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Bangladesh's battle

December 15, 2009

In Bangladesh, natural catastrophes cause innumerable deaths every year. Tropical storms and heavy floods destroy the belongings of many. Having lost everything, people are forced to rebuild their lives from scratch.

injured boy with collapsed house in background
This boy was injured when cyclone Sidr hit Bangladesh in 2007Image: AP

The riverbed is almost dry at low tide on the Jamuna, one of Bangladesh's largest rivers. Where there is usually a mighty stream, the Jamuna is only a knee-deep rivulet. The local farmers take advantage of the dry season to plant their crops. It is three or four months before the harvest, and it is also three or four months before the monsoon season. Once it starts to rain, the river rises until it obliterates the opposite riverbank.

That is when the nightmare begins for Jamila and Surfan Begum, who are among the 600,000 Bangladeshis living on wet land islands or river bars formed from a build-up of sediment in the river.

A woman wades through a flooded street to collect food
People have to wade through flooded streets to collect foodImage: AP

"I was absolutely terrified," said Jamila, a resolute woman in her mid-thirties who comes from near the Gaibandha district. "The water just kept on rising. I didn't know what to do, where I should run to."

Surfan, like Jamila, lost everything in the 2007 flooding. Her harvest was destroyed and her livestock washed away.

"My hens and goats, even my dog - the river took everything," Surfan said. "We have nothing left. How are we supposed to survive?"

Floods not the only threat

There is a local proverb, which says: People don't die in the floods. They die when there are no floods.

Bangladesh's rural community relies on a degree of "normal" flooding to bring in moisture and fresh sediment. They have also adapted their lifestyle to live with river flooding: frequently moving their temporary bank side homes, planting on newly emerging riverbanks and sometimes raising their houses above river level. Two of their rice varieties cannot survive without flood water.

A family prepares food inside their damaged house
Some families take refuge inside their damaged housesImage: AP

But recently, the Jamuna has been flooding more frequently and more severely. The people here, though, are only equipped to deal with one flood a year.

"This year, the water came twice," said local fisherman Abu Taleb. "The people here didn't have a chance to cultivate anything."

The result of abnormal flooding is devastating. The areas worst hit already belong to some of the poorest in Bangladesh. Each time a natural catastrophe hits, they just get poorer.

Small steps against the catastrophe

Around half of Bangladesh's population suffers from severe malnutrition.

homeless in bangladesh
Cyclone Sidr made thousands homelessImage: DW

"It's a catch 22," said Habibur Rahman Chowdhury from the German aid agency Net. "Every time there is a natural catastrophe and people have to rebuild their lives from scratch, every time they have to start all over again, so the poverty levels in the area worsen. The people don't have anything left to fight the floods with."

Net helps the flood victims using simple responses. For one, they build up the islands higher, at least as high as the most recent flood water levels.

Is climate change to blame?

Chowdhury is convinced that climate change is directly affecting Bangladesh. The melting glaciers in the Himalayas, the more severe and frequent monsoon rains and rising sea-levels are all causing his homeland more and more damage.

A homeless family tries to build a temporary hut with coconut leaves
A homeless family tries to build a temporary hut with coconut leavesImage: AP

The coast is being affected, as well. Tropical storms and cyclones are increasing in number and strength. Many parts of Bangladesh are only just above sea level, so most areas offer no natural protection against meter-high tidal waves and winds of up to 300 km per hour.

Akteruzzaman Khan carries the heavy memory of the cyclone of 1991. It cost more than 140,000 people their lives. The young man from the south-eastern island of Dolghata lost 26 members of his family. A quarter of the islanders were killed. Not one house was left unscathed, only a few palm trees remained untouched.

"Perhaps mother nature is out of kilter," he said. "Lately we have been getting three to four cyclone warnings a year."

Author: Peter Koppen
Editor: Sabina Casagrande

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