Staying afloat amidst floods and coronavirus

Staying afloat amidst floods and coronavirus

Story by : Pooja Chowdhary
Written on : 3rd September, 2020

Having faced the brunt of a double disaster, 2020 has not been easy for Shahara Begum and her family. By the end of July, all she could call home was a ‘boat’ which she had to borrow from a close relative. She is one of the millions of people living in Bangladesh whose lives and livelihoods have been severely impacted by coronavirus pandemic and the monsoon floods. While on one hand, the outbreak of COVID-19 brought about serious restrictions on income opportunities of the locals, on the other, monsoon floods devasted their homes, agriculture, nutrition gardens, poultry and livestock. Torrential rains and recurring floods washed away many of their household assets.

Shahara Begum preparing a meal for her family on a boat after her house was completely damaged by the floods.

Horror of Haor  

“This year we were not able to sell fish. Due to spread of the virus and restrictions imposed, selling became difficult. Whatever fish my husband could catch he could not sell them in the markets as they remained closed”, shares a dejected Shahara Begum. She is a resident of Kamalpur – a Welthungerhilfe supported nutrition smart village in Mohangonj Upazila of Netrakona district, and lives with her husband – a fisherman by profession, and three children aged 12, 10 and 8 years old.

Every year, Haor – a remote yet unique hydro-ecological landscape, rich in biodiversity, becomes highly susceptible to natural disasters particularly floods, during the monsoon.  It’s a unique fresh-water ecosystem which accommodates about 19.37 million people. However, the seasonal wind from the Bay of Bengal and the Himalayas in the upstream cause massive rainfalls, flooding the region for up to six months in a year. The alternate wet and dry weather makes fishing, crop cultivation and forced migration the only options for the locals to survive. Today, this region is characterized by notably low literacy rates, high incidences of water borne diseases, and very poor indicators of maternal and child nutrition, and health. Poor market access, isolation from traders and services, poor infrastructure and lack of drinking water are additional challenges. In such a scenario, when the region gets hit by the coronavirus pandemic and receives higher than expected rainfall, it only pushes the communities into deeper depths of misery. 

A view of an inundated region in Haor, Bangladesh.

The monsoon floods coupled with prolonged inundation and COVID-19 pandemic made this year’s floods more complex than ever. This year, the floods hit the region thrice, occurring within an interval of 10 days. Displaced families had to be evacuated to congested shelters with limited water and hygiene facilities. Access to primary health care was disrupted due to restricted mobility, thereby increasing the risk of mortality, morbidity and escalating cases of malnutrition during the period. Like Shahara Begum and her family, people were torn between following hygiene and social distancing protocols to avoid the virus and having to live with bare minimum amenities. With livelihood/income generating activities, functioning of local markets, crops, livestock and fisheries being affected, dependency on relief increased leading to the possibility of increased food insecurity. The rising water levels washed away many vegetable fields and fish farms causing huge losses to the farmers.

Damaged animal sheds and homstead nutrition gardens.

In Shahara Begum’s Kamalpur village, nearly 200 households had to take shelter on their boats as their homes were completely inundated in waters. Many of them lost their modest belongings. With children and elderly in the families it became difficult for them to cope with the situation. Shahara Begum had to cook family meals on the boat. “It became difficult for us. We could have only one meal in a day and mostly survived on dry foods”, shares Shahara. The communities mostly survived on puffed rice (chira, muri), dry fish and dried mango slice (amsotto).

Welthungerhilfe’s interventions

In the backdrop of these enormous recurrent challenges, Welthungerhilfe and its partner – Friends of Village Development – Bangladesh (FIVDB) have been supporting Shahara Begum and many like her, particularly children, to secure their food and nutrition amidst natural disasters. Residing in the Netrokona district of Haor, these families constitute more than 40% of the population living below the poverty line. In the past one year, FIVDB helped the families create their homestead nutrition gardens to increase their dietary diversity and reduce dependency on the markets. However, the three rounds of floods this monsoon completely damaged their gardens including sac garden, and even hanging gardens. In some areas, poultry, livestock, fisheries, integrated farms, tube wells, toilets were also damaged. “Beginning of this year, we borrowed a cow to earn some extra money. But since we could not earn anything due to COVID19, the cow was also taken back by its owner. One out of my two chickens got swept away in the floods and even my nutrition garden has been completely uprooted. The garden was supposed to give us a variety of vegetables in the coming winter months”, shares Shahara. During COVID-19 and before the floods, FIVDB under Welthungerhilfe’s regional nutrition programme supported Shahara Begum in growing a nutritious homestead kitchen garden of brinjal, chilly, papaya, sweet gourd, and Indian spinach.

During COVID-19, FIVDB also constantly supported identified malnourished children with cooked meal to continue their nutrition intake during lockdown. However, rising water levels and inundated lands made it difficult for staff to physically reach out to the community. Despite the challenges, FIDVB provided nutri-mix (a ready-to-eat nutritious food mix made from locally available resources) packets to the 28 moderately acute malnourished (MAM) children in Kamalpur village. 80 families were also supported with 320 soaps to maintain hygiene during the pandemic. Under this regional nutrition programme supported by The Federal Ministry of Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ), the project staff is also planning to incorporate nutrition sensitive micro plans with the local government through the community/SHGs to ensure an early distribution of winter vegetable seeds.

FIVDB representatives going out of their way to distribute nutri mix packets to families with malnourished children. 

In the face of these challenges, Welthungerhilfe and its partners are committed to empower people and increase their resilience. Although severely affected by the double disasters, Shahara Begum is hopeful to rebuild her life. And Welthungerhilfe and its partner FIVDB continues to work under these difficult circumstances and provide all necessary support to the affected families, particularly to ensure nutrition security and safety.