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Last Updated: Wednesday, 21 July, 2004, 13:32 GMT 14:32 UK
Bangladesh's flood relief battle
By Shashanka Saadi
ActionAid, Bangladesh

Shashanka Saadi is co-ordinating the development charity ActionAid Bangladesh's nationwide flood relief efforts from the capital, Dhaka, following the worst monsoon rains in years. This is his experience.

Makeshift raft in Sunamganj
Sunamganj is inaccessible except by air, with all main roads cut off

I returned from some of the worst-affected areas in the north and north-east of the country last Thursday.

Communities are reeling.

What I saw was devastating. The situation is now critical, with the most helpless being women, children and the elderly from the poorest communities.

Just this afternoon I heard that 8,000 families were stranded on an embankment in the district of Kurigam, about eight hours from Dhaka on the border with the Indian state of West Bengal.

They have been marooned for over a week and have not had any fresh supplies since 11 July.

The men have left the women and children in order to look for food.

I am pessimistic about my country's chances of recovery without effective government intervention

Those remaining are exhausted and in desperate need of clean water and food.

Sunamganj is inaccessible except by air, with all main roads cut off.

Luckily, all other flood-affected areas have clear roads at the moment so it is possible to get emergency supplies through.

Urgent supplies

Local ActionAid partners are distributing water purification tablets, oral saline solutions to treat diarrhoea, carbolic soap to protect against fatal snakebites and are working towards restoring clean water supplies and safe sanitation.

Urgent medical supplies are needed to treat skin infections contracted from contaminated water.

However, if there is any more rain, accessibility will become a problem across the country.

The most worrying aspect of the floods is the possibility of a food crisis, as the rains have destroyed the current harvest.

Flooding is not unusual in Bangladesh, and normally the harvest is replanted as soon as the waters subside. As long as that occurs within 20 days, there is a chance to replant.

But this year it is predicted that the waters may stay for at least another six weeks. If that happens there will be no time for a second harvest.

That means a definite food crisis across Bangladesh.

People will lose the potential to recover and millions of lives will be destabilised.

There will be huge rural migration to the cities.

It is absolutely essential that the destroyed harvest be replaced.

ActionAid partners are setting up seed stores so dry seed can be distributed as quickly as possible as the waters recede.

Winter clothing

Another long-term consideration is ensuring that people who have lost everything are able to earn money to rebuild their lives.

Flood victims in Bangladesh
The word 'monsoon' comes from the Arabic for 'season'
Describes seasonal reversals of wind direction
From April heat builds over South Asia, creating low pressure areas
Brings moisture-rich south-west winds in from the ocean

To help with this, we are appealing for materials and cloth here in the capital to transport to those camping on embankments.

The aim is to produce winter clothing for the coming cool months.

We will then buy finished clothes back from the producers to distribute among those in desperate need.

It is an idea being implemented very quickly and we are hopeful we can create some impact.

ActionAid is also working at a national level to pressure the government into releasing more funds locally, because the slow distribution of aid is causing anger.

So far the government's response has been slow.

It has been full of promises but has yet to deliver.

In Sirajganj, a central area that has not been affected by floods for a decade, badly-built government embankments were unable to withstand the rising water.

Now the area is completely flooded - people view this as a direct consequence of government negligence.

Personally, I am pessimistic about my country's chances of recovery without effective government intervention.

Already the water level is one foot higher than it was in the disastrous floods of 1998.

And as I write this in my office in Dhaka, I see that it has just begun to rain again.

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