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     Volume 6 Issue 33 | August 24, 2007 |

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Cover Story

The Farmer's Plight

Elita Karim

The last few years have proven the fact that there is no possible way of fighting the swelling rivers in our country. It has been the same story year after year. People affected are left homeless, without pure drinking water or food, not to mention the outbreaks of diseases that spread from one area to another. The recent floods that have been going on for more than the whole of last month now bring fresh worries. People, now, are not only threatened by the fact that they may never go back to their homes and get back their belongings, but they are also faced with the question of having enough to feed themselves and their children in the near future.

Over the last few decades, the low lying areas in the country have increasingly been occupied by more and more families. Theorists say that these areas in particular would always get flooded every year right from the beginning. The only difference now is the fact that people have made these low lying areas their homes. To add to it all, these areas are also being used to grow crops.

The loss in agriculture is one of the main crises that the country is facing now; the heavy floods have washed away crops and destroyed arable lands. Many of the farmers have lost their seedlings and are now standing on an ever more precarious ground, now that even the early plantations of the high yielding Aman crops have been lost.

Preparing the land once the water has receded. PHOTO: ANISUR RAHMAN

The preliminary reports of the Department of Agricultural Extension (DAE) say that the floods have damaged crops worth about Tk 2,000 crore in 262 upazilas of the 39 flood-hit districts, which include rice, jute, vegetable and spices on 4.69 lakh hectares of land, which is about 26 percent of the total cultivated crops in the affected areas.

The worst hit in the floods is the Aman crop, both broadcast and transplanted. At least 2.5 hectares of land growing this major crop has been destroyed causing a loss of Tk 1,000 crore. Alongside the Aman crops, the seasonal vegetables have also been damaged, worth Tk 628 crore on 52,347 hectares.

According to Shyk Siraj, well known for his extensive television programme Mati o Manush on agriculture, chances of overcoming this problem are very slim. “Most of the seedlings have been washed away and destroyed by the flood,” he says. “The farmers who had done early plantations have lost all their transplantations.” This is the season when at least 18-20 tonnes of the high yield variety of rice production were expected. Now, the farmers would have to go for the late variety which would lead to around 12-13 tonnes of rice per bigha of land instead. This loss will be very difficult to overcome by the farmers. “Normally, at least three crore tonnes of rice is produced all together in the three seasons,” he says. “However because of the flood we have ended up with a production of a lot less.” As the water goes down, it will be time for the farmers to work on the winter crops and vegetables. “But the loss incurred in this season can never be compensated for completely.” In the case of poultry Siraj says that at least Tk 8,000 crore has been invested in the industry. “It's an unbelievingly huge industry,” he says. “In Sirajgonj, poultry is a major business. It went through tremendous loss due to the bird flu a few months ago, not to mention the floods that hit the area now.” This is also one of the major reasons behind price rise of many essentials in the market he says.

Heavy floods have washed away crops and destroyed arable lands. PHOTO: ANISUR RAHMAN

Nevertheless the government has initiated a Tk 65 crore post-flood rehabilitation programme to rehabilitate the marginal farmers in the affected districts. Farmers have now begun to prepare land for transplanting seedlings across the country as the floodwaters start to recede in a number of districts. The government has already released Tk 30 crore for the programme that will cover at least seven lakh small and marginal farmers.

Advisor for the Ministry of Agriculture, Dr. CS Karim says that the Tk 65 crore programme started by the government has already taken shape and is helping out a number of farmers who have lost their lands and plantations due to the floods. “This money is being spent on fertilisers, new cultivation and rehabilitating the whole industry,” he says. Most farmers in Bangladesh work on land owned by others and depend on part of the productions. Hence, they are now left with nothing. “The programme promises to support farmers who do not own land and those who own land up to one bigha,” he explains. “A committee has been formed in every upazilla comprising members from the joint forces, NGOs and other major organisations headed by the DC of that particular area.” These committees list out the farmers from each upazilla and work out the compensation money to be provided accordingly. “This way, a check can be kept on the money being distributed to the farmers and also there will be less scope for corruption.” Dr. Karim says that the first phase of the programme has already begun and that many farmers have already been compensated.

Director of the Department of Agricultural Extension (DAE), Dr. Shahidul Islam says that as a part of the post-flood emergency agricultural rehabilitation programme, the late variety Aman rice seedlings and seeds of dry season crops have been distributed among the farmers. Seedlings of the seasonal rice have been raised in about 200 hectares of land so that they can soon be distributed for transplantation.

Farmers have been advised to look forward to the season ahead. PHOTO: SHAUKAT JAMIL

Looking forward to the season ahead, the Agriculture Ministry has also sent out instructions and advice to the affected farmers on how to quickly rehabilitate and work on their lands to avoid further loss. The farmers have been asked to filter out the seedlings from the lands which have not been destroyed in the fields and to spray urea on them. As soon as the water begins to recede, the farmers have been asked to prepare the lands for crops like laalshaakh, danta shaakh, palonk shaakh and other winter crops. They have also been asked to start plantations of these winter crops in dry areas close to home, wooden boxes, flower pots and clay pots since most of the lands are still deep under water and receding slowly. Amongst many other instructions, the farmers have also been asked to make sure that their plantations are done on areas which are less likely to be hit by fresh flood water in the coming future. Once the water recedes, the seedlings can be transferred to an appropriate area accordingly.

The Agriculture Ministry's attempts to lessen the farmers' plight seem sincere and may have significant results if prudently executed. But how quickly farmers can recover from the devastating loss of their crops largely depends on how quickly the waters recede. Given the fact that floods are recurring in areas where they had receded, starting all over again, for the farmers, is all the more daunting. They need all the help they can get.


The Usual Suspects

Nader Rahman

Drinking and bathing in contaminated water is how diarrhoea spreads.

Floods are nothing new to us; we simply take for granted that every year to a certain extent Bangladesh will be covered with floodwater. The difficult part is figuring out how much that 'certain extent' will affect us. Will the waters cover one sixth or two thirds of the country, those are types of questions we have to deal with year in and year out. But then come major years like '88, '98, '04 and now '07 when we simply try and cope with the waters as best we can. Those years' people forget exactly how much of the country is underwater, they are too busy trying to keep mind, body and soul together. When the floods eventually end people believe the worst is over, but little do they know that worst is yet to come. In a country of rural squalor like ours the receding waters often cause more problems than the waters themselves.

During the floods most people are killed by drowning and snake bites, but after the floods thousands more are infected with flood related and waterborne diseases, for them the end is never short and sweet, it is a prolonged death. The list of flood related diseases is a list of the usual suspects, diarrhoea, pneumonia, typhoid, hepatitis b, conjunctivitis and skin diseases are all known to us and in flood season they can prove positively deadly. But the point to take up here is that floods are expected in some way every year why is it that so many people still suffer from the same old diseases over and over again.

The answers are never as straightforward as the problems. This year alone till the last count 65,000 people, mostly children suffered from diarrhoea of which many cases proved to be fatal. When the floods are in full flow the numbers of people infected are quite low, but the real trouble begins when the waters recede and at times become stagnant. That is when the infection rate goes through the roof, this year is proof. On the 14th of August the International Centre for Diarrhoeal Diseases and Research, Bangladesh (ICDDR, B) registered the highest number of patients in a day since its establishment 47 years ago. That is quite staggering because this year the floods were not as severe as those of '98 and '88. So why then was the 14th of this month the worst in 47 years, the answer could be put down to a lack of planning for a foreseeable disaster.

As a disease diarrhoea spreads quite fast and the climatic situations right after a flood are ideal for spreading the disease. With floodwaters reducing their levels that is when most people make their way back to their homes, but more often than not they will return to still find that while the waters have lowered they have not gone down completely. The first mistake they make is to remain in their houses as the water recedes further. This is the beginning of their problems, with stagnant water around they are first prone to skin diseases and rashes, which for the average person is far better to deal with than diarrhoea. When they stay in the contaminated water long enough they are forced to drink water from their first available water source, this is another major problem. If fresh water is not provided for them, which is what happens most of the time they are forced to revert to their traditional collection methods.

Patients receiving help from the Army-run Diarrhoea Treatment Centre.

Even using water from a tube well in those circumstances is harmful then. The reason being that tube wells are not properly sealed off before floods come, thus the filthy water contaminates the water underground. With nothing left to do the people are stranded in isolated pockets around the country stuck in filthy contaminated water and drinking it without actually knowing the consequences.

A visit to the ICDDR,B and one can truly gauge the situation in and around Dhaka, what goes on outside the capital is far less organised and well stocked. The place is buzzing with patients checking in and leaving every few minutes. Dr Azharul Islam Khan head of the short stay unit says “Typically we get 850 patients a day, and all come for varying periods of time. Some come and are discharged in a few hours while others take considerably longer. The situation is quite serious but we seem to be handling it quite well, we are ready with everything needed to treat patients and so far we have treated everyone that has come our way”. But while he may paint a rosy picture around Bangladesh not everybody is lucky enough to have ICDDR,B as a one stop solution. In Sirajganj officials at the District Civil Surgeon's Office said around 500 diarrhoea patients were admitted to different hospitals yesterday and there is a scarcity of saline and medicine. From Satkhira there are reports of a sever shortage of drinking water as most tube wells are under water, that can only mean one thing, more cases of diarrhoea in the future.

Water is at the root of all the Flood related medical problems around the country.
Even cleaning pots ad pans with dirty water could lead to diarrhoea.

This is where real action needs to take place; the numbers of water borne diseases could easily be reduced if the government took a greater initiative to provide people with simple amenities like water and food. Another step that needed to be taken ages ago is to stockpile of intravenous fluids and saline in areas that are prone to flooding. This would mean the lag time between asking for such necessities and receiving them would be greatly reduced. When in a situation of crisis providing areas with amenities a few days late could be the difference between life and death. This is where the disaster management programme needs to be brought down to the most basic local level. Who better to help out than people from the locality, and if they are provided with adequate stocks drinking water, medicine and food then floods could be dealt with far better than we are doing now. The basic shift needs to be as Dr Ainun Nishat says “from a culture of relief to a culture of preparedness”.

Medically the post flood situation is always a tricky time because waterborne diseases could logically be tackled better but our disaster management skills need to be perfected before we actually prevent diseases from being spread. At a recent roundtable discussion Health Adviser Major General (Retd) ASM Matiur Rahman openly stated that the linkage of water and sewerage lines in the city and its outskirts was causing more cases of diarrhoea this year. While that at least showed that the problem is being thought of and hopefully will be dealt with it still does not answer the question of how to tackle floods for the entire country let alone Dhaka. Being the capital eventually something will be done here, but as for the rest of country there are still people dying from a lack of clean water and medicines. Saline and water along with food are needed all over the country and the centralised response is not doing much to help them. There may be mobile hospitals around the country but in places where the floodwaters are still rising they are still suffering. Before there is a major outbreak in all flood related diseases the flooded areas must be dealt with as soon as possible. The urban areas of the nations will eventually take care of themselves but the rest of the country is entirely another matter. The waters are still murky and so is the path to medical help in the flood-hit areas.

A patient is wheeled into ICDDR, B.

To fully understand the value of one packet of saline and one IV drip, one needs to look further than the streets. As our photographer and I left the ICDDR,B late on Monday evening we were caught up in traffic in front of the Gabtoli bus stand. We thought we had seen the worst of it, endless lines of patients and their suffering. A CNG stopped beside us and there was a mother with her infant and husband. Across their lap there lay a girl wrapped in a grey blanket with only the soles of her feet pointing in our direction. It took me some time to fully understand what was going on, I was lost for words. Our photographer asked what had happened, the girl's father replied “we just came from the cholera hospital, there she died from diarrhoea”. Since then reality of the situation has been all too apparent, for there to be fewer sights of bodies wrapped in blankets we must deal with the medical side of our never ending floods. How many more people must echo that man's words till a tangible solution can be found?

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