Home  -  Back Issues  -  The Team  -  Contact Us
     Volume 4 Issue 9 | August 20, 2004 |

   Cover Story
   News Notes
   Slice of Life
   Did You Know
   Photo Feature
   Time Out
   Book Review
   Dhaka Diary
   New Flicks

   SWM Home



Fighting the Floodwaters

Rezwan Haque

Razzaque, 45, sets down his sack enthusiastically, his weary face breaking into a smile. I start a conversation with him and immediately we are surrounded by a handful of onlookers. The 50 metre stretch of dry land, on which we are standing, is teeming with people. It is six in the evening. The setting sun casts an orange glow on everybody's face. Boats are moored to the dock and there is water all around, as far as the eye can see, the homogeneity broken only by treetops sticking out of the surface.

"The flood has made my daily life very difficult. It has become progressively harder for me to support my family, and the rising water level offers no respite. Until two days ago we hade to wade in knee-deep water inside our house" declares Razzaque, father of seven children and oarsman by profession."I have been waiting here since 10 in the morning but I am very happy with the way the relief operation has been organised." The bystanders nod vigorously in concurrence. The general consensus is that the relief operation has been very well conducted compared to efforts to help victims in previous years.

"I like the way cards with serial numbers have been handed out. This is the best way to ensure that those who are worst affected are able to get help," continues Razzaque, amidst sounds of approval. After an animated discussion with his fellow villagers, he confirms that the last two devastating floods had attacked them in 1988 and in 1998, but that this year the water level had risen unusually early.

Razzaque definitely knows what he is talking about. This year the flood has struck early and with devastating consequences.

I found myself befriending Razzaque and some of his neighbours in a marooned village in Munshiganj when I took up the offer to accompany a team from Impact Foundation Bangladesh (an NGO with the country headquarters in Dhaka), which is touring some of the worst affected areas to distribute aid. We reached our destination, accessible only by boat, on a chartered launch loaded with sacks ready for distribution among the flood victims. On the way, I was able to witness first hand the havoc wreaked by the raging rivers: entire villages have been cut off from civilisation, people are wading helplessly through waist-deep water just to get from Point A to Point B, and commercial life has come to a standstill.

When our launch docked after the two-hour journey, we were welcomed by a swarm of people and small boats converging on us from all sides. It took the better part of an hour to achieve some semblance of order and begin distributing the relief packages. Names of victims were announced through a loudspeaker.

"Each recipient has been handed a card with a serial number on it in advance," explained a locally recruited volunteer. "But it is still difficult for us to organise everyone into a queue because they are impatient and are afraid that they will miss out if they don't come first to take their packages. So there is this sense of urgency. You will see a lot of jostling in the crowd." I could understand that. After all, those caught napping by the rapidly advancing floodwaters have had to pay dearly.

On the lowest deck of the launch, the sacks containing relief were piled up and were being steadily transferred to the dock outside by a chain of volunteers. I tried lifting a sack but struggled with the 20 kilograms that each bag was supposed to weigh. Following this failed attempt, I gazed with renewed amazement at the children and elderly women outside who were carrying these same sacks on their heads, walking towards boats moored some distance away. Endurance is strength.

What did each of these precious sacks contain? This is naturally the next question that springs to mind. "I don't know," confessed Abul Miah, a bearded 60 year-old, balancing the sack he had just received on his head. He lived a mile from the distribution site, and when I asked him if he was going to walk all the way back home, he ridiculed my naive suggestion.

"Most of the houses here are no longer accessible by foot. If you don't have a boat you cannot communicate with the outside world. From my house to here, it's a 30 minute journey." Before I leave him to continue his journey back home he ventures to add, "I am very happy with the way people have been made aware of today's programme. All my neighbours have been contacted by the local community leaders and have been handed cards. The poor have really benefited."

I did finally manage to procure a list of the contents of each package: rice, lentils, potatoes, cooking oil, flour, flattened rice. molasses, biscuits, oral saline, water purification tablets, antiseptic lotion, bandage, candles and matchsticks. It must have been hard work sorting all this material into the 2500 or so separate sacks prepared for distribution. "Yes," affirms Montu Perise, staff member of Impact Foundation Bangladesh, whose own home has been washed away by the relentless floodwaters. "My colleagues have been working all night. We received funding for the project from our partner organisation, UK Impact Foundation, only a couple of days ago."

As I paced back and forth on the 50-metre strip of dry land just beside the dock, trying to get used to the stench of poverty and dried fish as the night descended, I was approached by a pair of women who had not been called up to receive aid. They told me that it was very difficult for them to sustain their daily life and begged for help. I realised then that it is impossible, despite all efforts, to rescue each and every person affected by the flood. The victims easily outnumber the sacks available for distribution. Moreover, a package of foodstuffs and necessities is just that : a package. It is not inexhaustible. It will be used up after 20 days. Then what? What will happen when the floodwaters recede and disease breaks out? Already there has been a dramatic increase in the number of diarrhoea cases in flood-affected areas. What will happen when the crop fails and farmers lose their livelihoods? Endless questions popped up in my head.

There are no easy answers; only damning statistics. Statistics that show how floods have periodically and systematically ravaged our country over the last few decades. Statistics in the news everyday tell us what percentage of the country is under water and how much worth of aid has been distributed.

"I don't know what will happen to me," says Amina, a 35-year-old widow. "My home is under water and I need to look after my son and daughter." As she jostles her way through the crowd, she tells me, "I have been waiting here for seven hours. I need to get back to my children. I need to find someone to help me." Amina, obviously, does not care for statistics. She needs answers. And fast.

Moving around with a relief distribution team was a real eye-opener. The flood does not directly affect me. But even if some of us don't experience a tangible predicament, we should continue trying to find answers to this terrible calamity that revisits Bangladesh every year. Let us not forget that the lives and livelihoods of millions are at stake.


Copyright (R) thedailystar.net 2004