Monsoons pour tragedy on Bangladesh

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BANGLADESH'S catastrophic floods worsened over the weekend, with monsoon rains adding to the swollen rivers and abnormally high tides in the Bay of Bengal preventing floodwater from running off. The death toll continued to rise: more than 100 evacuees were feared drowned when a boat taking them to safety sank 255km (158 miles) north of Dhaka. At least 700 have died so far.

Up close, an urban flood is a quiet disaster. Despite the embankment thrown up around Dhaka after the flood of 1988, two-thirds of the Bangladeshi capital is now under water.

We left our car outside a garment factory, a big yellow building on the edge of Gulshan, the booming commercial and residential district. Next door was Aarong, a huge modern supermarket of Bangladeshi handicrafts. Both now front on to a new lagoon: the water begins at the doorstep.

At the edge of the lagoon we selected our gondola. The so-called "country boats" were lined up here, flat-bottomed, pointed at both ends, banged together from wood more solid than a packing case, but not much. The battered bowl used for bailing is the most important item of equipment. Two boys punted us along, using bamboo poles. We sat tight. "Once you're on board, the most important thing is not to move," the photographer said.

Bangladesh's floods are killing people through drowning, electrocution and, most dreaded of all, snake bites.

The lack of safe drinking water is causing diarrhoea. Prolonged exposure to germs in floodwater is causing skin diseases. But the number dying is relatively small for a country as disaster-prone as Bangladesh. For now, the flood manifests itself to most people as a terrible nuisance.

To shop for food (if your local grocer has managed to build a high lintel in the doorway and pump his shop dry), you must wade, or wait for the packing-case ferry. In many houses, under-floor water storage tanks have been penetrated by flood water. To find safe drinking water you must lug your metal jars hundreds of metres to the nearest hand pump still in use.

The gas supply is cut or unreliable; for those who have to cook on open fires, the wood or dried cow dung normally used is unavailable, and some have to cook over burning rags.

In the poor streets of Gulshan, most people have managed to stay on in their homes, building up beds and tables so they are above the water level, though this entails living squashed up against the corrugated iron roofs. Many smaller, flimsier houses have succumbed, only their roofs projecting above the water. Their owners have fled, or taken to living as best they can on a sloping iron roof.

The floods of 1998 have gone on for two months now, compared with the two or three weeks of the last comparable disaster, in 1988. In Dhaka, the uncomplaining and adaptable Bengalis have grown accustomed to living like water rats in this new Venice of the East.

There are abundant boats, both the leaky tubs like ours and bigger, more plausible punts of the same design, up to 20ft long. There are plenty of boatmen, too: street children like our crew in smaller boats, tradesmen rendered idle by the flood in bigger ones. When we moved up a size to venture into deeper water, our thoroughly incompetent sailors were two carpenters.

Watery Dhaka is in one sense nicer than the dry town. There the air is dense with smoke from the filthy two-stroke three-wheelers - "baby taxis" they call them - that clog the streets. Here the air is mostly fresh and clean. In Gulshan, the government's fish ponds have swelled into lakes, and hidden among the bushes at the water's edge, enterprising locals fish furtively but with success, using homemade bamboo rods. And everywhere small children plunge, punt, swim, splash and play.

But bad times are on the way. In the countryside, poor farmers are malnourished. An outbreak of measles in the north has alarmed aid workers, for measles combined with malnutrition kills children easily.

Bangladesh's problem is that this long, high flood is not an isolated event: as Nayeem Wahra explained, it is the latest in a succession of calamities. He is disaster preparedness manager with Oxfam and has just returned from a tour of some of the worst-hit areas.

"In October last year there was no monsoon, so the rice harvest failed," he said. "That was followed by a severe winter, leading to the failure of vegetable crops. The rice harvest this spring was only average. Now the summer flood means there will be no harvest at all in November.

"From now onwards gruel kitchens will be the only way to prevent famine, because people in the flooded areas no longer have money to buy food. Until last month, they were borrowing money from the rich and `distress- selling' their valuables. Now the rich are refusing to lend them money. They say, `You are not going to have a crop to harvest, so I am not going to get my money back'..."

He added: "We see a number of worrying indicators. We see poor people sending their children to work as domestic servants in the homes of the rich - not to earn money, because they are paid nothing, but merely to get two meals a day. In the past two weeks, rice trucks have been looted by famished people. And while the price of rice and vegetables has shot up, the price of meat has actually gone down - because the poor are distress- selling their cattle. A very bad time is coming."

A flood is bad but the aftermath is much worse. That is when the streets of Dhaka will be thick with vile mud, flies and other disease-carrying insects will multiply, and infections, especially dysentery and diarrhoea, are expected to become rampant. There is also, as Mr Wahra points out, the increasing certainty of widespread famine. The present watery interlude, with all its inconveniences, is the calm before a very nasty storm.