Bangladesh + 2 more

When the daily crust disappears: seeds of change in Bangladesh

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By Sarah Oughton

In a recent survey by the British Red Cross, one-third of the UK population said they’d never heard of ‘food insecurity‘. The term, used by aid workers, refers to a complex set of issues behind the fact that 925 million people in the world go hungry every day, despite there being enough food in the world to feed everyone.

Poverty is the major underlying factor for people struggling to get enough food. However, when a disaster strikes it only makes the situation worse for those who are already vulnerable.

For this reason, the British Red Cross is increasingly focussing on helping people protect their livelihoods from disasters.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines the word ‘livelihood’ as: a means of securing the necessities of life.

Boiling it down to the basics, it’s about securing enough food, water and shelter in order to survive. It sounds simple. But of course the reality of survival in the aftermath of a disaster is far from simple.

For example, maybe you live in an agricultural region along the coast. You are a daily labourer in the fields and make just enough money to get by. But since a cyclone caused a surge of seawater, the waterlogged land is too saline to grow crops. There is no more work for you.

And like the others in your village, your house, made of bamboo and leaves, got washed away in the storm. You sleep under a makeshift shelter made with scraps of wood you salvaged.

At night you hear your neighbour crying. Her husband was a fisherman, who never returned after the storm. Her teenage son tries to comfort her and feels useless. His young siblings complain of hunger. His father taught him how to fish. But all the boats and nets have been destroyed.

These are just a few of the problems faced by survivors of a cyclone in Bangladesh.

Based on experience, including helping people recover after the 2004 Asian tsunami and Cyclone Sidr in Bangladesh in 2007, the British Red Cross believes cash grants are one of the most effective ways of helping people re-establish themselves.

“Every context is different and it’s important to do market analysis before helping people start new income generating opportunities,” Joy Singhal, recovery manager, explains.

“We currently have livelihood programmes in Haiti, Bangladesh and Azerbaijan, but each one is tailored to the specific context. Alongside the cash grants we help people develop business plans and provide training where necessary.”

In May 2009, Cyclone Aila ripped through south-eastern Bangladesh, causing massive destruction to thousands of people’s homes and means of making a living.

In November 2009, the Bangladesh Red Crescent did an assessment and found that many families, with nothing to fall back on after the cyclone had ripped through their communities, were still living in terrible conditions and barely scraping by.

In response, it developed a recovery programme, in partnership with the British Red Cross, to help more than 1,000 families in eleven villages in Khulna – one of the worst-affected districts.

The regional economy, previously based on agriculture and livestock, collapsed in the aftermath of the disaster because the land was waterlogged and too saline to grow crops. It will be years before fields can be cultivated again and there is enough fodder for livestock to survive.

At the beginning of the recovery programme, the Red Cross teamed up with a local organisation called Prodipan, which specialises in livelihoods, and carried out an assessment looking at feasible alternatives to agriculture and livestock.

New options include: fish farming in small ponds; rearing poultry; tailoring; running small shops and ‘crab fattening’.

It may have taken two years, but Mina Mondol, 26, from Shingershack in Khunla district is now living a life she could barely imagine after Cyclone Aila destroyed her home in south-western Bangladesh.

Mina says: “Both me and my husband used to be daily labourers – working in the fields – but after the cyclone there was no work for us.

“But we have our own pond and with the money from the Red Cross we’ve started cultivating crabs and selling them in the market. I had three days training in crab culture. Since starting our new business we are earning much better money. Now we get 4,000 taka (£32) a month, before we got a maximum of 1,300 taka (£10).

“We used to eat only some rice with salt and pepper and after the cyclone it was even worse, we had nothing. But now it’s different, we can afford fish sometimes, or even meat and vegetables.”

Throughout October, the British Red Cross is running the Seeds of Change campaign to raise awareness about the issue of food insecurity. Visit our website and watch our Seeds of Change video.