Living on dangerous lands

Published: 14 November 2016 7:36 CET

By Bob Mckerrow, IFRC

The relationship between man and river in Bangladesh has always been a precarious one. 26,000 km of rivers flow through the country. Seasonal flooding, river erosion and the changing shape of river islands (Chars) - render millions of people homeless each year.

In July 2016, severe floods displaced around 3.7 million people across 19 districts of the country. Many of those who lost their homes were Char-dwellers who have nowhere to live.  They exist as water migrants moving between Chars.

Rashida, 27, and her two young children are typical of these water migrants. They were left homeless when the Jamuna River overflowed and destroyed their home in Arjuna Union.  

“My house was swept away. We worked so hard and faced many challenges to get our house and land into such good condition. Our dreams are dead now. I am living for my children now, nothing more. I cry when my daughter asks me where our house is,” said Rashida.

In August, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) launched an emergency appeal for 1.6 million Swiss Francs to support the Bangladesh Red Crescent to scale up the delivery of humanitarian assistance for 105,000 people affected by the floods.

At the height of the emergency, the Bangladesh Red Crescent provided people with cash grants to enable them to buy food. They also mobilised water treatment kits to provide safe drinking water. Over 40,000 families also received household utensils, personal hygiene items, medical services and improved sanitation.

For families like Rashida’s this support has made a big difference.

 “We are now living on land which belongs to some other villagers, in a small room and we have no latrine,” added Rashida. “It is depressing having to start our life again. But today we received a cash grant from the Red Crescent. It will help to meet many needs of my children.”

Around one million people live on Bangladesh’s Chars. These islands come and go with the rise and fall of rivers.  Making a living in this dynamic, ever-changing environment is challenging. The economy of the Chars is largely based on agriculture, fishing and livestock-rearing. Most of the inhabitants are marginalised, lacking access to basic services such as education and healthcare. This makes it difficult for them to cope with the impacts of annual flooding.

For decades, the Bangladesh Red Crescent has been studying river erosion and the formation of Chars. Through its Community Based Disaster Risk Reduction programme, volunteers have been trained to help thousands of people survive the annual floods by building their resilience. This can include installing latrines and a clean water supply, equally it can also mean improving early warning systems and levels of disaster preparedness.

To read more of Bob Mckerrow’s experiences in Bangladesh, click here