WORLD

A nation drowning

Floods have left as many as 30 million homeless

BOB LEVIN September 19 1988
WORLD

A nation drowning

Floods have left as many as 30 million homeless

BOB LEVIN September 19 1988

A nation drowning

Floods have left as many as 30 million homeless

WORLD

BANGLADESH

On a dry swatch of land surrounded by the swirling floodwaters of Dhaka, the Bangladesh capital, 27-year-old Abdur Rahim lay in a hastily erected relief camp constructed out of cardboard boxes and bamboo strips. “The flood swept away all my belongings, including my shanty,” said Rahim, who had contracted a severe case of diarrhea from rotting food and tainted water. “I don’t even know whether my mother is alive.” Other flood victims last week were still awaiting rescue. Clinging to rooftops and trees or huddled together on hillsides, they stared down into murky waters teeming with poisonous snakes; after dark, armed looters plundered ruthlessly. “The days are passed waiting for anyone coming with help,” said Mohammed Kamaluddin, a villager marooned at Rasulpur, on the outskirts of Dhaka. “The nights are spent sleepless, under the threat of snakes and thugs.”

Bangladesh’s 110 million people are no strangers to flooding: every year during the

monsoon season, the low-lying south Asian nation is inundated as its two huge rivers, the Ganges and the Brahmaputra, burst their banks. But the rains that started falling in June caused Bangladesh’s worst floods in living memory. Last week, up to three-quarters of the entire country—about the size of Newfoundland and Labrador combined—was underwater, and between 25 million and 30 million people were homeless. The official death toll—mainly from drowning, starvation and sickness—topped 800 at week’s end and seemed certain to climb substantially higher. And with emergency food stocks fast dwindling, officials and diplomats warned of a possible famine. “Bangladesh is one vast swamp,” said relief agency official Thomas Drahman. “This could be one of the largest natural disasters of the century.”

Around the world, industrialized countries and fellow-Moslem nations pledged some $70 million worth of emergency aid. Ottawa announced that it would send $5 million to help

rebuild roads and rail lines and it approved more than $2.4 million in immediate assistance. The Canadian Red Cross has already sent $20,000 to help victims, and Bangladesh immigrants—members of the Toronto-based Bangladesh Association of Canada—were also raising funds. “The immediate need is to save these people,” said Sultan Ahmad, the association’s president. “They need food, medicine and drinking water right away.”

In Dhaka, some Bangladesh officials expressed dissatisfaction with the global response. One senior official described overall foreign aid so far as “peanuts,” adding: “We have drawn more sympathy than help. Maybe the world is still watching how badly we are sinking.” To make matters worse, relief workers were hard pressed to deliver available food and medicine in any quantity. Receding waters allowed the Dhaka airport, swamped for much of the week, to open for international flights on Thursday. But a new burst of heavy rainfall caused more flooding on Friday, forcing relief helicopters to abandon their sorties to stricken areas. Distribution within the country was also hampered by the flooding of major arteries connecting Chittagong, the country’s main port, with the interior. Officials said that, nationwide, about 50 bridges—together with 3,500 km of roads—have been washed away at a total cost of $190 million.

Without sufficient supplies, said one relief camp doctor, “people are living on flood wa-

ter and throwaway foodstuffs that animals would not even smell.” Bangladesh health officials said that about 150,000 people had diarrhea—and many might not survive.

Said Dr. Abdul Mannan of Dhaka Medical College Hospital: “Thousands might die for lack of treatment, shortage of fresh food and water and other problems.” President Hussein Mohammed Ershad, visiting affected areas by helicopter and boat and wading through waist-deep water, reported that $960 million worth of crops had been lost. The result, said Mannan, could be widespread starvation that would “multiply the death figures.” Government officials added that repairs to the agricultural irrigation system could cost more than $155 million—a devastating blow to one of the world’s poorest nations. “The calamity,” said Information Minister Mahbubur Rahman, “has posed a gigantic threat to our people and economy.” Since winning independence from Pakistan in 1971 after a bloody civil war and intervention by neighboring India, Bangladesh has experienced an inordinate number of catastrophes, natural and manmade. It has been battered by killer tidal waves, cyclones and floods. Two of its presidents have been assassinated, and last November there was

widespread rioting against the rule of Ershad, who seized power in a military coup in 1982.

Last week, many Western diplomats and relief agency officials expressed frustration at the failure of the governments of Bangladesh and neighboring India, Nepal and Bhutan to co-operate on a long-term solution to the perennial flooding. They said that a regional

policy—including reforestation of the denuded Himalayan foothills— was needed to reduce the annual cascade onto the Bengali plain. Said one diplomat: “It doesn’t really make sense to pour millions into this country every year and see it washed away.” At week’s end, the Bangladesh government called for the prompt creation of an international panel to devise plans to control the region’s unruly rivers.

In the meantime, donor countries seemed prepared to go on providing Bangladesh with a temporary bailout. For many Bengalis, it could not come soon enough. In Rasulpur, Sheikh Khabiruddin perched on tree 1 branches with seven members of his I family to escape the water. “We f have not eaten anything for about a oweek and sipped only floodwater,” said the 60-year-old farmer. “We are losing the battle for life.” For others, it was already too late. At one relief camp near Dhaka, Fatema Mia stared incessantly up at the sky, as though in shock. Her husband, Bareka, a ricksha puller, explained that the flood had swept away more than just their material possessions—it had taken their baby daughter.

SHAMSUL ALAM BELAL

PAMELA YOUNG

BOB LEVIN with SHAMSUL ALAMBELAL in Dhaka and PAMELA YOUNG in Toronto