Column: A humanitarian crisis looms

Dhaka,  Tue,  26 September 2017
Published : 19 Aug 2017, 21:26:30 | Updated : 20 Aug 2017, 11:54:46
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A humanitarian crisis looms

There is an urgent need for humanitarian support on the part of the government and the aid agencies, as the ongoing floods have put millions of people in dire straits, writes Shahiduzzaman Khan
The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) aired serious concern over the recent devastating floods in Bangladesh and some other South Asian countries. In a statement late last week, it said a humanitarian crisis is unfolding across a large area with several million people affected by monsoon floods in Nepal, Bangladesh and India, 

The agency cited local authorities as saying that flood levels have already reached record high in Bangladesh, and water of major rivers such as the Jamuna has surpassed warning levels set in 1988, the deadliest floods the country had ever faced. 

More than one third of Bangladesh and Nepal have been flooded, and the humanitarian crisis could get worse in the days and weeks ahead. In Bangladesh, the IFRC said, over 3.9 million people have been affected by the rising flood waters, and floods are likely to get much worse as swollen rivers from India pour into the low-lying and densely populated areas in the northern and central parts of the country.

A special feature of this year's monsoon, according to a meteorologist, is that the wind is coming from two ends (Bangladesh's southeast region and from the Arab sea and this is called cross equatorial flow) and is causing massive rains in the Himalayan region. As a result, he said, Nepal, India and Bangladesh are being seriously affected by flood waters. 

The floods have put more than 20 districts in Bangladesh in a state of serious crisis. The flood-affected persons find themselves in a desperate situation, with many unmet vital humanitarian needs such as access to sufficient food, safe shelter and basic non-food items, safe drinking water, sanitation and hygiene infrastructure, livelihood activities and adequate nutrition.

A large number of the affected people have taken shelter on highways, road sides, embankments and schools. Local markets are not functioning properly, income sources are totally disrupted for daily wage earning labourers, drinking water sources and sanitation has collapsed. Flood-hit people in Dinajpur, Bogra, Kurhigram and other districts are searching for shelters on higher grounds. Some people, along with their livestock, are living on boats while some others at makeshift homes on streets. 

According to a United Nations (UN) agency, severe floods caused due to incessant rains in over 20 districts in the northern part of Bangladesh left over a hundred people dead. Even though the flood-affected families have taken shelter on higher grounds, some are marooned in rising flood waters. Roads and railway communication between northern districts and the capital remain disconnected. 

Flood waters are now flowing downstream and new areas in the central part of the country are being affected. The Brahmaputra, Jamuna, Ganges and Padma rivers along with other major river systems in the country are expected to continue to rise during the next few days, flooding more downstream areas.

One-third of the embankments built by the Bangladesh Water Development Board have been damaged during the second spell of floods this time. The total length of these embankments is 1,900 kilometres.

Dams in Naogaon have given way to floodwaters and more dams were likely to breach as flooding worsened. Floods have marooned or displaced 250,000 people in the district. Water has entered the district town. There is a concern that many other dams in the district may breach. As on Friday last week, thirty points of embankments in Naogaon district were at risk due to strong current.

Government officials say normal production will be possible again through rehabilitation of the farmers once the water subsides in a few days. If the water recedes completely within August, it will be possible for the farmers to offset the losses with the help of the government. But the current signs indicate that the floods may prolong. Agricultural analysts fear that the water might not recede soon. The flood forecasting centre is also backing this view.

The government has, analysts allege, not taken necessary steps to address the possible food crisis. There should be a reserve of at least 1.0 to 1.2 million tonnes of food grains to meet the immediate demand. But it has only around 250,000 tonnes of food in its warehouses, they say.

According to the food ministry, the government had 434,000 tonnes of food reserves, including 287,000 tonnes of rice, as on August 10. Many parts of the arable land of the country are under water during the cropping season of Aman. According to the Department of Agricultural Extension (DAE), in the current Ropa Aman season, over 31 million hectares of land have been cultivated. But more than 450,000 hectares have been submerged in 33 districts. With the floods spreading to the central districts from the north and northeast, it is feared that there would be more impact on crops.

Despite fall in water levels of some rivers, weathermen and researchers have expressed apprehension of massive flooding across the country in view of this year's weather pattern. They have observed that the nature and characteristics of this year's monsoon wind bear similarity with those of 1987, 1988 and 1998, when the country had suffered devastating floods.

The relief materials are yet to reach remote flood-hit areas, the affected people alleged. There is scarcity of foods, pure drinking water and water purifying tablets at the shelters. Out of 1,599 shelters opened till date, only seven have water treatment plants. 

Water experts say it was well anticipated that Bangladesh would experience massive flooding in August and September. It's unfortunate that there was a lack of preparation to face the floods, they added. The director of Save the Children, an aid group, said the situation is 'extremely desperate'. The sheer volume of water is also making it really difficult to access some of the communities most in need, he added.

According to the disaster management and relief minister, the authorities have made preparations to combat the calamities. The government has been upgrading its readiness to face the situation following severe flooding in the country. It is carefully monitoring the situation in the upstream countries wherefrom the water-flow is coming down.  

The IFRC said, in its statement, this is fast becoming one of the most serious humanitarian crises this region has seen in many years. In the circumstances, there is an urgent need for humanitarian support on the part of the government and the aid agencies, as the ongoing floods have put millions of people in dire straits.

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