In Bangladesh, they have a word for it – ootuli. This is the name for people whose land has disappeared from beneath their feet, washed away by the mighty rivers that carve up the land.
Aklima Begum became ootuli 10 years ago, along with her husband and their six children, when the Jamuna river rose in fury. "We lost not only our land, but also our cattle shelter, two cows, three goats and five chickens," she said. "All we could salvage was some of the materials from which our hut was built." Her husband is now paralysed, and the family's only earnings come from Aklima's occasional work as a weaver.
But even when they had a patch of ground to call their own, they lived in a state of insecurity unimaginable in Britain. While climate change has been blamed for more frequent and widespread flooding, here millions of destitute Bangladeshis are flooded out of their homes by the monsoon for at least a month every year.
"During flooding, we had to take shelter with other people, walking miles across the floodwaters with our animals and essential belongings," Aklima said. And each time the family returned, their hut would be a wreck. Repairing or rebuilding it swallowed up much of their tiny income.
Another Bangladeshi word is monga, or "starvation period", which can happen over six months of the year when families may have no food for two or three days at a time. "We just starve when the food runs out," said Usha Banu, another riverbank dweller. She and her family are flooded out up to three times a year. Sometimes, they can move their few belongings to a makeshift shelter on the nearest embankment, but if they are not quick enough, everything is lost, including their food crops. Even if they have escaped in time, they are pitifully vulnerable, with nowhere to store food or any other possessions.
Yet the worst danger during the floods is not hunger or drowning, but disease caused by the shallow, stagnant water that envelops everything. With village wells contaminated or submerged, people often have no choice but to drink floodwater, contributing to the 75 million cases of diarrhoeal diseases that kill 110,000 Bangladeshis every year.
How would one begin to help people such as Aklima Begum and Usha Banu? Practical Action, the charity being supported by The Independent on Sunday Christmas Appeal, has literally lifted them up. Their homes have been raised above the floods by building them on a 6ft plinth of sandy soil, brick and concrete, strong and high enough to last through repeated inundations, unlike traditional earth floors that simply wash away.
Walls are made of brick up to window level, increasing their resilience, and topped with locally available corrugated iron. Around the house, thirsty plants like bamboo and banana soak up any water left by flooding. These, along with food and medicinal plants such as guava, coconut, mango and palm, help to bind the soil.
With a little training and some materials supplied byPractical Action, landless people have been able to build their own flood-proof houses for just over £1,000 each. Shahana Akhter, whose family lost everything twice before in floods, admitted that she found it hard to believe their new home would be safe. "But then I saw it with my own eyes," she said. "After we moved, the area was flooded, but the waters did not reach our home. It remained an island."
Similar techniques are used to raise village wells above the highest historic level of flooding in an area – simple, but no one had thought of doing it before Practical Action did so. The charity is elevating more than 100 wells at a cost of just £80 each, and is building nearly 60 new ones, saving more than 30,000 people from disease.
Uplift of a different kind has come from Practical Action's ideas for growing food in previously barren areas, such as sandbars. Poor villagers have been shown how to grow food in pits no more than a metre across, filled with compost and a few pumpkin seeds. Each pit, costing barely 30p, will produce up to 10 pumpkins. Even more ingenious are the floating vegetable gardens the charity has devised. Rafts are woven from water hyacinth, normally considered a weed, soil is spread on top and vegetables are planted. The floating gardens are, by definition, impervious to flooding, and the hyacinth roots act as a natural fertiliser. Rafts can be reused, and moved around. The produce from the pits and rafts not only improves the diet of the growers, but gives them a surplus they can sell.
Such projects are what Practical Action is all about – they are straightforward, cheap and help some of the poorest people in the world to help themselves, transforming lives to a degree out of all proportion to the cost. "It feels so good finally to have an address," Mrs Akhter said. "Now we have more respect and more chances in life." Through the generosity of our readers, we can help many more people like her.
How your money can help
£30 buys compost for a floating garden
£72 pays for 250 compost pits, each growing up to 10 pumpkins
£155 could construct a new, flood-free water pump
£636 pays to flood-proof three existing homes
The Independent on Sunday Christmas Appeal is for the work of Practical Action, a charity that supports some of the poorest people in the world. For more than 40 years it has helped millions in Africa, south Asia and Latin America to improve their lives, avoid disease andbecome more self-sufficient.
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