OPINION: COVID-19 and flooding drive more Bangladeshis into poverty

by Subinoy Dutta & Kiron Reddy | Zurich Flood Resilience Alliance
Thursday, 10 September 2020 10:05 GMT

A man is seen on a boat after his house was flooded, after the flood situation worsened in Munshiganj district, on the outskirts of Dhaka, Bangladesh, July 25, 2020. REUTERS/Mohammad Ponir Hossain

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

For the past two months, millions have endured a 'water lockdown' amid the pandemic, with clinics shut and homes ruined by flooding

With the COVID-19 pandemic, US elections, racial discrimination and police violence headlining the news, you’d be forgiven for not knowing that the worst monsoon floods in decades have swamped a third of Bangladesh – an area more than the size of the Netherlands.

For the past two months people have endured a “water lockdown” with homes, schools, temples, and mosques ruined by flooding, not to mention agricultural crops.

More than four million people have been affected and a million homes flooded.

The Zurich Flood Resilience Alliance (ZFRA) in Bangladesh, has been working with flood-vulnerable communities to deal with the compound risks of COVID-19 and flooding, especially during this national emergency.

As part of our work, we recently carried out a survey with 15 of Bangladesh’s Union Disaster Management Committees (UDMCs) in the three districts of Faridpur, Lalmonirhat and Gaibandha.

What we found was very concerning to us.

The UDMCs tell us that the intensity of flooding has been around three times more than previous monsoon seasons. A majority of roads are underwater, and many people are without transportation means due to a paucity of boats and the money to buy them.

We’re hearing that 72% of the population is unemployed due to movement restrictions and workplace closures. And that access to basic needs such as food is compromised, in a population where one in three are in poverty, and half of the population is identified as being food-insecure. 

Health facilities and community clinics are closed due to the continuous flooding, too. Pregnant women, the elderly, and people with existing conditions are not able to access health care.

Water-borne diseases, such as diarrhea, are increasing due to flooding. However, access to medicine is also very limited due to hospital and clinic closures. We fear that communities will not be able to easily access health services in the case of suspected symptoms of COVID-19.

The socio-economic impact of COVID-19 is worsening due to flooding and pushing more people into poverty. A lot of the population has become unemployed due to the pandemic, with vulnerable groups, such as daily wage workers, particularly impacted.

The most vulnerable populations are unable to access financial resources, such as loans to aid recovery, because they do not have an income source. Job losses, food security, and livelihood impacts, exacerbated by flooding, will likely push many more people into a cycle of poverty, and will have long-term implications for the communities.

Relief support such as food, drinking water, medicine, and agricultural equipment is urgently needed.

Alarmingly, desperate coping mechanisms have been observed.

Prolonged flooding has forced people to sell valuable assets such as domestic cattle at a minimal price since they are not able to evacuate them to higher grounds due to limited space. In some cases, they are only able to receive one-tenth of the usual price due to the economic downturn.

It’s a bleak picture - however, there is better news, too.

LOCAL SUPPORT

Despite the extremely difficult circumstances, disaster management committees and community members have been proactively working to support vulnerable groups through activities such as food distribution and mask provision – proving their worth at a time of national crisis.

In a demonstration of zeal and community support, ZFRA knows some UDMC members have used their own savings to transport people who need medical support, such as the elderly, pregnant women and children, to health facilities by boat – as nearby clinics have been impacted by flooding and roads are also under water.

What we know is that fully functional and active UDMCs are critically important for communities to help prepare and respond to disasters, including flooding. But most of the 15 UDMCs ZFRA spoke with are not able to operate at full capacity due to lack of skills to respond to floods, such as contingency planning, mobilising volunteers, first aid provision, needs assessments as well as search and rescue.

An inclusive environment where female members are represented and able to engage is also critically important to reflect diverse needs and perspectives.

Community and local governance systems are the first responders to any natural hazards like a flood. They are also the ones that know their community the best.

That’s why ZFRA in Bangladesh will continue to support communities and UDMCs through capacity-building on governance, finance, and implementation so that weather-related natural hazards do not become humanitarian emergencies.