Patrick Fuller in Dhaka
On receiving her family kit, 60-year old Aruna looked slightly bemused. She explained to the volunteer from the Bangladesh Red Crescent that she had just received a 20 kg sack of rice further up the line. The volunteer reassured her that the cooking set, clothing and toiletries in the family kit were hers to keep. A smile widened across her weathered face as a volunteer helped her load her sacks of relief items into a waiting cycle-rickshaw.
Over the next two days, 500 families facing the greatest difficulty in recovering from the floods from almost 80 villages in the northern sub-district of Bakshiganj received similar support from the Bangladesh Red Crescent.
The floodwaters that left them stranded for weeks may have receded in her village, but Aruna -- and many like her-- remains extremely vulnerable. Apart from her disabled husband she has no family and no income. She largely relies upon charity from her neighbours. The flash floods that swept through her house on the night of 15 July swept away her only goat and her few household possessions.
"Many people assume that because there is flooding in Bangladesh every year, people have learned to cope with the effects but this simply isn't true," explains Tony Maryon, head of delegation with the Federation in Dhaka. "There are literally hundreds of thousands of people who have lost their homes due to river erosion in recent years. They have no land so they have no choice but to migrate to large towns or live in highly vulnerable sites which are prone to flooding such as the chars (islands) in the middle of rivers."
With 60 per cent of the population living below the poverty line in Bangladesh, various criteria are applied to identify the most vulnerable families for relief assistance. During the worst of the flooding volunteers from the Bangladesh Red Crescent carried out door-to-door surveys on displaced persons, who were mainly living in shelters along embankments or roadsides. Checks are being made on whether families have already received assistance from the government or other non-governmental organizations (NGOs), and the economic status of the family is also taken into account. The volunteers also look at whether families might be headed by a widow or divorcee on a low income or whether the main breadwinner is disabled or too old to work.
All of the families queuing up at Bakshiganj have lost something. Most have been camping out in the open for at least a few weeks and are thoroughly demoralized. Halim, a member of the Bangladesh Red Crescent relief team is supervising the distribution at Bakshiganj.
"The next month will be hard for the flood victims, it is essential that we help them get back on their feet. People in these circumstances can very easily fall into debt. One failed harvest and many end up in the clutches of the local money lender and from that point it is very difficult to get ahead."
Delowar, a 45-year old landless farm labourer from the nearby village of Batarjore is all too familiar with these circumstances. Last year he had to borrow money, and this year will be the same. He is a small share cropper and the profits from the harvest is split with the local landlord.
Each harvest is worth US$ 310 and this year's floods have destroyed one rice crop. "Everything costs money, fertiliser for the fields, clothes and books for my children. The coming months will be hard," says Delowar in a resigned voice.
The first phase of the Bangladesh Red Crescent relief operation, supported by an International Federation appeal for US$ 1.4 million, will be completed over the next two weeks. 15,000 families from Gaibhanda (north-central region), Jamalpur (north-east region) and Sirajganj (central region) will have received family kits and a month's ration of rice, lentils and cooking oil.
"Thanks to the response from donors and the agreement reached between the World Food Programme and the government we have been able to respond faster to the floods this year," explains Tony Maryon. "This has made it possible for the Bangladesh Red Crescent to have immediate access to rice supplies stored in government warehouses throughout the country."
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