Friday, August 3, 2007

Flooding in Bangladesh

You may have heard about the severe flooding in South Asia recently which has displaced more than five million people in Bangladesh alone. Northwest Bangladesh, where we are conducting our research, is one of the hardest hit regions. The monsoons have hit much harder this year in Bangladesh, a country which is mainly a low-lying delta region. The country’s many rivers are flooding well above their banks. The flooding is causing severe shortages of food and clean drinking water and there is a growing crisis of water-borne diseases such as cholera. Many of Bangladesh’s northern states have been cut off from the capital and the rest of the country as a result of bridges collapsing and roads going under water. If the situation doesn’t improve in the next couple days, there is a risk of Rangpur, where we are currently located, also being cut off from the capital, which would severely cripple the economy here as many goods would become unavailable. We have been shocked to watch how quickly the flood waters rise, and can hardly believe the rapid rate at which this whole area continues to sink under water. On our daily commute through the rural farming communities on our way to Arampur, where we are conducting our research, we have seen first-hand the extreme effects of the situation. Fields where we saw children playing cricket at the beginning of our time here are now flooded so high that those same children are now swimming in water that rises above their heads.

As many of the country’s chief crops go under water, prices of essentials such as rice, oil, onions, flour, chilies and eggplant continue to rise. The situation is so severe that the military has set up subsidized fair-price shops all over the country in an attempt to keep basic staples affordable. On a recent visit to a Hindu temple, we saw villagers lined up to purchase vegetables from armed, uniformed soldiers, who had established a fair price shop at the temple’s entrance.

Luckily, the situation in Arampur is not as severe as many other places in Bangladesh, though clearly there have been obstacles to our research because of flooding. Many of our interviewers have reported not being able to leave their houses to conduct interviewers because of heavy rains and waist-deep waters surrounding their homes. As many residents of the village are rice farmers, they are struggling to maintain their livelihoods, as their crops become more flooded. Currently in the middle of one of the busiest times of the year for Bangladeshi farmers, the aman-rice planting season, the situation has presented a unique set of challenges to our research here, as our interviewers report that they have sometimes struggled to find people who have time for being interviewed, as many farmers can’t afford not to be in their fields during the scarce times when it isn’t raining. However, if the interviewers are able to leave their homes during the heavy rains, they often find more farmers who have been forced to stay home from the fields, giving them more time for talking to our researchers.

This experience has helped us to gain an acute awareness of some of the challenges which are continually faced by the villagers of Bangladesh. We’ve also seen the strength they muster as they deal with this sort of challenge again and again. It is the stories of this sort of strength and perseverance that we are hearing again and again from our interviewers who are out talking to these people about their lives. Despite challenges, our work has been extremely successful, and we have gathered many stories which are currently in the process of being translated so that we can begin the work of analysis.

To read more about flooding in South Asia and the situation in Bangladesh, see this story on the BBC website: South Asia floods strand millions.