Striking at malnutrition and building resilience in flood-prone Bangladesh

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By Guy Hubbard

Northwest Bangladesh, 19 February 2013 – “The water just came right through the village and through our houses,” says Shohiton Begum.

UNICEF correspondent Guy Hubbard reports on a programme that is helping to alleviate the effects of regular flooding in Bangladesh.

Ms. Begum is a mother of two. Her second child was only days old when the flood hit. The family fled the rising waters in October.

A floodplain

Bangladesh is one of the most densely populated countries in the world, and one of the poorest: Half of the population live below the poverty line, and malnutrition is a constant. Forty-three per cent of children under 5 are stunted.

The recent flooding has made things even worse.

Most of Bangladesh is floodplain; the majority of the country lies less than 10 metres above sea level. Its altitude and its many rivers make it extremely vulnerable to flooding. In fact, monsoon floods like the one that displaced Ms. Begum and her family are an annual occurrence. Many farmers rely on the silt carried by floodwaters to enrich their soil.

A combination of deforestation upstream and increased glacial runoff have meant that the floods are now more frequent and more violent than ever before. The latest deluge destroyed homes, crops and livelihoods.

Lowering malnutrition rates

UNICEF, in partnership with the European Union, has been working with the poorest families in the northwest of the country, those most vulnerable to the impact of flooding and malnutrition, and helping them develop strategies to support and feed their families. This work is part of a global project aimed at reducing malnutrition rates in nine developing countries around the world, including Bangladesh.

Ms. Begum’s family was one of those in need of urgent assistance. She’s been given seeds and gardening supplies and has been taught how to plant, nurture and harvest fruits and vegetables. She’s also been given a small flock of ducks and has been taught how to care for them.

Nazim Uddin is a volunteer trainer on the project. He’s helped several families to set up and manage their gardens and ducks and continues to work with them until they have the knowledge and experience to do it themselves. He also educates them about nutrition and believes the programme will make a real difference to the lives of those involved.

“Through this project, mothers benefit in two ways,” he explains. “They can add the fruits and vegetables and duck eggs to their meals and thus get the nutrients they need to be healthy, but they can also sell the surplus at the market to make money and reduce their poverty. So the nutritional value, diversity and security of their food improves.”

Building resilience

The project isn’t a cure-all. Families and their gardens are still at the mercy of floodwaters. In the latest deluge, Ms. Begum’s garden was completely destroyed. But with the extra income they’ve earned from the garden and ducks, her family is more resilient and better able to recover. Under Nazim’s guidance, she’s rebuilt the garden and planted new seedlings.

In a nearby village, Bilquis Bedum has been enrolled in the project. In the past, she’s had to rely on charity to feed her two daughters.

“Before this project started,” she says, “we were living very poorly – we struggled to get enough food to eat…I was completely alone, and I was only able to survive with the help of people in my village. But when the project started, it was like a dream for me.”

Now, with vitamin- and protein-rich meals on the table and a small income, for the first time, she’s planning for the future – a future, in which, she says, her daughters’ “brains will develop properly” because they will have enough to eat.

The support Ms. Bedum receives won’t stop the floodwaters during next year’s monsoon, but it will help her cope with them better. She’ll have the money to move her belongings to higher ground, feed her family and start again when the waters recede.

“I used to spend every day thinking about how to survive,” she says, “but now I know everything will be ok."