Waiting for dry ground in Bangladesh

Oxfam is working with local partners to help people adapt to the unpredictable flooding of the Jamuna river.

By Helen Palmer, May 2007.

Laila Begum lives on a silt bank in Bangladesh’s giant Jamuna River. She moved to this particular bank in 1998 when she lost her previous home in a great flood. The silt bank is constantly eroding so her family is forced to move their home around it. So far she has uprooted and moved her home 25 times.

Laila is just one of millions of Bangladeshis in the vast river delta areas who are living on borrowed time. They are at risk both from the melting of Himalayan ice to the north, and from rising sea levels to the south. Among the poorest and most marginalized people in the country, their future is precarious.

Laila and her community are already noticing changes in seasonal weather patterns which are becoming harder to predict.

"Twenty or 30 years ago we could understand from the water temperature and the wind direction if the flood was going to come,” says Laila. “Before it was mostly monsoon flooding in July or August, but now the rains are continuing into October. That causes problems as it's when we should be planting our crops. And there are more storms, more thunder and lightning."

Laila and her family have developed survival strategies helped by a local organisation supported by Oxfam.

"We know what we have to do if the flood comes,” she says. “We go to our relatives' places, or to shelters where there are stocks of food, bamboo poles, soap and things like that. Then if we need rescuing we can go in local boats or call MMS (the local organization) to send a rescue boat. They've given us mobile phones so we can call. Our first priority is our animals. We ship them out, then ourselves, then our utensils for cooking. We won't leave our homes until the water is at shoulder level."

Oxfam’s partner helps the silt bank-dwellers cope with frequent floods by raising up homesteads, teaching skills and public health, diversifying crops, providing emergency stores, rescue boats, and mobile phones and radios for early warning. This is important work, but if climate change predictions are fulfilled it will need to be replicated on a massive scale for millions more as part of a huge adaptation effort.

Development agencies are impressed with the resilience of the local people. Laila is waiting for her own piece of land to emerge from the water, which she thinks may happen soon.

“If my land comes up (out of the water) I will go back to it. Maybe we will be able to move there next year or the year after. If this place erodes we will move to another and begin again. We are not afraid; we are used to it, moving. We have developed survival strategies… but it definitely increases our suffering.”