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Taken at the Flood

Syed Zain Al-mahmood

The embankments and dykes proved inadequate to contain the flood water.

Parvin Begum isn't going to school these days. Instead, the eight-year-old spends her time playing in the leech-infested brown water that surrounds her village. She and her classmates have been enjoying an unscheduled vacation ever since her primary school was flooded in mid-April. Her parents are too busy counting the cost of the deluge to take much notice.

Parvin's unbridled joy is in stark contrast with the depressed demeanour of her father, Kofiluddin. Kofil, a rice farmer, is used to floods. Sunamganj is a low-lying area and floods are a fact of life. In the rainy season water stands waist deep on the plains and it is impossible to grow anything. So Kofil and his neighbours have to rely on one single crop-- the Boro. It is like a throw of the dice. Sometimes the floods win, sometimes the farmers do.

But this year the deluge has come much earlier than usual. Kofil remembers the morning the water came in. He was awakened at dawn by the sloshing sound of water in the canal running past his house. Initially he was unconcerned. Usually the water is not high enough to reach the paddy fields at this time of year, so he got up to tend to his cows, and to release his flock of ducks.

As Kofil and his fellow villagers in Sulla, Sunamgonj, emerged to begin their daily chores, they were blissfully unaware of the devastation that was about to be unleashed. Defying expectations, the water kept on coming and within hours, the paddy fields were swamped. The farmers rushed to harvest whatever little rice they could. But it was a losing battle.

“It's the dykes,” says Kofil angrily, “The Water Development Board said they'd be repaired before the summer. It's been months, but they've done nothing.”

The failure of the dykes means the villagers in the low-lying haor areas are left without food to sustain them for the next six months, without any surplus rice to sell, and without fodder for their animals. It is a humanitarian disaster, say NGOs working at field level.

The floods that nourish can also kill.

According to M Anisul Islam, director of the Centre for Natural Resources Studies (CNRS), an NGO with extensive programmes in the region, the untimely flood has washed away crops on 60 percent of land in Sunamganj, causing a loss of Tk 1.1 billion and affecting some 1.5 million families.

"When you're poor and hungry, losing your home or crops to floods can mean the beginning of the end. The people affected by natural disasters have no insurance policy and no savings to fall back on," Islam says. “They sink deeper into poverty.”

The damage to Boro rice in the haor belt of Sylhet, caused by the flash floods, looks set to have a lasting impact, both at the macro and micro levels, say experts. Nearly one fifth of the entire Boro production of the country comes from the haor areas, and the loss of Boro in the haors could endanger food security for the nation.

The agriculture minister Motia Chowdhury, herself has said that the flash floods damaged 1.56 lakh tonnes of boro rice awaiting harvest in the haor belt. She has promised that the government would come to the assistance of the affected farmers.

Kofiluddin and his fellow farmers need all the help they can get. Boro is the lone annual crop in the haor belt and the crop loss would leave many farmers completely broke and deep in debt.

The villagers in the haor belt have blamed the Water Development Board for its failure to properly maintain the embankments and the allegations rang true when the government suspended the Executive Engineer of Sunamganj Bangladesh Water Development Board (BWDB) for his failure in taking measures to check flooding in haor areas. But BWDB officials tell a different story.

“The dykes were repaired in time,” claims Amjad Hossain, Sub Divisional Engineer of BWDB in Sunamganj. “The dykes were not breached; rather the water came over the dykes.”

Anisul Islam of CNRS acknowledges that the water overflowed into the paddy fields. “This points to the fact that the river and haors have almost filled up with silt and need to be dredged immediately. Secondly, the dykes need to be made higher without delay. Otherwise disasters like this cannot be prevented.”

Many villagers have complained that the haor is a neglected area that is out of sight and out of mind of policy makers. Local sources say the BWDB sent several Development Project Proforma (DPP) to the government in the past requesting funds for rebuilding the dykes and dredging the rivers, but the proposals were not approved. A new proposal, sent after the flash floods this year, is under consideration.

The people of the haors have to depend on a single crop the boro.

The picture of neglect is strengthened by the lacklustre response to the disaster. Food and Disaster Management Minister Abdur Razzaque told the media following the flood that allocation for Vulnerable Group Feeding (VGF) scheme would be increased, but analysts are skeptical, arguing that many villagers are unaware of the programme and have never received any aid at all. “"A large share of resources appear not to reach their intended beneficiaries, indicating serous accountability problems," the World Bank says in a report.

A survey of seven Upazillas of Sunamganj district by the NGO People's Oriented Program Implementation (Popi) found that no new allocation for VGF had reached local officials a month after the floods.

Meanwhile, the situation is worsening on the ground. Kofiluddin says he has about two month's food in stock, after which the family will be in trouble. “After the food runs out, we will have to start selling things,” says Kofil. “I am lucky I have some ducks. For some of my neighbours, it is worse.”

Many hard up farmers are selling off their livestock to pay for food, kicking off a vicious cycle of poverty. “The farmers who sell their cattle won't be able to buy them back,” says Rezaul Haque -- Popi's Programme Coordinator for Sunamganj. “They will have difficulty plowing the fields next year.”

Fishing used to be an important economic activity for the people of the haors, but these days, that option is off the table. “The rivers and haors are off limits to us because they are leased out to big contractors,” says Kofil's neighbour Sanu Mia. “We can't catch fish any more. So if the crops fail, we have to starve.”

“We are already witnessing a significant migration of people to the towns,” observes Murshed Alam Sarker, executive director of Popi. “These people will join the ranks of the urban poor, and work as labourers.”

With the area facing an acute shortage of food, many locals have accused the government and donor agencies of failing to appreciate the magnitude of the problem. “Everyone talks about the Monga-stricken areas of the North,” says Abdus Sattar, a local school teacher. “But the north is a food surplus area. Here, we have only one crop. Yet, we hear the government and the World Food Programme have not classified this as a vulnerable area. As a result, the safety net programmes don't extend to us.”

This accusation is denied by the WFP. “We have classified the haor area as a mid-range extreme poverty area,” says M Emamul Haque, Head of External Relations of the WFP. “We are closely monitoring the post-flood situation in the haor.”

Although experts are calling on the government to rebuild the dykes and increase their height, there is consensus that floods should not be entirely prevented in the Surma basin. The high water that destroys crops also nourishes the entire haor.

“Apart from raising the height of dykes, and dredging the rivers, we are also advising the farmers to change cropping patterns,” says Anisul Islam, director of CNRS. “For example, adopting a variety of rice known as BR45 can cut 26 days from the crop cycle, allowing the farmers to harvest the paddy before the waters come.”

Environmentalists fear bizarre flood patterns are driven by climate change. A study of rainfall in Meghalaya, jointly undertaken by CNRS and the Northeast Hill University of Shillong, shows that average pre-monsoon rainfall has almost doubled over 40 years. Bigger and swifter floods could be on their way.

Kofiluddin knows nothing about global warming. But he can tell something is wrong. “The floods have become unpredictable,” he says, pointing to the high water mark on the embankment. “We have no food. The kids can't go to school. It's a mess.”

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