Climate change is a daily reality for families in Bangladesh where natural disasters like cyclones and flooding are striking with greater and greater frequency. Copyright: WFP/Cornelia Paetz
Few places are more exposed to Mother Nature than the small settlements on the low lying coastal plains of southern Bangladesh. To help communities cope with the next storm or cyclone, WFP is working with the government to support projects that raise homes above the flood level and dig canals and ponds for farming.
PATHARGHATA—Patharghata sits on the frontline of the battle against climate change and recurring natural disasters, its inhabitants living in a constant state of preparedness for the weather fronts that wreak havoc as they roll in destructively off the Bay of Bengal.
Cyclones, flooding, salt water intrusion into agricultural land, and river erosion are just some of the many challenges facing these farming communities. All are expected to increase in severity over the coming decades as a direct result of climate change. In the past five years, major floods in 2004 were followed by Cyclone Sidr in 2007 and Cyclone Aila in 2009, causing millions of dollars of damage, destroying the homes and belongings of millions of people, and adding to long-term food insecurity.
At high risk
“We had to swim through the water holding each other’s hands to get to the local shelter,” Fatema Begum, a mother of two, recalls as she remembers the trials of recent years. “When we returned, our house was destroyed and everything was gone – all our food and our clothes. We made shelter out of leaves and stayed like that for four days, wearing the same clothes. It was painful!”
While climate change affects everyone, it is poor people living in places like Partharghata that are disproportionately affected. As part of a strategy to build resilience and equip these communities with the knowledge and means to protect themselves against the vagaries of the weather, WFP has been working with the Government of Bangladesh to provide training and cash for work programmes that help them to build or renovate community assets. This “Enhancing Resilience” or ER programme is now a priority within the government’s plans to improve food security and protect communities against climate change
The aim is to identify projects that will equip communities to cope with the next storm or cyclone. Villagers are encouraged to work together to raise the foundations of their homes above potential flood levels, or to remove sediment from canals and rehabilitate ponds that can be used to support fish farming, helping to bring more nutritious food into local diets.
Learning to cope
Training takes place in the monsoon season when it is often too wet to carry out communal works. Women are actively encouraged to join the training programmes in recognition of the pivotal role they play in tackling hunger and improving nutrition within the family. They receive a ration of rice, pulses and oil and a small cash payment alongside the training on disaster preparedness, and instructions on how to prepare for a disaster.
“We got training like what to do before and after floods,” Fatema says. “Now we know what we should do, that we need to plant trees and build our houses in higher places. We make the proper preparations and organise our belongings.”
In Patharghata alone, some 4,500 ultra-poor women and men from three separate communities have participated in an ER programme that was launched in 2011. It has helped stabilise incomes and ensure more secure access to food. Local people are now better prepared for future disasters, they know what to do when they strike and they have learnt how to adapt to the localised impact of climate change. At the same time, their houses, canals and ponds are in better condition, adding to the food security of local people.