Surviving the wanton river

Prompt rescue operations save lives and properties

Click here to support the millions affected by the devastating floods

Bangladesh is facing the worst floods in over 100 years. More than a third of the country has been submerged. Inhabitants of the Riverine Islands (and their livestock) attempt to move to higher grounds to safety.

On Saturday morning, August 12 2017, Mominul Islam, Friendship’s Disaster Management project manager of the Kurigram district, came to know that overnight the Jamuna’s waters had flooded into Khamar Holokhana char (a riverine island in Nothern Bangladesh). Some 1200 families were marooned on the island.

Mominul immediately made his way to the Holokhana embankment with his team, where he found that those who had a boat, or the means to procure one, had fled to the embankment and were taking shelter there. The refugees told Friendship staff that those who were still trapped on the island were unable to find transport, as boatmen were charging as much as 500 Taka per cow, and 200 Taka per human to bring them across to the embankment. At this point the flood waters were still rising swiftly.

Momin rented a boat and rushed to rescue the remaining marooned people. “The situation in the char was astonishing,” said Momin “None of us had seen anything like it before. Roughly 15 families were barely hanging onto their lives.” Momin said some of them were trying desperately to stay afloat under a tree with the help of empty drums and jerry cans. Others had managed to bundle their most precious belongings together onto a raft, and were fighting to keep everything afloat. Others still had clambered up on their rooftops to try and stay out of the rising waters. Many people’s livestock, and even some houses had been washed away by the current. Momin’s team raced against the clock to ferry as many people, along with their possessions, over on to the embankment to safety.

More than half a million homes have been damaged while over 400,000 hectares of farmland have been destroyed.

Meanwhile, Friendship rented another boat to begin rescue work on other chars. Friendship’s staff identified and put into operation 10 plinths (raised, flood-resistant areas of land) that can house 40–50 families each located in two different areas in Kurigram.

But getting people to safety was only the first step. Once there, hungry and tired, people needed clean water. They needed latrines. Within two days, Friendship installed 30 tube wells and 50 latrines in the shelters, giving water and sanitation to 2978 families.

“We targeted the most vulnerable people, in areas where the current of the river was strongest, where it was very risky for people,” said Md. Golam Mahedi, Kurigram District Coordinator of Friendship. “These areas were difficult even for us to work in. We once bumped very hard into a tree because of the current.”

The strong currents posed real difficulties during the rescue operation. Often, Mahedi’s boat was unable to get to where people were stranded, “In the case of one desperate, old woman locals had to bring her halfway using a raft to get as close to us as possible, and we pulled her in using a bamboo stick.”

A family struggles to be pulled to safety on a makeshift raft

“On one char we found a woman who had been bitten by a snake,” said Mahedi. “She was in a lot of pain and needed medical attention. We brought her to safety and she was able to catch a bus to a local clinic.”

Mominul’s rescue team stayed out rescuing people till 7.45pm. By the end of the week, the flood waters had started receding, but not the suffering of people, said Mahedi.

“People are facing an immense shortage of food,” said Mahedi. “We saved some 5880 kg of rice and 1600 kg of wheat during rescue operations, but so much has been destroyed in the floods. The food being distributed by the government and by various NGOs is not nearly sufficient.” Kurigram staff have reported that some 80 per cent of crop farms have been destroyed.

Some people have the means to either go to the bazaar or perhaps they have relatives in the city who can support them with urgent things. Many have next to nothing, and are entirely dependent on aid from the government or NGOs.

“Some people are returning home from the shelters,” said Mahedi, “But there is no infrastructure there. The houses themselves are often no longer inundated, but in many cases the yards, the fields, the tube wells and the latrines are still inundated.”

However, much of the crisis in Kurigram has been contained for now due to prompt rescue response, and the installation of temporary latrines and tube wells, which have prevented the outbreak of disease. Central and southern areas of the country now face devastation as flood waters flow down from the north.

Friendship rescue operations in Kurigram//key figures

  • People brought to safety: 690
  • Cattle brought to safety: 270
  • Poultry brought to safety: 624
  • Rice saved: 5880 Kg
  • Wheat saved: 1600 Kg
  • Tube wells installed: 30
  • Latrines installed: 50
  • Families using tube wells and latrines: 2978

The humanitarian situation remains extremely serious and will be for some time. Friendship is doing all we can to help, but much more assistance is urgently needed to mobilise supplementary resources. Every little bit helps.

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