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Swimming to Bangladesh

Midway through the first afternoon of the August 2017 UNICEF workshop for university faculty on communication for development, one participant rubbed his head and glanced towards the ceiling. Sure enough, a steady drip of water was coming through the acoustic tile. He shifted his chair. Soon, drips appeared in other places. People started moving tables and chairs, and a janitor placed a bucket below the leakiest spot. Then someone noticed water dripping onto the lectern and rescued the laptop. I looked up at the acoustic tiles, many of which were stained brown and black. This was evidently not the first time rain had come through the roof of the University Grants Commission building in Dhaka. No one complained or even commented. In monsoon season, you expect to get wet.  

There is flooding in Bangladesh every year, but the floods of 2017 were the worst in a decade. The first rains came in April, fully three months ahead of the normal monsoon season, inundating paddies before farmers could harvest the first of the three annual rice crops. After several weeks of rain in July and August, rivers and streams in the north burst their banks, inundating thousands of acres of farmland and washing away homes, schools, shops, vehicles and livestock. According to the government’s Meteorological Department, on a single day, August 11, almost a week's worth of average monsoon rainfall was dumped across parts of the country in the space of a few hours. By the time the rains eased, and the floodwaters began to recede, almost 150 people had lost their lives, 700,000 homes had been damaged or destroyed and up to a third of agricultural land submerged. The waters destroyed rice crops and washed out the fish ponds that provide the main source of protein for the rural population. More than eight million people sought shelter on higher ground or on narrow levees, erecting flimsy shelters of bamboo poles and tarpaulins, without food, clothes, clean water or sanitation facilities. 

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"People are used to seasonal flooding but nothing to this degree,” Corinne Ambler of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) told CNN. “This is a different level—for miles around all you can see is water, the flooding has transformed the countryside. People were fearful they would soon begin to starve." By the third week in August, most vegetable prices had shot up by at least 50 per cent, with the price of onions and chili—essential ingredients in many dishes—doubling. The flooding was the most serious since 2007 when more than half the country was affected and more than 1,000 people, most of them children, died. In August 2017, across India, Nepal and Bangladesh, more than 1,200 people died from flooding and landslides and 40 million were affected.

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For the Bangladesh government, NGOs and international relief organizations, providing clean water and sanitation were the major priorities. Floodwaters provide breeding grounds for water-borne diseases such as diarrhea, malaria, dengue and Japanese encephalitis. Reaching stranded communities was challenging because the floods washed away roads, bridges and railroads. A newspaper front page photo showed a woman walking along the buckled tracks of a railroad in a badly-hit region of the northwest. The force of the waters had washed away the track bed, and submerged the tracks for three days, leaving them looking “like those of a roller-coaster.”

The Dhaka-Dinajpur line at Kauguan in August 2017 after flood waters washed away the track bed. Courtesy  The Daily Star.

The Dhaka-Dinajpur line at Kauguan in August 2017 after flood waters washed away the track bed. Courtesy The Daily Star.

Dhaka escaped the worst of the flooding, although rising water in streams and lakes washed away banks and inundated the rough shacks and market stalls where poor families, many of them migrants from rural areas, eke out a living as bicycle rickshaw drivers and roadside vendors. Roads in low-lying areas were under knee-to-waist high water. Urban planners blamed the waterlogging on inadequate drainage and pumping systems and accused government officials and contractors of corruption, shoddy construction and poor maintenance. Over the years, private developers have filled in sections of the canals and rivers that serve as the city’s main drainage channels. Culverts that feed into the waterways are often clogged with garbage and building materials.

The morning after the laptop rescue the rains came again, heavier than the day before. In the lobby of the Ascott Palace Hotel, my colleagues and I waited for the hotel van, wondering how we would reach it without being soaked to the skin. For the staff, it was a familiar challenge. At the entrance, a canopy extended several feet into the street. The van drew up and a guard held up a brightly colored umbrella, almost four feet in diameter, to cover the three steps from the canopy to the door, while still remembering to give us the customary salute. 

Three days of monsoon rains in July 2017 left many roads in Dhaka under water. Courtesy  The Daily Star.

Three days of monsoon rains in July 2017 left many roads in Dhaka under water. Courtesy The Daily Star.

Most travelers were not so lucky. Bicycle and bicycle rickshaw drivers pedaled unsteadily through the torrent, one hand on the handlebars and the other clutching an umbrella. Cars sped by, their tires splashing them; one poor cyclist got a double whammy when cars passed him simultaneously on both sides. Auto-rickshaws—the so-called CNGs, powered by compressed natural gas—stalled out, forcing their drivers to push them to the roadside. Street cleaners and construction workers, carrying bricks in baskets on their heads, had no protection from the downpour.






Rickshaws and vans push through the water in Chittagong after six hours of heavy rain in April 2017 left many areas of the port city flooded. Courtesy  The Daily Star.

Rickshaws and vans push through the water in Chittagong after six hours of heavy rain in April 2017 left many areas of the port city flooded. Courtesy The Daily Star.

Most workshop participants showed up late that morning. One said it had taken him 2 ½ hours to make a five-mile trip across the city, but he was nonplussed; he was from Chittagong, where flooding is usually much worse than in Dhaka. On a previous visit in April my UNICEF colleague Yasmin Khan had translated a newspaper cartoon. It depicted the portly, bespectacled mayor of Chittagong, happily floating on an inner tube, while his constituents struggled through the flood waters. The caption read: “Mayors come and go but citizens continue to suffer.”