The Heat Is Online

Bangladesh Sept. 1998

"Monsoon Hangs On, Swamping Bangladesh",The New York Times,

Sept. 7,1998


CHOR SHIBOLA, Bangladesh -- For two months, the people of this village have been marooned on the tin roofs of their shacks, unwilling to abandon their homesteads even as the Jamuna River engulfed them in the longest-lasting flood in the history of this disaster-prone country.

Mohammad Harunuddin Sheik and his wife, Sufia, keep all-night vigils to make sure their daughters, Taslima, 4, and Shujon, 2, do not roll off the platform where they sleep and drown in the tea-brown water that laps a few feet below.

"I don't know how God will save us," he said as he gestured at the vast expanse of water surrounding his home. "All my crops were destroyed. Where will I get seeds to plant next year?"

These villagers are among more than 20 million Bangladeshis whose homes have been swamped by monsoon floods that have lasted almost two months, twice as long as any other recorded. The waters have inundated more than half the country, killed more than 520 people, closed many roads, damaged more than 4,000 schools, wiped out a big chunk of the rice crop and threaten to bring deadly diarrhea and other diseases.

In an interview, the prime minister, Sheik Hasina Wazed, pleaded for international aid. So far, relief agencies and foreign donors have pledged $82 million, but that is less than a tenth of what she has requested in food, medicine and reconstruction of Bangladesh, one of the poorest nations on earth.

"Without help, the people will suffer," she said. "At first we thought we would be able to address this situation alone. But the flood has stayed on for two months."

Relief officials here worry that the need to help the victims of the epic flooding in China, the famine in the Sudan and war in the Congo has slowed the response to Bangladesh's calamity.

The misery is not limited to the countryside. More than half of Dhaka, a capital of 9 million people, is flooded -- including its landfills. With no place to dump garbage, people are throwing it into the putrid floodwaters. And since the poor have no toilets, the waters are soiled with their waste.

"Water is everywhere, but you can't use it for any purpose," said Mohammad Reazuddin, who directs the Dhaka division of the national Department of Environment.

Slum dwellers especially have no escape. In places the water has turned black and thick, but people still wade through it and wash their dishes in it and even drink it.

Already more than 130,000 Bangladeshis have developed diarrhea, a wasting condition spread by foul water and rotting food, and more than 100 have died of the disease. The World Bank estimates that 3.5 million of the 125 million Bangladeshis will be afflicted with diarrhea during the flood and its aftermath. The incidence will increase after the floods recede because of the filthy sludge left behind.

At the International Center for Diarrheal Disease and Research, hundreds of babies and children lie listless or squalling on cots. Alea Begum, a widow, brought in her son, Moieen, 12, and she now rests her hand on his bony chest. He is frighteningly still.

This wraith of a boy, his eyes overlarge in a gaunt face, is the family breadwinner because his father is dead. Each day he sloshed into the floodwaters to catch fish with his bare hands. Some days he caught nothing. On others he managed to snare enough fish to sell for 25 taka, about 50 cents. That kept him, his mother and his two little sisters from always going hungry.

The causes of this disaster are in some ways as murky as the water.

Bangladesh has had heavier than usual monsoon rains this year, but most of the floodwater has come from the great rivers that rise in the Himalayas, course through India, then empty into Bangladesh. Torrential rains in Uttar Pradesh, in northern India, have contributed to extensive flooding there, killing more than 1,000, leaving millions homeless and swelling the Ganges as it rushes through the Indian plains toward Bangladesh.

Officials said on Sunday that the Ganges had risen past its highest recorded level, surpassing the crest reached in 1988 when floods killed more than 2,000 people, Agence France-Presse reported.

But normally the floods in Bangladesh would last just a few weeks, then the waters would empty into the Bay of Bengal. This year is different because the sea level is higher, trapping the flood in low-lying Bangladesh. Stagnant waters breed mosquitoes that swarm the streets of Dhaka, leading relief workers to fear an outbreak of malaria.

Officials here say they lack the sophisticated equipment to analyze the reasons for the higher sea level, but they offer some possible reasons.

They say earthquakes that shook the floor of the Indian Ocean last month may be a factor. They also wonder whether global warming is causing both the sea level to rise and snows to melt in greater volume in the Himalayas, feeding the rivers that rush into Bangladesh.

This Sunday's full moon will keep the sea level high, but A.T.M. Huda, the secretary of the ministry of water resources, said he believes the waters will begin receding by mid-September.

The greatest challenge now is to get food and medicine to people stuck beyond the roads erased by flooding. Supplies can't be airdropped because the waters would swallow them up. Boats are the answer, but it will take money and organization to mobilize them, said Julian Francis, deputy head of the delegation for the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies in Bangladesh.

In the longer term, the victims need paid work helping to rebuild roads, schools and hospitals so they will have the income to buy food, rather than relying on the inefficient government to hand it out. Studies of past famines have found that shortage of food was less of a problem than people's inability to pay for it, said Forrest Cookson, country representative of Development in Democracy, a private consulting firm in Dhaka.

All across Bangladesh, it is apparent that urban laborers and small farmers are unable to make a living because of the floods.

In Gulshan, an upscale neighborhood in Dhaka that is home to diplomats and wealthy business executives, small country boats ferry people to their gated homes. Along the streets, the poor made homeless by the floods have thrown up makeshift shanties, wooden platforms covered with plastic.

Maksuda Paul Begum lives in one shanty with three of her four daughters. Her husband, a laborer, had gone to fetch the fourth, who had been taken to her grandmother's to get away from the floods. One night, the mother and her young children all crouched in the cramped space, just three feet high, their faces illuminated by lightning and the flickering of a kerosene lamp.

While her husband is gone, they live on bags of rice and lentils provided at relief centers. "Hunger is part of life," she said. When the rich drive by in their Land Rovers and Jeeps, she said, they create waves that slosh over her platform. Her sari was sopping wet. Her children have been sick with fever, colds and rashes.

Three hours' drive from Dhaka, the road disappears into the floodwaters at Aricha, on the Jamuna River, and the only way to Chor Shibola village is by boat.

Tara Banu, who guesses she is 45 or 50, and her son Mohammad Lalchan Hossain, 25, were standing on the rooftop, safe for the moment from the chest-high water that has risen through their small hut and destroyed the rice they had planted.

She had to sell her family's three cows to pay for food. "We have no income," she explained. Next year, when the family needs cows again to plow the fields, she will have to borrow the money to replace them from a local moneylender who charges interest of 100 percent a year, potentially sinking them into a debt that could chain them to the lender for life.

Hossain was busy weaving a contraption of bamboo that he hopes to use to catch shrimp that they could eat or sell. No one has rowed out to their place to offer assistance, they said, nor are they on the list their village officials put together for relief supplies of food.

"We are floating on the sea here," said Mrs. Banu, a tall, lean woman, as she tossed grain to the pigeons they are raising to stave off hunger. "No one has come to help us. They are giving the relief to people with good houses."