DHAKA - As the toll of death and damage from flooding continues to mount in Bangladesh, the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) is giving much-needed food supplies to nearly two million people in advance of launching a major emergency operation for millions more victims of the disaster.
Since the second wave of flooding in mid-July, which incurred some US$7 billion in damage to Bangladesh, WFP has mobilised its existing in-country food supplies to distribute rice and high-energy biscuits to 1.8 million people, while calling on donors to support the agency's steadily mounting relief campaign.
In response, a number of key donors have already come forward. Britain's Department for International Development (DFID), for example, yesterday announced a £5million (US$9.1 million) donation to WFP for the immediate distribution of rice, pulses, oil, salt and high-energy biscuits to three million people.
"We are getting strong indications that donors are prepared to be generous," said Douglas Casson Coutts, the WFP Country Representative in Dhaka. "These unprecedented early contributions to the first stage of our operation enable us to get large amounts of food straight to the homeless and vulnerable people."
Coutts warned that while the floodwaters are currently receding, Bangladesh may well be in for a cataclysmic flood in mid-August, when the next monsoon rains will be unable to drain into the waterlogged ground. "We have to be vigilant," Coutts said. "What we have seen so far is as bad as any floods in Bangladesh have been. But there may be worse to come, and we need to be ready."
Within days of the first floods in northern Bangladesh in mid-July, WFP gave a week's supply of high-energy biscuits to 88,000 people who suffered the greatest loss and damage from the floods. Next, the food aid agency distributed 3,000 metric tons of rice in north and central Bangladesh, including the Haor region, a part of the country with the highest and longest-lasting flood levels.
Meanwhile, WFP is coordinating the overall emergency response to the floods by the UN and NGO community, the donors and the Government of Bangladesh, whose representatives have combined to form the Disaster Emergency Response Group.
Coutts emphasized that WFP is very concerned about the implications for future food security. The first, unexpected "flash floods" in April destroyed a substantial part of the rice crop. In two districts in the northeast, Sylhet and Sunamganj, 80-90 percent of the rice crop was knocked out. Not only was the crop much reduced, the rice was of very low nutritional value because it had rotted from the water and mud. Nevertheless, hungry Bangladeshis ate it anyway, many of them contracting diarrhea as a result.
The floods in mid-July wiped out people's household food stocks and effectively removed all other sources of nutrition and income: fish farms are gone, poultry is drowned, fodder is unavailable for livestock so the animals are being sold at rock-bottom prices. Day labour jobs are gone too as quarries and brickworks are submerged by water. The next rice harvest in Bangladesh is now nine months away (April-May).
"Even though people in Bangladesh are used to grappling with flood damage every year, they will need a lot of help this year in recovering their household stability and preparing for the next planting season," Coutts said. "The international community must not forget about the enormous problems here after the disaster images fade from the TV screen."
WFP is the world's largest humanitarian agency: In 2003 we gave food aid to a record 104 million people in 81 countries, including 56 million hungry children.
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Douglas Casson Coutts
WFP Representative Bangladesh
Tel: +880-2-8116344 or 8119064-73
M. Emamul Haque
Head, Advocacy Unit
Tel: +880-2-8116344 or 8119064-73, Ext 2189
WFP Public Affairs Officer Bangladesh
Cell: 880 189 225744 or 661 701 9208
Deputy Director Communications
Tel: +1-202-6530010 ext. 1149