Tuesday, October 26, 2004

Bangladesh: And now a looming food crisis


While the annual monsoon rains have stopped, and the floodwaters that covered the country in July and then again in September have for the most part receded, the specter of a severe food crisis is emerging. In Bangladesh, the months of October and November are called the "monga," the period when food stocks run out and job opportunities dry up just before the main rice harvest in December. It is never easy for the millions of poor in Bangladesh to limp through these months. But because of the massive damage from the floods to the country's rice crop, this year the monga will be looking to claim far more victims than usual
Bangladesh faces a food crisis
Douglas Casson Coutts


DHAKA, Bangladesh The hungry season is fast approaching in Bangladesh, and all the portents for it are bad.

While the annual monsoon rains have stopped, and the floodwaters that covered the country in July and then again in September have for the most part receded, the specter of a severe food crisis is emerging. In Bangladesh, the months of October and November are called the "monga," the period when food stocks run out and job opportunities dry up just before the main rice harvest in December. It is never easy for the millions of poor in Bangladesh to limp through these months. But because of the massive damage from the floods to the country's rice crop, this year the monga will be looking to claim far more victims than usual.

Already we have seen a jump in rice prices of between 20 and 30 percent since the beginning of the year. The cost of vegetables in the markets in Dhaka has gone up many times over. Anybody who has to buy food in order to eat is going to feel the pinch, but the nip will be sharpest for the urban slum dwellers and the landless rural poor, neither of whom have the ability to produce their own food.

The World Food Program is in the midst of an emergency operation to get food aid to five million people who were the hardest hit by the floods. So far, we have distributed food to some three million people, including schoolchildren, in flood-affected areas. In the coming weeks, we want to begin delivering a month's supply of rice to 900,000 families and a nutritional supplement to 400,000 women and children. It is not going to be an easy task because so far, we have received only one-fifth of the $74 million we need.

The message coming in from our staff in the field and our nongovernmental organization partners is clear: What assistance we have been able to give up to now is not keeping pace with the needs of the Bangladeshi people. In a low-lying country flooded every year during the monsoon season, this was the worst climate disaster in six years. The floods killed more than 760 people, damaged more than 2 million homes and destroyed 1.1 million hectares, or about 2.7 million acres, of crops.

The statistics cannot possibly convey the suffering of the people themselves, like Morzina Bewya, a widow in Kurigram district who is the solely responsible for supporting her six children. When Morzina's house was washed away, along with most of her belongings when the second wave of monsoon-driven floods swept the country in September. The family cobbled together a hut near their former home and moved in. That is where they are today, scraping from one day to the next on what they can beg or borrow.

Multiply Morzina by several million and you have an idea of what life is like for the poor of Bangladesh. The World Food Program and our sister agency, Unicef, have determined that more than one million children are at risk of acute malnutrition with the potential consequences of illness and death; more than 500,000 pregnant women and nursing mothers are also extremely vulnerable.

Malnutrition is a silent but deadly predator. If it sets in when you are young, you never recover. You will be small, physically weak and mentally impaired, simply because you did not get enough food or the right kind of food at the most important time of life for human growth. The babies of malnourished mothers never realize their full potential. That is why the World Food Program for more than two decades has been fighting malnutrition among the poor rural women of Bangladesh with a development program that gives them food, education and skills training. It is the single best chance they get in their lives to rise above the worst poverty in the country.

Now these women and their children need our help more than ever. It is unconscionable that the world could stand by while malnutrition and death stalk the shantytowns and the water-soaked countryside of Bangladesh. The remedy is available: The World Food Program's emergency operation addresses the nutritional needs of women and children in this time of crisis. It also offers long-term solutions to the annual floods in the form of food-for-work projects to build river dikes and embankments, designed to give the most vulnerable people some protection from the floods.

What we need now is the assent and support of the donor community for us to go ahead and do our work.

International Herald Tribune 27/10/2004