Bangladesh: When small contributions lead to resilience - Case of Suri Mesra

Concern Worldwide

By Jalil Lone

The effects of recurrent flooding - at least once and sometimes twice a year – in poor rural communities living along the Brahmaputra-Jamuna river in Bangladesh are severe and aggravated by climate change. While coping strategies developed over generations have helped people survive, they are generally ill-prepared in the face of repeated flooding and on-going erosion. In fact, annual flooding affects everyone, as even those who have coping capacities may lose their few assets - including their sources of income such as crops. As a result, many choose to migrate to save their life and search for alternative livelihoods.

In the context of the Disaster Preparedness ECHO (European’s Commission’s Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection department) programme, communities have been trained to assess their own situation using participatory tools. They formed community-based organisations to identify and implement local development activities. They identified local risks through community risk assessment, while discussing their strengths and weaknesses, their assets and deficiencies. They also explored ways of strengthening their existing coping strategies and skills. All of this has reinforced community cohesion and emphasised the value of collective action during adverse times. This entire effort is being supported by Concern Worldwide, an international charity, through its partner, GKS Foundation (Gono Kalyan Sangstha), a local NGO.

The programme has provided training and capacity development in community-based disaster risk reduction (DRR) for community volunteers, students, teachers, religious leaders, district and sub-district disaster management committees. Around 300 community members and 300 school children, half of which are female, have also been included in the training through the school-based preparedness model that included awareness sessions, school risk assessments and plans and early warning messages. Other community activities included drama, school-based campaigns to raise DRR awareness and community meetings to demonstrate: i) what to do before flooding occurs; ii) how to respond to early warning messages; iii) where to find safe shelter during floods; and iv) how to stockpile household assets in case of emergency. In addition to these projects, small scale mitigation activities are also taken up, co-financed by the Union Disaster Management Committee (UDMC), which have to do with small community development works, primarily aiming at building the resilience of affected communities.

Cluster Housing

The main activity for Disaster Risk Reduction was the construction of cluster housing. Low-cost raised dwellings - or cluster housing - are built at least seven feet above the water level so that they are flood and storm-resistant. These constructions have improved people’s ability to cope, while fostering a social network within cluster villages through which people can support each other and work together. As a result, women living in cluster villages are less vulnerable to disaster impacts, especially when pregnant or giving birth. Another successful initiative was the development of alternative livelihood opportunities for income and food, such as floating gardens, vegetable gardening, fish culture and tailoring. Overall, setting up cluster villages stimulated a productive exchange of ideas and learning, and encouraged people to adapt and replicate successful practices. Innovations based on people’s experience and knowledge is needed to ensure that development is sustainable and that communities remain resilient.

The case of the village of Suri Mesra: local initiatives for reducing disaster vulnerabilities

Suri Mesra village is a newly settled human habitation located in the Mesra union/ward, at the Sirajganj Sadar sub-district of the Sirajganj district. Due to the continuous onslaught of floods last year, at least 500 families relocated to a comparatively erosion-free area.

During the flood season, when erosion occurs in the west and north side area of Suri Mesra, helpless families usually relocate to areas that are comparatively plain. The previous flooding was so severe that the land on which the government-run primary school building is located, eroded too and as a result the school was shifted and built on plain ground. In general schools remain closed during flooding times and makeshift arrangements are made on occasional basis where shelter is available or rented.

Disaster Resilience

The project of “Enhancing Inclusive Disaster Resilience in Bangladesh, 8th cycle” which is part of the DIPECHO programme is also implemented in Sirajganj district. This project focuses on building resilience of the affected communities through disaster management committees. One of the vital components of the project is the conduction of participatory community risk assessments, participatory analysis and the formulation of risk reduction and action plans. Initially, these plans are endorsed by the local union/ward councils (parishad), which is the lowest tier of the disaster management committee. Eventually, these micro-development plans are included in annual development planning at the national level, allowing for the leverage of additional resources through co-financing schemes.

One of these plans was implemented when the Union Disaster Management Committee (UDMC) of Suri Mesra village requested the field ground of a primary school to be levelled, providing children with a playground, while serving as animal evacuation shelter during floods. “Evacuation of animals remains a big challenge on char lands (river islands formed from sedimentation) and most of the times, we sell our animals for half their price in order to evacuate quickly since no space is available for relocation” said Mohammad Nazrul Islam, villager of Suri Mesra. The plan further provided for the planting of trees around the cluster-village in order to protect the slope from erosion. It further encouraged the UDMC to install latrines and tube well for safe drinking water. “Community participation has been great help in this venture and it would not have been possible to have this cluster village and school without its support”, says the Chairman UDMC.

Concern Worldwide Bangladesh, is implementing a Disaster Preparedness and Resilience project supported by European Commission Humanitarian aid and civil protection in the Char lands of north-west Bangladesh

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