"I wish the river would vanish"

Living with floods and climate change in Bangladesh

Jamela Khatun had one hour to grab her belongings and get in a boat before the floodwaters consumed her home.

"We know there will be floods every year, but this time there was no warning," said Jamela, gesturing towards the Jamuna River in the distance.

"The river burst its banks at night, the water rose so quickly that we didn't have time to prepare. We called for the boatmen to bring their boats and help us."

The boats – laden with families and their possessions – ferried people to a nearby embankment.

"One boat capsized because it was carrying too many people," continued Jamela, "there were women and children on board. No one died, but they lost all their belongings."

Around 1,300 people are now living on the embankment, one month after the monsoon floods hit Bangladesh. 

Cows, goats and chickens live alongside children, adults and the elderly.

Bangladesh – The land of rivers

The relationship between man and water in Bangladesh is a precarious one. 

Hundreds of rivers intertwine across the country forming a vast network of arteries that nurture life as they flow south towards the Bay of Bengal. 

Countless people depend on them for fishing and crop irrigation. You cannot escape the sight of water. And this is sometimes the problem. 

Every year, the monsoon rains in Bangladesh and upstream India cause the water levels of rivers to rise rapidly, triggering river erosion and floods in low-lying districts.

Every year people are forced from their homes and houses are destroyed. This year was no different.

3.7 million people affected by July's floods

250,000 houses damaged or destroyed

Jamela, from Koroitola, in the northern district of Bogra, is sat in the shade of a rickety wooden shelter. It has been her home for the last few weeks.

The 50-year-old widow has seen numerous floods in her lifetime, but the monsoon floods that struck Bangladesh at the end of July had added ferocity.

"There's no going back now, my home is totally destroyed," said Jamela. 

"Every year the floods are getting worse. Ten years ago we used to put bricks under our bed and that would be enough to protect our belongings. That’s not possible anymore."

Of equal concern is how people’s livelihoods are suffering as a result of the floods. 

The land in front of the embankment, entirely submerged and frequented by a small flotilla of boats, is normally used to grow crops.

It will take months before the land is drained and in a state suitable for agriculture. It means people are unable to grow food, or sell their produce at market.

Chan Munshi, a cycle rickshaw driver, sold his rickshaw as the roads were flooded and there were no passengers.

The 65-year-old now ferries people back and forth across the flooded land to earn a living. He shares the boat with a neighbour, so he only works part time.

"Life is too tough to survive here," said Chan. "I'm old and unable to take on extra work. All I can do is try. I used to have my own land, but it was taken by the river.

"My daughter is studying. I hope that when she finishes she might get a good job, then we will be able to afford to move from this place."

A mishmash of tarpaulins and hastily erected shelters line the embankment. They offer scant protection from the elements and even less security.

"We don't have any privacy," said Mohammed Shahed Ali. The 57-year-old, who lives with his wife and four children along the embankment, lost his farmland to the floods. 

"I’m worried for my daughter. She’s no longer a child. Anyone can come in and out of our shelter," he added.

The Bangladesh Red Crescent has installed 10 toilets for people living along the embankment.

Six hundred families have each received BDT 5,000 (USD65) from the Red Crescent to spend on relief items according to their own needs. 

However, there remains a shortage of clean water and food.

River erosion – a silent disaster

This year's monsoon floods resulted in 17,000 homes being completely washed away due to river erosion. It is not a one-off.

More than 100,000 people in Bangladesh have to abandon their homes every year due to river erosion. Mohammed could soon be one of them.

"Ten years ago the river was three kilometres from my home. Now it is just 300 metres away," said Mohammed.

"Of course I'm worried, but what can I do? I have lived here since my birth. I’ve never moved home before. 

"I don’t want the river to be there. I wish it would just vanish."

One person who knows all about losing her home to river erosion is Mosammat Monjuri Begum.

"Where is my childhood home?" said Mosammat, pausing for a moment before answering.

"At the bottom of the river, underwater."

The 47-year-old, from Majhipara, in Jamalpur district, simply shrugs when asked if that upsets her.

Mosammat is emotionally attached to her birthplace, but like everyone else, she has become accustomed to the omnipresent threat of river erosion.

"Every two or three years we had to move house. The river erosion has been huge during my lifetime," she said.

"We were never able to build a proper house to protect ourselves against the floods or erosion. We suffered a lot."

The displacement caused by river erosion and flooding is a yearly crisis, one that is set to get worse as climate change further disrupts weather patterns.

"The floods come every year, but this year the water level was higher than the previous couple of years," said Mosammat.

"Our kitchen and crops were damaged. The water came into our house and the roads were swamped."

Facing Mother Nature

There is little anyone can do to stop the Jamuna River flooding thousands of homes in Bangladesh every year.

You only need to look at the strength of the current and the eroded riverbanks to understand its power as it surges through the country.

In the town of Jamalpur, there's a bridge that jets out to nowhere over the Jamuna. It looks as though it’s a half-finished construction project. It’s more sinister than that.

A local explains that the bridge used to connect with a village on the other side of the river. But years of river erosion simply "ate up" the village. It no longer exists.

While you cannot stop the flooding, you can prepare for it.

Water courses throughout the small, rural community of Majhipara. Canals give life to crops and provide a living for fishermen.

People here know to expect flooding and, with a bit of help from the Bangladesh Red Crescent’s resilience programme, they know how to prepare for it.

"The water came into my house, just like it does every year," said local resident Mohammed Younus Ali, gesturing to the watermark on the side of his home.

"We had to leave and spend two days along the embankment."

Where once this would have left families without clean drinking water and toilets, they are now able to fend for themselves.

The Red Crescent has installed elevated toilets and tube wells in the village. Their height means they are not inundated by floodwaters.

"The Red Crescent also told us what to do before the floods come," continued Mohammed.

"We now store medicine and dry food away from floodwaters, and we can carry on using the toilet and wells."

The biggest impact of flooding is on people’s livelihoods. The strong currents prevent fishermen from casting their nets, while agricultural land is swamped and roads become impassable.

A drop in income means people are unable to buy food or medicines. The Red Crescent’s resilience programme seeks to improve people’s economic status.

A few metres from Mohammed’s home, a cow is tethered under the shade of a mango tree.

As part of the resilience project, Mohammed was given cash by the Red Crescent, which he used to buy the cow.

"The cow has changed our lives," beamed Mohammed. "We’ve had it for one year. When it gives birth, we will sell the calf. We also sell the milk.

"We wouldn’t have been able to buy the cow without the Red Crescent’s support."

The fruit yielded by the mango trees, also provided by the Red Crescent, is sold at market.

The resilience programme is being supported by the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC).

While the programme has undoubtedly helped Mohammed and 400 other families in the community, it is not a complete solution to their problems.

River erosion is creeping up on the village. It’s why Mohammed’s house is perched perilously close to the edge of a canal.

"Of course I’m worried [about erosion]," said Mohammed. "If it gets much worse, we will have to shift our house."

Coping with climate change

To date, Bangladesh Red Crescent volunteers have distributed food to more than 27,000 people affected by the floods.

The Red Crescent is using nine water treatment kits, which can each treat water at a rate of 1,000 litres/hour, to provide clean drinking water to 15,000 people across Bogra, Sirajganj, Jamalpur and Kurigram.

The IFRC has launched an emergency appeal for 1.6 million Swiss Francs (USD 1.7 million, Euros 1.5 million) to support the Bangladesh Red Crescent in reaching 105,000 people with emergency assistance.

The monsoon floods, however, are not the first disaster to strike Bangladesh this year. Cyclone Roanu hit the country in May, affecting around 1.3 million people.

Climate change has led to unpredictable weather patterns, which makes preparing for disasters all the more important, according to Azmat Ulla, IFRC head of delegation in Bangladesh.

"My big concern is that the number of natural disasters has led to donor fatigue," said Azmat. 

"We know there will be a disaster every year. Floods are getting worse and cyclones are becoming more frequent. 

"They may not be on a scale that will generate international headlines, but they are large enough to devastate communities.

"People simply cannot rebuild their houses or recover their livelihoods every year. It's just not possible. It’s why we are investing time, money and effort into building resilience so people are prepared for natural disasters.

"Climate change means the only thing we can be sure about is unpredictable weather patterns. 

"We have to be ready for every eventuality and our appeal will help people to strengthen their resilience. 

"But our dilemma is a simple one: how do we help the poorest most vulnerable communities if we do not have the funding?"

Words and photos by Sam Smith

Video by Rajib Bhowmick