based on Kcal requirement of 2,100 per day) over a three week period. The food parcel also contained essential non-food items and Taka 100 cash for the purchase of other food and non-food items. Households with pregnant and lactating mothers were given additional food support of 1 litre of oil and where possible, pumpkins.

Initially, 15,000 families were targeted in core partner areas during August. In September, funding for 50,000 more parcels was proposed which included targeting households in long-standing partner areas (urban and rural). Food parcel distribution continued throughout the rehabilitation phase giving a final total of 130,219 parcels distributed.

It was clear from meetings with beneficiaries that there was a high level of perceived transparency within the food distribution programme. The community based disasters committee worked with core partners in the identification of households for food targeting and were closely involved in food distribution. Those who received priority targeting were also those viewed by the communities to be most poor and food insecure

Loan taking

All women participating in the discussions reported having to take out consumption loans within 10-15 days after the flood. Loan taking followed strategies to reduce food consumption and requesting food/financial help from less affected relatives or community members. According to Helen Keller International (HKI), loans were taken by over 50% of those affected by the floods and this was significantly higher among vulnerable households (defined as landless and dependent on daily wage labour). Loan taking is a coping strategy normally adopted in the 'lean' seasons. During the flood however, this was more a crisis strategy as the value of the loans taken was much higher, the proportion of households taking loans increased and the levels of interest repayment were exorbitant (up to 200%). The timing and limited initial coverage of the response could have been an important contributing factor to the high levels of loan taking.

During the rehabilitation phase, OBO responded to the high level of loan taking by assisting 8,000 households with access to interest free loans (average of #45) to re-start income generation activities. This was targeted at group-members of core-partner agencies only because of the need to ensure repayment schedules. In recognition of this limitation, OXFAM also assisted mainly non-group members with cash for work. Over 31,000 people (mainly women) were paid at the rate of Taka 60 (#0.75) per day for re-building activities. Pregnant and lactating women were also targeted through this activity and were given only very light work.

The review concluded that overall, the response by OBO and core-partners to the health and nutrition problems arising from the 1998 floods reflected a very high level of commitment, motivation and organisation enabling them to respond effectively to the demands placed on them. The response undoubtedly helped to protect the short and long term livelihoods of those assisted.


*Oxfam Bangladesh ,Emergency Flood Relief and Rehabilitation Programme, Health and Nutrition Review, DRAFT, Carmel Dolan, Consultant