Monsoon floods push millions of children into uncertainty amid COVID-19

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© UNICEF Bangladesh/2020/Zhantu

Over 5.4 million people, close to half of them children, have been affected by the recent monsoon floods in the northern, north-eastern and south-eastern regions of Bangladesh

Nusrat Shabnam Turna

Torrents of cascading water continues to inundate houses, farmlands and other physical infrastructure including schools as the monsoon flooding shows little signs of being tamed across many parts of Bangladesh.

Mile after mile, there is now only water and the land beneath is no more visible. It may sound like an opening of a movie, but this is a true story of a family’s encounter with natural disaster, set in the Dharala river basin, Kurigram district in northern Bangladesh. This district is one of the most flood-prone regions of Bangladesh.

Shirajul Islam, the father of four-year-old Rabiul Islam, became a victim to the recent floods in Kurigram. He and his family lost their house and livelihood to this flood, with their only son Rabiul’s future hanging in the balance.

Children are particularly vulnerable to natural disasters like flooding not only from the immediate danger of drowning, snakebites and diarrhoea but also from the threat of longer-term health and education implications, as well as protection risks.

As with previous major floods, the disruption of services makes people suffer from hunger, illness, and displaced people move to cities in search of work for themselves as well as their children, eventually shifting to overcrowded and unsafe slums. The future of children like Rabiul , therefore, continues to be bleak.

Millions of people across 30 districts of Bangladesh have been affected by recent floods caused by relentless monsoon rains, with moderate to severe impact recorded in 15 districts. More than 5.4 million people, 2.2 million of whom are estimated to be children, have been affected by the monsoon flooding.

Children at risk

In the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, people living in these flooded areas are now losing their crops and becoming cut off from the supply of daily necessities. In a situation where people do not even have enough food or safe drinking water, it is very difficult to stay protected from COVID-19.

Yet coronavirus is not the only threat to the lives of children. The greatest fear among parents during the flood is drowning of children in the swelling flood waters and surrounding water bodies.

In the midst of all challenges created by the flood and COVID-19, what concerns Shirajul Islam and his wife Rukhsana Begum right now is the safety of their son Rabiul.

Every year, more than 19,000 children lose their lives due to drowning in Bangladesh with an average of 53 children dying daily, according to Bangladesh Health and Injury Survey 2016. This situation becomes worse during the flooding season. Shirajul and Rukhsana, therefore, cannot risk letting their child out of their sight.

Shirajul says in desperation: “I have no work. I can’t even go to the bazaar. We’re in a lot of trouble. I don’t know how we’ll survive.”

Displaced and demotivated

With the water levels continuing to rise, the shelter on the raised homestead where Shirajul’s family now lives, is also going underwater. When asked what they plan to do, Shirajul replies with a blank look: “I don’t know”.

They will not be able to continue to stay in the shelter due to the fast-rising water. Ideally, they would shift to one of the government shelters, but this requires permissions, which are often difficult to obtain.

“There is not a single moment that I am not worried about my boy. I can’t let him down because of the water. I can’t let him play and always have to carry him around with me,” shares Shirajul.

Shirajul has not had any work for a long time and the family has no money left to rent a boat to travel elsewhere. This is a reality shared by the people in the flood-affected regions of Bangladesh.

The current flood has come at a time when Bangladesh is still recovering from the ravage left by the Cyclone Amphan, and its already stretched emergency and health response systems are struggling to contain the spread of the COVID-19 virus.

In a country like Bangladesh, where millions of people are living below the poverty line and are fighting to make ends meet during this crisis, monsoon floods can cause the loss of even more lives due to starvation. To make matters worse, the risk of contracting COVID-19 is higher in the crowded shelters to which people are relocating.

Sustained service delivery during emergency

In response to this situation, UNICEF promoted messaging on flood awareness and the safety of children, and the importance of wearing masks and maintaining social distancing in shelters through community radio.

UNICEF is also working with the Government and NGO partners on the ground to provide hygiene kits to help people stay safe from COVID-19 and other diseases.

The Joint Needs Assessmen undertaken on 20-22 July 2020, has identified water, food and protection as the immediate needs of people. UNICEF supported the Department of Public Health Engineering to distribute safe water via water purification tablets and sachets, and disinfectants, while tube wells and latrines are being repaired or newly installed.

UNICEF will continue to support the Government of Bangladesh efforts to ensure medical and nutrition products, safe water and sanitation, as well as education and recreation supplies for children in vulnerable situations to help them withstand the pressures of the emergency.