DHAKA, 2 September 2014 (IRIN) – Floods triggered by two weeks of intense rain have affected two million people in northern Bangladesh and left up to half a million homeless. While the country’s disaster response capacity has been enhanced in recent years, experts argue that with people displaced and crops destroyed the flooding is testing response mechanisms.

“Improvement has been made in regard to flood forecasting system but there is still lack of coordination among government agencies,” Mahbuba Nasreen, director of the Institute of Disaster Management and Vulnerability Studies at Dhaka University, told IRIN.

A 31 August situation report by the Ministry of Disaster Management and Relief said 17 of the country’s 64 districts have been affected. Six of these districts are expected to experience rising water levels this week, and Dhaka, the capital and home to 15 million people, may see flooding as well.

NGOs estimate that the floods have left 500,000 homeless and, according to the UN World Food Programme (WFP), “others, who have nowhere else to go, have remained in their flooded homes.”

Nasreen explained that part of the remaining weakness is due to Bangladesh’s Water Development Board being responsible for building and repairing embankments, which protect against floods, while the Ministry of Disaster Management and Relief is responsible for reacting to disasters. This, she argued, results in lack of coordination between the two agencies.

“One organization should look after the whole thing,” she said. “There are still lots of things to do to improve [the] country’s disaster response.”

Immediate relief

According to government figures, 17 people have died due to drowning in the floods, and there have been 506 cases of pneumonia, 1,850 cases of diarrhoea and 540 cases of skin infections.

Residents in the affected districts told IRIN they were worried both about the short- and long-term consequences of the flooding as they struggled to find dry ground and watched their crops get washed away.

Abdul Mannan, a father of four and farmer in Pikan Village in Rangpur District, said: “Most of my lands are being inundated. I don’t know how can I manage basic things for my family in the coming days.”

Christa Räder, WFP representative in Bangladesh, told IRIN the agencies’ assistance has focused on the distribution of nutritious biscuits, which do not require cooking. “Since 24 August WFP has reached more than 50,000 people with nutritious biscuits in the flood- and river erosion-affected districts of the north,” she said, explaining that many people have fled their flood-hit homes and are now living on higher ground or embankments, without stoves or cooking utensils.

“This immediate food assistance is important as in the initial period after a flood people have no means to cook and depend on our ready-to-eat assistance,” she said, adding: “There are many more displaced people in the flood-affected areas who have not yet received immediate assistance.”

Fewer deaths

Some indicators suggest Bangladesh’s disaster response capacity has improved in recent years. While 17 people have died in this year’s floods, a similar round of flooding in 2007 killed 1,110 people, a flood in 1998 killed 1,050, and a flood in 1988 killed 2,379.

The government has modernized its Flood Forecasting and Warning Centre, which now gives up-to-date flood forecasting five days in advance (as opposed to an earlier threshold of three days), as well as information online and to people who call in.

Long-term concerns

Rezaul Karim Chowdhury, executive direct of the NGO Coast Trust, told IRIN the government’s response must also consider long-term relief measures.

“We urge government to provide shelters to the homeless families, to provide food supply until next March as they have lost the aman [main rice] crops, and double the various safety net programmes for the affected and marginalized, especially for the fishermen families, women- and child-headed households,” he said, referring to the government’s various “safety net” allowances for older people, widows, and people with disabilities, among others.

Floods in eastern Bangladesh in 2012 left thousands food insecure as water remained for prolonged periods and damaged crops severely.

According to Oxfam’s Bangladesh country director Snehal Soneji, this year’s flooding is also damaging agricultural land.

“The main crops aman and aush [the two main rice crops], jute and vegetables are completely damaged as most of the fields are under water for the last 17 days. Damage of main agriculture adversely affects livelihoods of the farmers in long run,” he said.

Other evidence points to infrastructure damage that will have short- and long-term impacts.

“A large number of hand tube-wells are estimated to have been contaminated by flood waters, forcing the affected population to seek alternative water sources,” the Bangladesh Red Crescent Society and International Federation of the Red Cross warned in a statement. “With the shortage of safe drinking water and proper sanitation facilities, the risk of diarrhoea and other water-borne diseases remain high.”

“Safe drinking water, hygiene kit, sanitation, cash-for-food are among the immediate needs at the time,” Soneji said, adding that Oxfam has provided hygiene kits to 600 households.

Meanwhile, Bangladesh’s disaster management and relief minister, Mofazzal Hossain Chowdhury Maya, insisted on a visit to affected areas that the government was responding effectively.

“No one will die without food,” he said, addressing a relief distribution programme in northern Gaibandha District, state-run media reported.

mw/kk/cb

DHAKA, 21 July 2014 (IRIN) – The recent violent attack on Urdu-speaking Biharis in the Bangladeshi capital highlights this minority’s ongoing protection needs: Community leaders allege political collusion in the attack.

Clashes broke out on 14 June between Biharis and Bengalis, who make up the majority of Bangladesh’s population, in Mirpur on the outskirts of Dhaka. Ten Biharis were killed and houses were torched; no arrests have been made to date.

“What can I tell you… I have lost everything,” said Yasin, 50. Nine family members – including his wife, children, and grandchildren – died when their house burnt down. His daughter, who survived, is in critical condition in a Dhaka hospital. “I don’t know how I can save her,” he said.

Anwari Begum, 50, told IRIN she was injured during the clash when a police officer hit her with his baton; she believes the police did too little to stop the violence.

“Who will listen to our complaints? Who will solve our problems? When we see that the police backed the attackers, who will save us?” she said.

There are 300,000 Muslim Biharis scattered across 116 squalid camps in Bangladesh today. Many came from the Indian state of Bihar, and moved to East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) during and after partition in 1947. The West Pakistan-based government’s preferential treatment of Urdu speakers seeded tensions between Biharis and Bengalis, which were further stoked when many Biharis sided with the Urdu-speaking Pakistani army in the bloody 1971 war of liberation.

A 2008 landmark High Court decision recognized Biharis as Bangladeshi nationals, but citizenship rights have yielded minimal gains, and most remain on government-owned land, leaving them vulnerable to abuse and political manipulation.

“The government’s response [to the June violence] was far from satisfactory. The carnage happened in front of members of law enforcement agencies,” said Chowdhury R Abrar, a professor of international relations and coordinator of theRefugee and Migratory Movements Research Unit at the University of Dhaka.

“Instead of apprehending those who were alleged to have committed the crime, the police arrested and lodged false cases against innocent camp dwellers. Moreover, the mastermind behind the attack – the local member of parliament – was not even interrogated.”

Land-grabbing claims

Law enforcement officials said the clash was sparked by an altercation when a group of children set off firecrackers during a religious event. Bihari community members are suspicious, and accuse a local politician of instigating the attack in an attempt to claim their land.

“The reason is clear. It was done to grab the land. Some other camps were burnt in the past in the same way to grab Bihari land,” said Sadakat Khan Fakku, president of Urdu Speaking People Youth Rehabilitation Movement (USPYRM), a youth organization.

Following the 1971 war, many Biharis were forced from their homes and property and relocated to 116 settlements, many of which are on public land. In some areas, they were provided with temporary shelters. However, despite citizenship rights being conferred in 2003, no permanent land solution has been decided and their residence on government land puts Biharis’ survival in the hands of often-unsympathetic political leaders.

USPYRM president Sadakat Khan said that since 1995, the authorities from time to time have issued notices for them to leave the land. “But where will we go if we are not given places to rehabilitate?”

According to Abrar, the migration expert, “there is genuine fear among camp dwellers about the threat of eviction from camps located in different parts of the country.” He called on the government to declare the camps permanent to increase security while rehabilitation processes were designed.

Some Mirpur residents, where the clash too place, accuse police of bias in how they handled incident.

“Police helped attackers and they fired bullets and tear gas towards us when we were attacked by the local Bengalis,” said Begum, nursing her broken leg.

“Police have been harassing Bihari community members for quite a long time and some of our community members have been extra-judicially killed [in the past],” said Fakku, the youth activist.

“The local ruling [Awami League] party MP, Ilias Mollah, threatened some days [before the incident] that he would give Biharis a lesson and his party activists took part in the attack,” he added.

Both Mollah and the police have denied these allegations. Mollah told reporters on 22 June in Dhaka: “I am a good friend of the Bihari. I have no involvement in the Bihari camp killing and arson attack.”

Kamal Hossain, assistant commissioner of Mirpur’s Pallabi Zone police station told IRIN: “It is true we used bullets but we had no other way. If we did not act, casualties would have increased. We took measures to stop fires in the houses.”

Hossain said police “played [a] neutral role in the clash”, adding that a police detective unit was still investigating the incident.

Neutral probe needed

Nur Khan, director of human rights group Ain O Salish Kendra, said a police investigation would not suffice, and a judicial probe committee needed to investigate the incident.

“When a ruling party leader is accused, it is normal that state machinery is not playing properly to bring the culprits to justice,” he said.

“We demanded a judicial probe committee to investigate and bring the perpetrators to justice,” he said, adding that Ain O Salish Kendra staff visited the area in the aftermath of the violence and spoke with victims.

“When victims see criminals are free, insecurity is very normal as they think they can be attacked again. Insecurity will continue among the Bihari people if the perpetrators are not punished,” Nur added.

Others say the long-term solution is to secure permanent land.

“The most important thing is the rehabilitation. Without rehabilitation, our problems will continue,” said Mohammad Hasan, general secretary of the Association of Young Generation of Urdu-Speaking Community.

Hasan believes that “rehabilitation” must include education opportunities to increase employment, but land remains the most important first step so Biharis can start a new life on their own land.

According to Dhaka University’s Abrar, while declaring the camps safe and permanent will restore a sense of security against land grabs, “[the government] should take effective measures for [Urdu speakers’] rehabilitation with dignity” and the “donor community must take into cognizance that the MDGs [Millennium Development Goals] cannot be attained by keeping the camp dwellers out of the development process.”

mw/kk/cb

DHAKA, 1 July 2014 (IRIN) – Bangladesh is moving to boost maternal health services in poorly-served rural areas by targeting voice and text messages at expectant and pregnant mothers and their families. The aim is to educate and support mothers in places where health services are weak.

“There is a gap between rural and urban areas in terms of maternal health services. Government and non-governmental organizations must address the gap to meet the Millennium Development Goals (MDG),” Iqbal Anwar, a reproductive health researcher at the International Centre for Diarrhoeal Disease Research, Bangladesh (ICDDRB) in Dhaka, told IRIN.

Bangladesh’s Maternal Mortality Ratio has decreased significantly in recent years.

In 2001 the country recorded 322 deaths per 100,000 live births, which by 2010 was reduced to 194, putting the country on track to achieve its MDG target of 143 by 2015. However, experts warn, a rural service gap lurks behind the data.

A 2014 ICDDRB report found that childbirth services were severely lacking in Bangladesh’s rural health care centres: 80 percent of upazila (sub-district) health centres lack staff trained in paediatrics, and maternity care facilities fall 42 percent short of demand for beds.

At a seminar in Dhaka on 25 June, Health Minister Mohammed Nasim admitted there were visible rural care gaps, saying: “Bangladesh has made remarkable successes in the health sector. [However,] it does not appear when I go to villages that things have improved. People say they are not getting services. Doctors cannot be found in hospitals.”

The minister said the government hoped to use technology to ensure health access for everyone, echoing Finance Minister AMA Muhith, who in his June 2014 budget speech said: “We will be trying to provide easy access to reproductive health service delivery system… We are working on expanding tele-medicine services.”

“Mobilizing” care

In 2012 the government partnered with Mobile Alliance for Maternal Action (MAMA), a network of public health organizations, to launch a project calledAponjon, which delivers timely health information to new and expectant mothers by SMS text and voice messages.

According to ICDDRB’s Anwar, “access to maternal health care is still low and quality of care is poor both in public and private health care centres [because] rural areas are suffering from a lack of trained health care service providers.”

Kirsten Gagnaire, executive director of MAMA, explained that the focus on mobile phones was a reaction to trends observed by public health experts.

“Approximately 5,200 Bangladeshi women died [in 2013] from mostly avoidable causes related to pregnancy and childbirth, and three out of four women deliver their babies at home,” Gagnaire said. “Yet Bangladesh has an increasingly high number of mobile phones activated across the country.”

As of April 2014, Bangladesh’s Telecommunication Regulatory Authority listed 115 million mobile phone subscribers – amounting to nearly 75 percent of the population.

Aponjon, which means “dear one”, sends pregnant women, mothers with newborn babies and family members health messages by voice recording or SMS. More than 350 messages target women and their husbands and mothers-in-law with crucial health information.

Aponjon’s chief executive officer, Rizwana Rashid Auni, explained that voice messages were a necessary component as many mothers cannot read. Bangladesh’s adult female literacy rate is 57.7 percent.

“We tried to make the voice messages interesting and entertaining,” she said, explaining that the recordings vary from direct instructions to “mini-skits” that feature voices playing roles such as mother and doctor.

The process starts before birth. Advertisements in local newspapers and on TV encourage expecting parents to dial a phone number to register for free.

Initial messages contain information on pregnancy symptoms, nutrition and safe and unsafe behaviours while pregnant. When the baby is born, the parents send an SMS to alert the system so it can adjust; it responds immediately with baby care instructions, information about disease prevention and treatment, and breastfeeding.

Nasreen Sultana, 25, a new mother in a village in Tangail District, 100km northeast of Dhaka, told IRIN mobile voice messages helped her during her pregnancy.

“I did not know many things about safe motherhood and I was hesitant to ask about them to any doctor or nurses but I have learnt this from messages,” she said.

Closing the gap

Abul Kalam Azad, additional director-general of the Directorate General of Health Services, said the government’s maternal health efforts are multi-faceted, but mobile phones are a crucial aspect because the outreach goes beyond mothers.

“Most importantly, the husbands, mother-in-law and other family members who play important roles often cannot go to medical centres to learn about safe childbirth – and mobile health services are helping them as well,” he said.

“Aponjon… has been able to reach 500,000 subscribers on a truly national scale, with subscribers residing in all 65 districts of Bangladesh,” MAMA’s Gagnaire said, adding that during a recent visit to rural Bangladesh, one mother told her that text and voice messages taught her how to bathe and feed her eight-month-old daughter.

“Deployment and retention of trained human resources in remote rural areas is a major challenge for Bangladesh,” ICDDRB’s Anwar said. “Mobile health services are helping in many ways [to fill the gap].”

mw/kk/cb

BANGLADESH: Rohingyas wary of Burmese reforms

There are some 200,000 Rohingya in Bangladesh

COX’S BAZAR, 13 January 2012 (IRIN) – While the Myanmar government takes significant strides in political reform, Rohingya refugees in southern Bangladesh fear their condition may not change any time soon.

They are skeptical about a string of reform moves by the Burmese government, saying they are not aware of any real improvement in the conditions which forced them to flee their country.

“The situation has not improved,” Mostak Ahmad, 35, an undocumented Rohingya refugee who fled 10 years ago, told IRIN. “We were hopeful during the 2010 election as we were given voting powers but now we are frustrated.”

Since taking office in March 2011, President U Thein Sein, a former general, has released hundreds of political prisoners, legalized labour unions, eased censorship, held talks with Washington and London, and signed a ceasefire with ethnic Karen rebels – a major step towards ending one of the world’s longest-running ethnic insurgencies.

But for Rohingya, an ethnic group who fled to Bangladesh en masse from neighbouring Myanmar years earlier, there is little optimism.

Fazal Karim, 40, who fled to avoid forced labour, had recently spoken with his relatives in Myanmar.“ They said that in some cases the situation had worsened,” he said.

Rohingyas – an ethnic, linguistic and religious (Muslim) minority who fled persecution decades ago – are caught between a rock and a hard place, activists say.

Under Burmese law, the Rohingyas are de jure stateless, but they fare little better in Bangladesh.

Most Rohingyas in Bangladesh have no legal rights and few employment opportunities. According to Refugees International, they live in squalor, receive limited aid and are vulnerable to arrest, extortion and even physical attack.

According to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), there are some 200,000 Rohingyas in Bangladesh, of whom only 28,000 are documented and living in two government camps assisted by the agency. Close to 11,000 live at the Kutupalong camp, with another 17,000 farther south at Nayapara – both within 2km of Myanmar.

Rakhine State

Activists say Rohingyas in Myanmar’s northern Rakhine State still have no freedom to travel or marry and remain subject to extortion, intimidation and abuse.


Photo: David Swanson/IRIN
Undocumented Rohingya live in particularly squalid conditions

“While there are some improvements in the Burmese government’s rhetoric, there is no change on the ground,” said Lynn Yoshikawa, a campaigner with Washington-based Refugees International.

Following the 2010 elections, forced labour was as pervasive as ever and may have increased, with some labourers as young as 10, a2011 report by the Arakan Project, a group campaigning for Rohingya rights, revealed.

Chris Lewa, the group’s coordinator, said there had been no sign of improvement for Rohingyas in Myanmar, either in terms of policy towards them, or on the ground, “and little hope” that things could change in the near future.

The new Burmese government still considered Rohingyas “illegal immigrants from a neighbouring country” and has no intention of granting them citizenship or relaxing restrictions on them, she added.

Straws in the wind

However, during a December visit to Myanmar by Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, Burmese President U Thein Sein expressed his desire to cooperate with Bangladesh in resolving the Rohingya issue, and two days after the visit Bangladesh officials said Myanmar had agreed to take back documented Rohingya refugees from Bangladesh after verification by its authorities.

But the agreement will have no impact on the vast majority of Rohingyas who are unregistered, Yoshikawa said.

There is little chance that many registered refugees would agree to return under the present conditions in Myanmar, though if conditions were to improve significantly many would not hesitate, said Lewa.

“Who wants a refugee’s life?” asked Faruque Ahmed, a documented Rohingya refugee at the Kutupalong refugee camp. “We are always prepared to go back to Myanmar but we demand the same rights as other citizens,” he said.

Each year scores of Rohingyas – from Myanmar and Bangladesh – attempt to escape by boat, often turning up in Thailand, Malaysia or as far away as Indonesia.

In December, at least 23 Rohingyas are known to have died when the two boats carrying them and 200 others capsized in the Bay of Bengal, while on 2 January a number of Rohingyas reached the Australian coast after an arduous voyage from Malaysia, the Arakan Project reported.

“We know it is a risky journey, but we have no other option,” said Hasan Ali, a documented Rohingya at Kutupalong camp.

mw/ds/cb

In Brief: Bangladesh government to investigate food aid corruption

Millions benefit from the programme

DHAKA, 9 September 2011 (IRIN) – The Bangladesh government is to investigate allegations of corruption regarding its vulnerable group feeding (VGF) programme. “We take these allegations very seriously and will do our utmost to ensure that everyone who qualifies receives the help they need,” Food and Disaster Management Minister Muhammad Abdur Razzaque told IRIN.

The VGF programme, a social safety net programme, provides food to low income and other vulnerable groups who cannot meet basic needs for survival as a result of natural disasters or socio-economic circumstances, such as age, illness or disease. In 2010, nearly five million people received assistance.

On 8 September, the Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) reported almost 80 percent of VGF cardholders in Gaibandha District, northern Bangladesh, had not received the food subsidy: Out of 13 villages in Monohorpur Union, Palasbari sub-district, only 1,000 families from seven villages were on the list of beneficiaries; six villages were excluded altogether. Local political leaders had taken the VGF cards of 600 families.

“The unabated corruption will further endanger the lives of the poorest of the poor and the total number of such victims will be increased,” warned AHRC programme officer Ashrafuzzaman Zaman.

mw/ds/cb
Theme (s): Food Security,

[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]

BANGLADESH: Treatment gap for mental health problems

A psychotherapist provides counseling near the stairs due to space issues at a local hospital

DHAKA, 1 August 2011 (IRIN) – Facilities and resources needed to treat the nearly 14.5 million adults with mental disorders in Bangladesh, as well as nearly 20 percent of children aged 12-17, are inadequate, health workers say.

“If you look at the total amount of expenditure for the mental health system, you understand that successive governments showed their negligence towards mental health,” Golam Rabbani, chief researcher on a recent survey by the National Institute of Mental Health, published in June 2011, and one of just 134 psychiatrists in the country, told IRIN.

The survey focused on the growing issue of mental health in children and found mental illness is more common among children in rural areas than in cities. As many as 17.5 percent of rural children have a mental illness, compared to 14.3 of city children, it said.

According to a World Health Organization (WHO) report, in 2005 the health department spent US$1.4 million (less than 0.5 percent of the healthcare budget) on mental health. No mental disorder is covered in social insurance schemes and no human rights review body exists to inspect mental health facilities, the report added.

Moreover, the Indian Lunacy Act of 1912, which allows discrimination against the mentally ill, remains in effect in Bangladesh.

Not much has changed since 2005, noted Mostafa Zaman, a WHO officer for non-communicable diseases in Bangladesh and co-author of the WHO report. It seems the number of people with mental disorders is on the rise, as is the number of people seeking professional help, he said.

The predominant affliction is depression and the main obstacle is stigma, explained Omar Rahman, a psychiatrist in Bangladesh and also an associate professor of epidemiology and demography at Harvard University.

“People do not consider mental health as a disease like other diseases. Moreover, people with mental disorders do not go to hospitals as they think it will hamper their social dignity,” Rahman said.

“The number of human resources is completely insufficient for the huge population in Bangladesh. The human resources have to be increased to reduce the treatment gap,” Rahman said. Currently there is less than one psychiatrist for every one million Bangladeshis.

In 2006 mental health policy, strategy and planning came under the surveillance and prevention of non-communicable diseases. At the time a draft version of the Mental Health Act was elaborated, but it has yet to be approved and enacted, Rabbani said.

mw/nb/cb
Theme (s): Health & Nutrition,

[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]

In Brief: Bangladesh cyclone victims still in need two years on

Millions were affected by Cyclone Aila

DHAKA, 25 May 2011 (IRIN) – Two years after Cyclone Aila struck southwestern Bangladesh, thousands of survivors remain in need, say aid workers.

More than 3.5 million people were affected, about 200 killed and 7,000 injured when the category four storm struck on 25 May 2009, Bangladesh’s Disaster Management Bureau reported. “Sadly, many victims have still not received the assistance they need,” Hasan Mehedi, chief executive of local NGO Humanity Watch, told IRIN.

“Many people are still not able to return to their houses. People who return home do not have sufficient income opportunities and cannot take three full meals a day,” said Aminul Kawser, national emergency coordinator for ActionAid.

According to a recent assessment by 10 international agencies, more than 200,000 people remain affected, more than 50,000 have yet to return to their homes; about 34 percent of households (more than 108,000 people) do not have sufficient access to safe drinking water.

mw/ds/cb

Theme (s): Natural Disasters, Refugees/IDPs, Water & Sanitation,

[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]