Feature Img
Photo: Reuters
Photo: Reuters

The South-West coastal region of Bangladesh is unique for its environmental characteristics. It is vulnerable to natural and climate change-related disasters such as floods, cyclones, tornadoes, tidal surges, storm surges, river bank and coastal erosion.
Cyclone Sidr struck the coastline of Bangladesh in 2007 and Cyclone Aila hit the region in 2009 with 13 ft high waters, breaking river embankments and dykes, washing away the lives and livelihoods of poor people.  Extreme poor people suffered the most.
Since 2009, Save the Children UK (SCUK) has been implementing a Household Economic and Food Security (HEFS) project in six upazilas of two coastal districts Khulna and Bagerhat, with funding from the Economic Empowerment of the Poorest programme. The project aims to graduate 70% of its 15,000 beneficiary households from extreme poverty by strengthening their income sources through a variety of interventions.

The Economic Empowerment of the Poorest /shiree programme is a partnership between the Governments of UK and Bangladesh (RDCD Ministry) which aims to lift 1 million people out of extreme poverty by 2015.  Shiree promotes research among its partner NGOs.  One shiree-SCUK research recently completed explored the vulnerabilities of extreme poor communities in the South.

The findings reveal that tidal surges made the extreme poor more vulnerable by destroying or damaging the few assets they owned. The most immediate and visible impact of the tidal surge was the damage to community infrastructure, household equipment (housing, poultry shed etc.) sanitary and water bodies/tube-wells, production assets, poultry and livestock, natural assets (water bodies). People’s human assets (health, skills and children’s education) were also severely affected with short and long-term implications.  We also found that the climate-related disasters affected social relations within the community.  For instance, some women were forced to work despite social norms which prohibit women’s work outside the home.

It was also found that vulnerabilities vary among individuals and households according to their capacity to prevent, mitigate or cope with disasters. Therefore retaining assets and preventing damage depends on the household’s ability to accumulate savings and preservable assets. Alternative income generation from diversified sources (boating, fishing, seasonal migration) was also a powerful coping and recovery strategy among the extreme poor households.

Floods affect the entire community by damaging markets.  This affects the extreme poor in almost every way: assets sold lose their value as everyone tries to sell, credit becomes dear as everyone needs to borrow, food costs skyrocket as demand for food rises and food stocks become damaged, employment dries up in the short term as farms fail and wages for what little employment is available falls, health and working capacity gets worse as pneumonia and other diseases hit, relations of support disintegrate as friends and relatives become poor and vulnerable too. Indeed the astute businessmen are able to profit at the expense of the poor at such times.
Institutional support (through the HEFS project, government safety nets and other NGO support) provided opportunities to rebuild livelihoods. It was found that 75% of sample respondents recovered their lost assets only because they had institutional support from HEFS projects and they benefited from links made by the latter to access other social safety net programmes.

The data indicates that those households who did not have sufficient human capital, especially single female headed households, to engage in income generating work, were unable to work for the safety net programmes and were left poorer than ever.

Data also revealed that most of the links with government safety nets and with local NGO schemes (e.g. the cash for work scheme, children’s education stipend and relief) were implemented only after the tidal surge. This is an important lesson for future asset based strategies.  Links to safety nets and NGOs should be made at the same time as asset interventions in an attempt to build ex-ante resilience.

From this research we learnt some important lessons.  Those extremely poor families with moveable assets, savings and diversified income generating sources, were more likely able to cope with the disaster. Those linked to safety nets were also less vulnerable. The link ups with these programmes should happen earlier, rather than after disaster strikes, and furthermore, the government should consider developing safety net packages suitable for those unable to physically work, such as the elderly, the disabled, and many women-headed households. Finally, to increase the resilience of the extreme poor, there is a need to develop more long term, ex-ante interventions (capacity to adapt and respond to disaster) to protect the extreme poor peoples’ asset base and livelihoods and to build long term ability to cope with climate change.

– Researched by Prokriti Naukrek

Shah Jawad Shamir is an analyst working at Shiree.

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