Bangladeshis learn flood survival

Basic education has helped to significantly reduce death tolls.

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

Each year the floods come with greater force, but each year the women of Holokhana Shunashi are ready.

Like much of Bangladesh, their small village in the north is poor and highly vulnerable to annual floods. Last year, 40 percent of Bangladesh was inundated after a severe one-day rain like the one recently in Bombay (Mumbai), India.

In the past, such conditions might have spelled disaster when the monsoon floodwaters arrived between June and September.

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But for several years now, the women have found refuge in a simple ritual, underscoring how basic education can mean the difference between devastation and survival.

On a recent morning, 25 women sat in the shadow of Nazma Begum, an instructor from the local flood- awareness center, which provides a daily training session during the flood season under the auspices of Zibika, a local NGO in Kurigram.

Using a picture book, Ms. Begum tested the women's knowledge of where to seek dry land, how to salvage belongings, and whom to contact for information. Their answers came quickly, with an air of battle-tested confidence.

Awareness centers like this have been replicated across Bangladesh, training women to become the first line of defense against the floods. "Women are the key people in this area," Begum says.

The community-based approach, started in the late 1990s, has changed how Bangladesh experiences its annual floods, and provided a model to preparedness workers throughout South Asia.

Bangladesh tops the global list of countries prone to natural disasters. It lies in the world's largest river delta, where two of Asia's greatest rivers, the Ganges and the Brahmaputra, empty into the Bay of Bengal. Every year these rivers overflow following heavy monsoon rains in the country and in neighbors farther north, like India and Nepal.

In many rural areas, it is the women who must brace for the waters, since most of the men seek migratory work in other districts for nine months of the year. "The women and children are independently facing the flood most of the time," says Imamur Rahman of CARE Bangladesh.

Preparation is crucial, because severe floods are occurring at shorter intervals, experts say, though this year's floods appear to be relatively light. In 1988, for example, floods caused $330 million in damages. Last year's flood, the worst in nearly a decade, caused $2.2 billion in damage. But even as the severity increases - with everything from river erosion to global climate change fingered as a cause - the number of deaths has gone down, to fewer than 800 last year, from nearly 2,400 in 1988.

Experts say the drop is the result of preparation and education. For years, international groups like ActionAid and Care, in concert with local relief groups and the government, have worked to provide flood shelters, create community-preparation committees, and disseminate vital information.

"We have an empowerment process, where 25 or 30 women come together as a group ... and discuss their different vulnerability issues," says Shashanka Saadi of ActionAid Bangladesh.

Azma Khatun recently finished such a course, learning to prepare dry food, and joining the group in drawing a map of vulnerable and safe areas in her village. Like others, Azma discusses what she learns with her family three days a week. "Before we faced many problems," she says. "Now that I know the flood is coming, I'm prepared to face it."

Experts say community efforts have grown significantly since the 1990s. "If you look at the evolution of disaster relief, it was completely focused on rehabilitation. In the 1990s, it became community-based preparation," says Abdul Latif Khan, of the government's Comprehensive Disaster Management Program, which coordinates government and agency risk-reduction efforts.

Relief organizations have also learned from the villagers. The women of South Noabash, a village of 2,000 under Kurigram district, have long dried vegetable seeds throughout the year, storing them in glass jars in a village home. When the floods come, the women take the seeds to a shelter, along with a portable clay stove for cooking and a savings bank. When the waters recede, the seeds and the savings will help them start over.

"We find out the good practices for preparing and promote these," says Moloy Chaki, of the Bangladesh Disaster Preparedness Center.

These efforts have also helped other countries take preventive measures. "[The model] has been highly appreciated," says Abdul Latif Khan, adding that countries like Vietnam, Laos, Indonesia, and the Philippines have incorporated aspects into their response efforts.

In Char Rowlia, six miles up the Brahmaputra River from Kurigram, Tohura Bibi used to move her family and livestock every year when the floods hit. In 2001, with help from Care Bangladesh, she raised her house to a high mound. "Since then, we haven't needed to evacuate," says Mrs. Bibi. "Now we can plant trees. Before, the trees died in the floods."

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