Faster than floods: WFP works to avoid a double-disaster in Bangladesh
WFP and the UN’s Central Emergency Relief Fund are using forecasts to help people prepare for the next climate shock
In northern Bangladesh, Abdus Samad Sarker swims through floodwaters, desperately trying to salvage food for his livestock. Abdus and his family live near the Brahmaputra, one of the largest rivers in the world.
As the country battles a growing COVID-19 crisis, millions of people are also facing floodwaters that threaten their homes and livelihoods.
Though the Brahmaputra and surrounding river networks provide important natural water sources, during the monsoon they also pose a threat — waters burst their banks and inundate large swathes of the low-lying country.
Inside Abdus’s house the water level has risen to waist-height, destroying many of his belongings.
While some disasters resulting from natural hazards, such as earthquakes, are next to impossible to predict, extreme-weather events such as floods are relatively easy to anticipate thanks to advances in data collection and weather forecasting systems.
In Bangladesh, WFP and the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) have used these tools to develop an innovative mechanism that uses robust weather forecasts to disburse funding for humanitarian assistance even before a flood occurs (aptly named forecast-based financing or “FbF”). The aim is to offer faster and more empowering support to help communities prepare and protect themselves before the next disaster strikes.
A cutting-edge early-warning system and a timely cash grant mean Abdus has been able to relocate his livestock, his main source of income, to higher ground while he waits for the waters to subside.
“During the day we go to our neighbour’s house but at night we sleep on a boat,” he says. “I’m 78 years old and I don’t have any job prospects so receiving this money is helpful and helps me feed my family.”
This year the forecasting programme in Bangladesh was expanded through a US$140 million “Anticipatory Humanitarian Action” project led by the United Nations Central Emergency Response Fund (CERF). WFP is a key partner to this endeavour, providing its technical expertise to run these pilots and scale up the ‘anticipatory action’ approach in a variety of contexts across the world.
The idea is that families like Abdus’s receive cash before the floods hit so they have time and resources to prepare for the impact of the incoming floods on their lives, homes and livelihoods.
To this end, based on a forecast issued on 4 July, which predicted severe floods in five vulnerable districts by the middle of the month, CERF immediately disbursed its first-ever anticipatory humanitarian funds.
Out of US$5.2 million disbursed in total, WFP received US$4.25 million and reached 145,000 people with mobile-phone-based cash transfers about four days before water levels at the Brahmaputra rose to dangerous levels, creating havoc.
The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) and the UN Population Fund also received about US$500,000 each to reach exposed farmers with valuable agricultural inputs such as livestock feed and storage drums.
Women and girls
Meanwhile, vulnerable women and girls were supplied hygiene and health kits.
Rowshan Ara was among those receiving the cash payment of US$53. While that may not seem like a lot, it goes a long way in an area where the average daily wage is less than US$5 a day.
Rowshan and her family had already felt the devastating impacts of floods earlier in the monsoon, when they lost their land. They found some new land and signed a three-year lease. Now their new property is also completely submerged.
The transfers empower families to prepare for the looming hard times by purchasing essential supplies such as food and medicine, strengthening their shelters, protecting their assets and moving to safer areas.
The anticipatory assistance can also aid their recovery by allowing them to start rebuilding sooner, which can make all the difference for their homes and livelihoods in the long term.
“The money will help us survive this flood,” explains Rowshan Ara. “If we have anything left once the floods are gone, then we will use it to build our house higher from the ground and hopefully next time it won’t be as bad.”
Anticipatory action is a core element of the new business model that humanitarian organizations need to do adopt in order to effectively respond to the rapidly evolving landscape of climate and other risks combining their impact to form compound disasters such as this one.
“This programme is a much more innovative approach to managing climate risks,” says Richard Ragan, WFP Country Director in Bangladesh. “By using science, specifically weather forecasting and flood data, we can get people out of harm’s way before the floodwaters arrive. We have been able to provide timely cash transfers to people who would have to bear the compound impact of these extreme floods on top of COVID-19, so now they are more resilient and better prepared to cope with the shock.”
Through anticipatory action, WFP and its partners aim to lead to a faster, more efficient humanitarian response, which also protects development gains and prevents crises before they occur.
WFP assists 1.17 million people in Bangladesh, including more than 850,000 Rohingya refugees in Cox’s Bazar. The WFP Forecast-based Financing programme is funded by Korea and Germany. The Anticipatory Humanitarian Pilot Project is funded by CERF.