Across Bangladesh, hundreds of thousands of people are living on high roads and embankments because their villages are under water two months after floods hit much of the country. Since July, Bangladesh has seen record-breaking heavy rainfall and excessive runoff from melting snows in the Himalayas, which increased the level of its three large rivers.
``It is going to be a long haul for these people even after the water goes away,'' says Tricia Parker, representative of the British aid agency, Oxfam. Traveling in central Bangladesh last week, Ms. Parker saw several thousand shelterless people camped on the highway. Their homes, made of mud and straw, had dissolved in the flood waters.
For the government of President Muhammad Hussein Ershad, the task of helping the poor villagers survive and return to normal life will be an uphill one. Officials estimate 25 million persons have been affected by the floods, which have destroyed or damaged over 2 million homes. Rice and other crops on 3 million acres have been ruined. The floods have hit more than one-third of the country. Bangladesh will be fortunate, an economist says, if it can attain a 2 percent rate of economic growth this year. With the floods lingering and threatening to increase, damage estimates have reached $1,300 million.
``The flood has made my life insufferable,'' Zahiruddin, a rugged old farmer in west Bangladesh, told reporters last week. ``It took away my home and my crop. I labored for one year to build my mud house. I do not think I can make it again.'' Shamiran Chandra, another villager, said, ``I shall need good crops and steady work for the next three years to recover from this disaster.''
Thousands of rural and cottage industries have been shut down for two months. Landless peasants are out of work in the flood-hit areas. About 300 such peasants staged a demonstration in north Bangladesh last week demanding work so that they could buy food.
The government has so far given or sanctioned the supply of 225,000 tons of rice and wheat for the flood-affected people. The Army has supervised the distribution of relief material, some of which has reportedly been sold to traders by the very poor who thought they could make better use of money instead.
Opposition parties claim that many persons have died because of malnutrition and some of starvation. The government denies any starvation deaths at all. It has confirmed the death of 918 persons by drowning, snake-bite, or waterborne disease. Several foreign observers say they do not yet see the signs of a famine. But, one says, ``The situation is serious enough to need very careful management for a long time.''
The United Nations Disaster Relief Organization has called for 350,000 tons of foodgrain donation by December. So far, 43 countries, including the United States, Britain, and 12 Mideast nations have helped or pledged aid worth about $15 million. The government has imposed levies to earn $37 million for relief work. ``We need to show the world that we are doing something for ourselves,'' the nation's finance minister said recently.