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Disease and dilemmas
in Bangladesh Floods


Torrential rains swamped Bangladesh in July and August, affecting over 10 million people and forcing parents to take tough decisions.


In northern Bangladesh, a mother sits up throughout the night, too anxious to go to sleep for fear of what might happen to her small son. Kamrunn Nahar, 35, has two children and lives in Bashalia village, which was completely under water for 15 days in August.

“I am afraid to go to sleep in case I wake up and find the children have gone to play in the water, fallen in and died,” she says. She is not alone in her fears. Throughout northern Bangladesh, desperate parents are trying to teach their unaware children about the dangers of playing in the dirty flood waters. For those who fled the devastating floods by boat or raft, there was added anguish.

“We didn’t know what was happening when the water was coming. The children were afraid but at the same time they love to play with the water,” says Munjary, 45, of Maijhaly village.

“All around, mothers were holding their children to them. One of my grandsons fell in the water and died — he was just one and half. He was called Chejanush.”

For the distraught millions, many of whom have lost everything, teaching their children to fear the water is a strange and contradictory experience. Many of the villages affected lie on river banks and children are encouraged to play and swim in the water from a young age.

“We try to keep the children at home and tell them not to go near the water but it is so difficult. The risk is always there. This is a riverine area and the children were brought up around the water. They were never taught to stay away — they were taught to swim so one day they could go fishing. To protect them now is difficult,” adds Munjary.

As children happily play in the water, another risk looms. For 26-year-old Jobed Ali and his 19-year-old wife, Rokia, the daily despair continues as they watch over their small son, Rahim, who is 3 years old.

“It was difficult with our son as he got sick from the flood water. He fell in and has had a fever, cough, headache and jaundice. We took refuge in the school but there was not enough food there, so now we have come home. He still has a fever but he is getting better.”

In response to the critical health needs of people in the affected regions the Bangladesh Red Crescent Society, with support from the International Federation, prepared to provide basic health-care services to 350,000 people over a period of eight months. This included sending out 15 mobile medical teams with essential medicines.

The aim is to ensure that sick children, like Rahim, get the treatment they need and that other children and adults can be prevented from falling ill in the first place.

As the filthy brown water began to recede, the full extent of the contamination of the water, and the numerous health risks to those surrounded by it, began to emerge.

Once again it is the most vulnerable people who are suffering and they are ill equipped to fight the ever-constant threat of disease.

“We have seen many cases of people drinking from the river, which is incredibly dangerous,” says Ahmad Sami, programme officer for the International Federation.

But with the entire affected region thick with mud, and with many people having been stranded in chest-high water for hours or even days, avoiding the threat of disease is easier said than done.

“Everywhere you look all you can see is mud, we are always in the mud,” says Kamrunn Nahar.

“All of our toilets are under water so the mud and water are contaminated… our children are playing and bathing in this water.”

The repercussions of this are all too visible for many children now bear the painful marks of contagious skin diseases.

“My son caught this disease from the dirty water that surrounds us,” says Chamilly, 20, whose son, Shuboh, is 16 months old. “We need medicines but do not have access to any so I am trying homeopathic remedies. The problem is it is very painful and itchy for him so he scratches it and now it is spreading.”

Safe water remains a scarcity in the villages since the main sources of safe drinking water, tube wells, are waterlogged, so they’re no longer safe.

“The force of the floods was so strong that nearly all of the latrines in the affected areas were washed away or broken and the polluted sewage water is all around the people,” says Sami. “We are now hearing through local news reports that there has been a huge increase in the number of people being admitted to hospitals with diarrhoea.”

As part of its current scaling up, the Bangladesh Red Crescent Society and partners are constructing 350 tube wells and 4,500 latrines for affected families. While villagers wait for water points to be repaired, the Red Crescent is distributing water purification tablets and using teams of local volunteers to educate people about hygiene.

“The water purification tablets currently being distributed by the Red Crescent are a stopgap to keep people safe and well until we can repair the many damaged water points,” says Sami.

With no clean running water and no access to latrines, the villagers are faced with a terrible choice. Nazma Khanman, 30, lives in Bashalia village with her husband and two children.

“We have the knowledge of these things. We know that they are not hygienic to do and we know that the water around is contaminated and we should not drink it — but often we have no choice. What else are we supposed to do?” she asks.









A woman sits near her child with relief supplies from the Bangladesh Red Crescent Society at Munshibazar.





Disastrous floods
across Asia Pacific

In July and August, the International Federation launched emergency appeals for over US$ 40 million to help more than 5.3 million people affected by floods in Bangladesh, China, Democratic Republic of Korea, Nepal and Pakistan. In all, more than 230 million people were affected by flooding in the Asia Pacific region, with floods also hitting Cambodia, India, Indonesia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Thailand and Viet Nam.


Becky Webb
Becky Webb is media and public relations officer for the British Red Cross.



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