While the world’s attention is elsewhere, Bangladesh faces a humanitarian crisis
Overshadowed by an American hurricane, the news of the South Asian flooding has emerged slowly. Even in Dhaka, the English-language newspapers carried events in Houston on their front pages.
“Let’s sing a song,” said helicopter pilot Captain Mahbub, as we took off from outside the rusty hangar in Dhaka for our aerial assessment of the floods in Bangladesh. Without waiting for a reply, he burst into John Denver’s Leaving on a Jet Plane.
“I used to sing this when I was in trouble in the Air Force”, he recalled. He paused briefly before adding “of course John Denver died in a plane crash”.
As the chopper soared above the sprawling traffic jams of Dhaka, the extent of the recent monsoon floods became immediately clear. In every direction, it was hard to find any dry land. For 45 minutes as I flew north with the Red Cross disaster assessment team, I saw nothing but the silvery tint of floodwaters swamping crops and houses. Occasionally, we spotted the odd isolated village above the waterline.
Overshadowed by an American hurricane, the news of the South Asian flooding has emerged slowly. Even in Dhaka, the English-language newspapers carried events in Houston on their front pages. But these are the worst floods in a century. Across the region, more than 41 million people have been affected with vast destruction of agriculture and housing.
Buildings have collapsed in Mumbai. Volunteers at Indian Red Cross and other agencies have been overwhelmed. Entire districts in the north of India have been submerged for weeks, leaving tens of thousands camped on roads and embankments. Landslides and floods have killed an estimated 160 people in southern Nepal, a country still recovering from the traumatic earthquakes of 2015.
In Bangladesh, 145 people have died and I’ve seen countless houses destroyed. More than 100,000 houses are estimated to be ruined. Over 8 million people have been affected by floods that covered a third of the country. Villagers have shown me flood marks on trees as high as my neck. Even in a region prone to floods, these numbers are off the scale.
We landed in Sirajganj District near the bank of the Brahmaputra river and took a boat across to a char community. Char is the Bengali word for island. The people who live on these small islands in the middle of the river get by on subsistence agriculture and occasional day labour on building sites in a nearby town.
The geology of the char-islands is inherently unstable – they are often little more than sandbanks. Despite community investment in stabilising them by planting trees, great sections of the chars have been eaten away. Concerns have been mounting about how viable they are as a place to live in the long term.
Further west towards the Indian border, we found the flooded area so enormous that much of the Dinajpur district was submerged. Until last year people here were coping with drought. Here, mud houses in poorer and more vulnerable communities – built with materials suitable for a dry climate – simply washed away.
I asked the villagers whether they could begin to rebuild once the flood waters receded. “No” they replied “the land does not belong to us and there is a brick factory nearby. We cannot use the earth beneath our feet.” In Bangladesh, the intensity of rural poverty and resource competition means that even mud comes at a cost.
As the floodwaters recede, there is some cause for optimism. In 1988, close to 2,400 people died in the deadliest floods on record. With a population that has increased by sixty million people since then, this year’s death toll is much lower.
Everywhere I go, I see the results of good disaster risk reduction and education by dedicated local Bangladesh Red Crescent volunteers. Houses are elevated, belongings stored high. Even cattle, sheep and goats have their own platforms on which to stand as the waters rise. Bangladesh is also a country that has made immense social and economic gains, meeting a number of milestones under the United Nations Millennium Development Goals, such as reducing poverty and attaining gender parity at primary and secondary education.
Considering these improvements, an apparent lack of interest from global funders to address the humanitarian crisis caused by the floods in South Asia is worrying. Consecutive floods, landslides and people streaming across the border from Myanmar into Bangladesh all place severe strain on the humanitarian system here. And in a country where cholera has officially been eradicated, concerns remain about safe water and sanitation.
Bangladesh is, in many ways, a development success story. Yet disasters are happening more often and they are becoming more severe. I’ve seen countless people make a better life for themselves. Poor villagers have invested money, labour and imagination into becoming more resilient. But as natural hazards increase, now is the time to support them so that they can rebuild safer homes out of the mud.
Tom Bamforth is working on the Bangladesh floods response as Shelter Coordinator, International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.
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