‘Children are starving’: A cry for help from flood-hit Bangladesh

As floodwater recede in most areas, thousands of people now face shortages of food and other essential items.

Bangladesh floods
Kolpona Akter pushing floodwater out of her home in Sylhet, Bangladesh [Pinu Rahman/Al Jazeera]

Sylhet, Bangladesh – Using a plastic dustpan, Kolpona Akter is busy sloughing water out of her home in Shahjalal Upasahar, a lower-income neighbourhood in northeastern Bangladesh’s Sylhet town.

“It [water] was waist-deep last week. All my furniture is ruined. My oven got damaged, I can’t even cook,” 38-year-old Akter told Al Jazeera on Tuesday.

“My children are starving. There is also a shortage of drinking water. Authorities are not doing enough. We are not getting any relief,” she said.

The worst floods in Bangladesh’s northeast in nearly two decades submerged 70 percent of Sylhet and 60 percent of the neighbouring Sunamganj districts, leaving at least 10 people dead and more than two million stranded, officials said.

Experts say days of heavy rains in the region, including northeastern India, triggered the pre-monsoon floods last week, with water flowing down the Himalayan hills to Bangladesh’s northern plains.

The water from upstream in India’s northeast swelled Bangladesh’s Surma and Kushiara Rivers, which breached a major embankment and submerged hundreds of villages.

Bangladesh floods
A drone shot of a flooded village in Zakiganj, Sylhet, Bangladesh [Pinu Rahman/Al Jazeera]

The United Nations on Monday said more than 1.5 million children in the country were at increased risk of waterborne diseases, drowning and malnutrition due to the floods.

Thousands like Akter are now facing shortages of food and other essential items.

‘Everything is wet’

While the water had receded by Tuesday, the putrid smell and waterlogged walls bore witness to the havoc that had been wreaked on Sylhet for days.

It will take a few more days before Afsar Ali’s home dries enough that he can begin the task of rebuilding his life. His house is still in knee-deep water.

“It’s not possible to stay in the house. Everything is wet,” the 24-year-old told Al Jazeera.

Ali, his mother and his younger sister took refuge in one of the 23 shelters established by the Sylhet City Corporation.

“We have been staying at the shelter for six days. Now we want to go back home. But it seems it will take a few more days for the water to completely recede,” Ali said.

Bangladesh floods
Afsar Ali stands in knee-deep water in front of his house in Sylhet [Pinu Rahman/Al Jazeera]

In the Zakiganj area of Sylhet, which was partly reopened to traffic on Tuesday, thousands of families displaced by the floods were seen returning to their homes.

Most of them complained about the lack of aid. “The government needs to provide more relief. Giving us only rice and dry food is not what we consider real assistance,” Belal Hossain, 52, told Al Jazeera.

Bangladesh floods
Belal Hossain spent seven days in a government-run shelter for flood victims [Pinu Rahman/Al Jazeera]

Meanwhile, prices of rice, lentil and vegetables have gone up in the affected areas. “Price of rice per kilo has gone up by at least 10 takas. Vegetable prices have also risen. We don’t have cash in our hands,” said Sultan Mia, a rickshaw-puller.

Mohammad Nurul Islam, a relief and rehabilitation officer in Sylhet, said since most roads in the district were still submerged, the distribution of aid to flood victims was affected.

“The government will allocate more relief if needed,” he told Al Jazeera.

Arifuzzaman Bhuiyah, executive engineer at the Flood Forecasting and Warning Centre (FFWC), said the low-lying areas of the Sunamganj district would likely remain under floodwater for the next few days.

“The water levels at Kanaighat and Sunamganj points of Surma River are still flowing above the danger mark,” he told Al Jazeera.

According to climate activist Aminur Rasul, the government appeared “very poorly equipped” in tackling the floods.

“Every year, floods take place in Bangladesh but we hear the same story that relief can’t be distributed properly. The government needs to come up with a more effective mechanism,” Rasul told Al Jazeera.

Rasul said the Sylhet region is known for heavy rains, but the amount of pre-monsoon rain it experienced this year is “quite extraordinary”.

“This is not normal. This is surely an effect of global climate change,” he said.

Dr Mizan R Khan, deputy director at Dhaka-based International Centre for Climate Change and Development, told Al Jazeera that “human-induced climate change is already here and we have already seen its effects”.

Khan said the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has come out with clear evidence that the climate is behaving erratically.

“So, there is nothing unusual about pre-monsoon floods. The heavy rainfall was coupled with increasing upstream river flows. So, dams collapsed,” he said.

Khan said the Bangladesh government focuses more on its coastal belt while fighting the climate crisis, ignoring the northeast.

“The northeast, due to its vulnerability to flash floods, is also a hotspot. I hope the government will give added attention to address the problem of climate change there,” he told Al Jazeera.

Source: Al Jazeera