Bangladesh: compound risks of COVID-19 and floods driving more people into poverty
By Subinoy Dutta and Kiron Reddy
During August Mercy Corps have met up virtually with Union Disaster Management Committee members in Bangladesh to learn of the challenges facing communities struggling with unemployment and Coronavirus while inundated by floods.
Bangladesh has been devastated by one of the worst and longest-lasting floods in recent years with one third of the country under water. To put this into perspective, the flooded areas is larger than the whole of the Netherlands. Officials have reported more than four million people affected and a million homes inundated. COVID-19 cases are still rising, leading to health and socio-economic challenges. Concern Worldwide, Mercy Corps, and Practical Action, members of the Zurich Flood Resilience Alliance in Bangladesh, have been working with flood vulnerable communities to deal with the compound risks of COVID-19 and flooding.
Initial research and analysis in April and May conducted through surveys of 15 Union Disaster Management Committees (UDMC) in the three districts of Faridpur, Lalmonirhat and Gaibandha, made clear that the monsoon season will impact communities more severely this year by compounding annual floods with the socio-economic and health risks from the COVID-19 crisis. UDMCs reported 72% of the population to be unemployed due to movement restrictions and workplace closures. Moreover, all UDMCs reported challenges in access to basics like food, this in a population where one in three live in poverty, and half of the population is identified as being food insecure.
Since the publication of our report one of the worst floods in recent history has devastated these communities. To learn about the current situation in communities impacted by flooding Mercy Corps conducted remote online sessions with 29 members of 15 UDMCs between August 10 and 18th. The sessions have highlighted alarming needs and challenges of vulnerable groupsto cope with both COVID-19 and flooding.
Lack of safe elevated space and COVID-19 transmission risk
Severe and frequent flooding in the past two months have left people under a “water lockdown” with homes, schools, temples, and mosques flooded. UDMCs report the intensity of recent floods has been “three times more” than in previous monsoon seasons. With a majority of roads underwater and lack of availability and financial accessibility to boats people are without transportation means.
What limited elevated space is available is extremely crowded with people seeking safety from flooding. In fact, the lack of land unaffected by flooding has forced families to live on boats, only accessing higher grounds to cook before going back to their boats to eat and sleep. In such circumstances, access to handwashing facilities and soap is often nonexistent. With two of the unions reporting cases of COVID-19, mitigating transmission risk and preventing an outbreak is a concerning challenge.
Closures of health facilities and lack of access to healthcare
Health facilities and community clinics are closed due to the continuous flooding. Pregnant women, the elderly, and people with existing conditions are not able to access health care. Community members report that water-borne diseases, such as diarrhea, are increasing due to the floods. With hospitals and clinics closed access to medicine is also very limited. Closures of essential health facilities means that people will face difficulties receiving necessary testing and care for suspected COVID-19 infections.
Worsening livelihood conditions and food security challenges
The socio-economic impact of COVID-19 is worsening due to flooding, and pushing people into poverty. A majority of the population had become unemployed due to the pandemic, with vulnerable groups, such as daily wage workers, particularly impacted. Recent floods have left agricultural lands under water, and most of the crops have been damaged. People are not able to meet basic needs such as accessing food and drinking water due to income loss. Relief support such as food, water, medicine, and agricultural input and equipment is urgently needed.
Alarming 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.
The most vulnerable populations are unable to access financial resources such as loans to recover because they do not have a reliable income source. Unemployment, food security, and livelihood impacts, exacerbated by flooding, will likely push many people into a cycle of poverty, and will have long term implications for communities.
Good practices of community resilience
Despite the extremely difficult circumstances, UDMCs and community members have been proactively working to support vulnerable groups through activities such as food distribution and mask provision.
UDMCs have also taken initiatives from their personal expenses to transport people who need medical support, such as the elderly, pregnant women, and children, to health facilities by boat. In another case, UDMCs organized a medical team of two doctors and six health assistants with the help of the Upazlia health complex and Concern Worldwide to provide support for nine communities located in remote riverine char areas most impacted by flooding in the Sundargonj Upazila.
Urgent need for full activation of disaster preparedness systems
Fully functional and active UDMCs are critically important for communities to prepare and respond to disasters, including flooding. As most of the 15 UDMCs are not fully active, systems and skills to respond to floods such as contingency planning, volunteer lists, first aid provision, needs assessments, and search and rescue, are not available during a disaster.
In the unions that participated in the discussions, UDMCs are currently large, consisting of around 20 members, with a majority from different government departments and agencies. UDMC activities tend to be deprioritized as members prioritize their daily work, while UDMC participation and engagement is voluntary.
Some UDMC members we’ve spoken to suggest the committee should include more community members who will have stronger incentive to conduct disaster risk reduction activities, and reduce the number of members to half for meetings to be easier to coordinate. An inclusive environment where women members are represented and able to engage is also critically important to reflect diverse needs and perspectives.
Moreover, we find that UDMC members do not have clarity on how to access funds or resources to conduct activities, and rely on the Chairperson or Secretary for information and opportunities from district level offices. District/sub-national governments need to support UDMCs so they can participate in budgeting processes and access funds to conduct necessary activities and skills building.
Community and local governance systems are the first responders in any disaster. They are also the ones that know their community the best. The Zurich Flood Resilience Alliance in Bangladesh will continue to support communities and UDMCs through capacity building on governance, budgeting, and implementation so disasters do not become humanitarian emergencies.
Be part of the solution
The webinar we are coordinating on Wednesday September 9th is an opportunity to join us to discuss the challenges facing people in Bangladesh hit by the effects of the Coronavirus pandemic and floods, and start paving a way forward for addressing their needs. Find out more, including how to access, here.