Bangladesh tries new way to aid flood-hit families: cash up front

  • By Naimul Karim
  • 27/07/2019

Flood-affected people receives water purifying tablets from volunteers in Jamalpur, Bangladesh, July 21, 2019. REUTERS/Mohammad Ponir Hossain

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DHAKA - Parvin Begum, who saw her home on a secluded island in northern Bangladesh steadily devoured by floods this month, feels lucky.

She received some money before the disaster hit under a new form of aid, used for the first time in Bangladesh by the government and humanitarian agencies.

It gives funding to vulnerable people in advance of extreme weather, based on forecasts, so they are better prepared. With her cash, Begum bought food, rented a boat, and took her belongings to a government shelter on a nearby island before the rising water crossed the danger level.

"This is one of the worst floods I have seen in many years," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone from Kurigram, a town located about 350 km (217.5 miles) north of Dhaka.

"Things were easier for me because I received 4,500 taka ($53.42) and was prepared - otherwise I would have struggled a lot."

Severe flooding after two weeks of heavy monsoon rain has killed at least 61 people, displaced nearly 800,000, and inundated thousands of homes across Bangladesh, government officials said this week.

Nearly 3 million people are struggling with the impacts of the floods, the worst in two years, according to the disaster management and relief ministry.

Low-lying Bangladesh is extremely vulnerable to climate change, and researchers say people like Begum, who live on river islands that erode and form again, far away from the mainland, are on the frontline.

According to the U.N. World Food Programme (WFP), Begum is one of 25,000 people in Kurigram district who received aid money via their mobile phones, under the new "forecast-based financing" project.

"This approach uses weather forecasts to trigger early actions such as cash transfers, that can help reduce the impact of natural disasters," said WFP spokeswoman Maherin Ahmed.

Aside from Bangladesh, the concept, which emerged in 2015, has been used in eight other countries to tackle climate-related shocks, according to the WFP.

The Red Cross has been a strong backer of the approach.

WOMEN KNOW BEST

Ahmed said research showed that forecast-based funding could lead to more effective use of aid in emergency situations.

A 2018 study in Nepal found it could save $22 million when responding to an emergency of an average size affecting about 175,000 people, she said.

Shah Kamal, secretary of Bangladesh's disaster ministry, said the project would only really succeed if recipients used the money wisely.

It provides them with a much larger amount than previous cash transfer schemes deployed by the Bangladesh government, he noted.

"They need to invest it right," said Kamal. "I believe the women here will be key. They are better at assessing their family's needs."

He advised participants against using the money to settle loans - which many poor Bangladeshis take out to survive tough times - saying that would not be "productive".

Dipti Rani, 31, who lives in Kurigram with her husband and daughter, did use part of the money she got to pay off a debt.

But she also spent some on bamboo sticks to raise up her home in the hope of keeping her family safe from river floods.

They were marooned there for 11 days, before the water began to recede.

"I thankfully survived the floods a week ago thanks to the money. But the water has been rising again since yesterday. What am I going to do now?" she asked.

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