Christmas Appeal: Hope for a community living on the edge

In the flood-prone delta of Bangladesh, a British aid agency is making a difference, says Jan McGirk
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"During the last big flood, the water came up to my hips, and I had to slosh through it in the dark with my five girls and little boy. Our hut was swallowed by the river. We reached high ground, but so did all the snakes," says Begum Muntaz Battadar, a slight woman with sorrowful eyes.

"We had just the clothes on our backs. There was no clean water to drink. Thirst was all we shared. My kids would cry and cry, but we had to pass the nights with empty stomachs after our bag of rice dust ran out. Sometimes I couldn't help but snap and smack the little ones. We all suffered so."

Most families here literally live on the edge, beside the rising waters, getting by on 58 pence per day. Last year, severe flooding in Bangladesh killed nearly 800 people, damaged four million homes and wiped out more than a million hectares of crops. These deaths were not all from drowning - 96 per cent of the people can swim - but from flood-related maladies such as respiratory disease, cobra bites, malnutrition or diarrhoea. Food prices doubled overnight, pushing survivors deeper into debt.

Sporadic flooding is unavoidable in the huge delta where the waters of the Himalayas flow through on the way to the Bay of Bengal. But many Bangladeshis, who are among the world's most impoverished people, become resigned to living with the ankle-deep stagnant water.

Most rural people must replace their shelters every year, depleting any extra cash. But just a few simple innovations, based on a model introduced by the British aid agency Practical Action - one of the three charities being supported in this year's Independent Christmas Appeal - have made all the difference in keeping a new home for Muntaz water-resistant but affordable. The new style of house lasts up to five times as long as the old style.

Local masons and carpenters worked with Dhaka-trained architects to help create the water-proof shelters. Villagers were trained in these techniques and, with a small loan, most are able to significantly improve their lives.

Begum Muntaz has five daughters to support on her own while her husband and son sleep rough on city pavements and compete, rarely with success, to be hired as part time labourers. They can only afford one school uniform for the middle girl. The others work part-time as maids and bring home leftover food for the family. Under the Practical Action scheme, which lets a community determine the most vulnerable family to receive help, Muntaz's neighbours in Faridpur, four hours west of Dhaka, the capital, picked her to move into a model flood-proof house.

In return she lets her neighbours keep their grain dry inside when monsoons lash the flood plains. There is nowhere else they can shift: they erect huts on no-man's land on abandoned sandbars or earthen levees that protect irrigated fields. More suitable land already is overrun with people in one of the world's most densely populated nations, where close to 1,000 people are crammed on to every square kilometre.

Muntaz's new house is raised up on a two-foot plinth, which is fashioned from earth and rubble, then bound with bit of cement.

Unlike the dried-mud bases for traditional houses that inevitably wash away, this is strong and high enough to tolerate successive floods. Durable concrete bases anchor metal-reinforced bamboo into the plinth. Sturdy bamboo beams are lashed on top and support a tin roof. On to this skeleton, panels of locally-grown jute are fastened and braced, and there are two sturdy bamboo platforms for sleeping and storage.

Panels can be replaced cheaply, and are dipped in termite repellent. Money saved on maintenance goes toward food. "We can eat two meal a day," Muntaz boasts. And should floodwaters threaten to rise higher than the elevated doorways, everything can be dismantled within minutes.

This inventive housing programme in Bangladesh is typical of the work of Practical Action which is rooted in the "Small is Beautiful" philosophy of the Sixties guru, Fritz Schumacher. Muhammad Ali, the programme director, says: "We offer a basket of low cost survival solutions and people pick whatever suits them best."

Muntaz points out: "Rats used to chew their way through our mud floor, and then get into the stored food or bite the babies. This does not happen now."

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