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WFP: Building Resilience for Communities affected by Floods in Bangladesh (HNCJ)

Fatema Begum, left, has been infolved in a World Food Programme project which aims to equip vulnurable communities to cope with future storms. Photo: WFP / Cornelia Paetz

"We had to swim through the water holding each other’s hands to get to the local shelter"

There are few places more exposed to nature than the small settlements on the low lying coastal plains of southern Bangladesh. Patharghata's inhabitants live in a constant state of preparedness for the weather fronts that roll in off the Bay of Bengal and wreak havoc.

Cyclones, flooding, river erosion and salt water intrusion on agricultural land are just some of the many challenges facing these farming communities. Over the coming decades, climate change is expected to increase the severity of these challenges.  Major floods in 2004 were followed by Cyclone Sidr in 2007 and Cyclone Aila in 2009, which caused millions of dollars of damage, damaging the homes and belongings of millions of people, and adding to long-term food insecurity.

"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 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!"

"We had to swim through the water holding each other’s hands to get to the local shelter"

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, the World Food Programme (WFP) has been working with the Government of Bangladesh to provide training and food and cash for work programmes that help them to build or renovate community assets, strengthening communities ability to cope with future storms. 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.

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 communal assets such as ponds that can be used to support fish farming, helping to bring more nutritious food into local diets.

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 central 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 different kinds of training like what to do before and after floods. Now we know what we should do, that we need to plant trees and build our houses in higher places."

"We got different kinds of 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 had a significant impact on the lives of families, stabilising incomes, and ensuring more secure access to food.  Local people are now better prepared for future disasters, they have learnt how to adapt to the localised impact of climate change.  At the same time, their community assets such as houses, canals and ponds are in better condition, adding to the food security of local people.