“We are brave because we have no other choices”
– Jamila Begum.
Bangladesh lies on the world’s largest flood plains, where water from the North Himalayas transit to the south in the Bay of Bengal. The people of different parts of the country have to face floods on a regular basis. Floods bring silt and make the land fertile, but rapid change in climate makes those floods more frequent and devastating, causing harsher pain and suffering.
In May and June 2022, the river waters in northeast Bangladesh overflowed and caused the worst flood in the greater Sylhet in the last 122 years due to record-breaking rainfall in the Indian states of Meghalaya, Assam and Arunachal Pradesh. Also, Sylhet itself experienced the highest rainfall in 62 years at the same time. It was a rare case that Sylhet faced flash floods, monsoon floods, river bank floods, and rain-fed floods simultaneously. The flash floods submerged around 107,785.5 hectares of cropland, and more than 4.3 million people got impacted. Houses got damaged, and livestock got lost. Losses and sufferings were great, but the grit and determination to survive were even greater.
This body of work tells the personal stories of the flood survivors in northeast Bangladesh. Though these people living on the edge represent the most vulnerable community to the impact of climate change, they are also the faces of resilience. This series depicts the personality portraits of these marginalized and unheard people during their most challenging time and shows how they fight to rebuild their lives.
Sharbananda, a fisherman, lives in Dariakandi, a village on the outskirt of Sylhet. He has never seen such kind of flood ever in his life. Every year there is a flood in the rainy season. But this year, the water level rose so much that all the houses in his village got submerged. Usually, only the ground and the courts get flooded. But this year, when the water level kept rising and entering the house, he had no other option but to leave the village and take shelter on his boat with his family. They stayed on the boat for seven days. After coming back, he found that everything was damaged by flood water, especially the heap of rice straw. It was all wet.
Shorno Bala decided to leave the village with her family by boat when the water level kept rising beyond their imagination. While leaving, she also took three of her sheep with her on the boat. She covered them with polythene sheets since it was raining and they might catch a cold. For her, they are also like her children, so she couldn’t think of leaving them behind. They successfully survived and returned to their house after around a week.
Nazma Begum comes from a farmer family and lives in a village in Sunamganj. They had paddy stocked in their house. During the flood, they had to take shelter on their boat. After returning, they found out that all of their stock got damaged. Now, Nazma was cleaning a handful of paddy as she needed to dry them in the sun. But for days, the weather was cloudy, which made her very worried.
Khaled, 24, is a Boatman living in a village in Sunamganj. He has been living here for 20 years. Last year, flood water didn’t enter his house, but the water level increased significantly this year. He sent his wife and children on the roof of their house along with some of the neighbours, and he mostly remained in his boat in front of his house.
Nasima begum’s hen was hatching eggs when the flood water increased. While leaving the house, she took the hen and the eggs in the basket, and she took care of them all the time. Chicks started breaking out of the eggs during the flood. Nasima also saved the broken egg shells to keep the count and determine if there was any loss of chicks.
“God gave us trouble; also, it is God who gave us courage. Without courage, how would we survive ?”
Mosammat Taslima is a mother of three kids living in a village situated on the outskirts of Sunamganj district. After her marriage, she came here. She previously had seen floods in her village but not like this. When the water started entering their house, she kept most of the necessary things at a height and decided to stay inside. But when the water level started rising rapidly, with all of her children, she climbed up and took shelter on the roof. She spent two days like this surviving on relief aid – food and drinking water. Initially, she was scared, but she made this in her mind that she had to survive at any cost for her children. When the situation got better, she climbed down, and the first thing she did was to make the clay stove. It took around an hour. When she was able to set fire, she felt happy though it was difficult to find dry wood or tree branches for the fire. After the flood, this is the first time she is cooking rice.
Sultana Begum returned to her house after 5 to 6 days when the flood water decreased. When trying to collect drinking water from the tube well, she had to pump out the dirty water for 10/15 minutes since it had been submerged. Flood water had also entered her house and washed away the mud stove in her kitchen. After coming back, she built another mud stove at the same place. It took half an hour. Now she is waiting for it to dry so she can start cooking again. All these days, she and her family depended on relief aid.
Imtiaz Ali, 50, lost his ancestral house and land in this flood. He also survived the flood of 1988 and 2004, which were very severe. For him, flooding is an annual phenomenon. But this time, it was the most dangerous. Most importantly, he lost everything he had. He also often feels unwell and worries about his wife and children. He is planning to build a new house with the help of his relatives soon.
Fahim is a young fisherman from a village in Sylhet. He and his father had two dinghy boats, and both of them used to go fishing separately. During this flood, his boat got destroyed in the storm. He has kept the broken pieces to set fire for cooking since, in the current situation, it is tough to get firewood. And now he will have to go fishing with his father in one single boat. Losing one boat definitely impacts their livelihood, but there is no other option now.
Villagers from different flood affected villages gather by boats to collect the relief aid.
(Left) Local aid workers bring drinking water by boat to distribute to the flood affected villages in Sylhet. (Right) People from the flood affected villages struggle to collect relief aid from a boat.
Rumana, 30, fled with her family on a boat. She is pregnant and has two children. She managed a temporary shelter in the high land areas and stayed there for one week. When she came back, she got a fever and diarrhoea. Her husband mostly stayed on the boat in search of relief medicine. Finally, they managed to get the medicine, and now she is taking it regularly.
Dilara Begum is a flood survivor who returned to her house after a week. When her house got flooded, she went to her parents’ house by boat. Her son Fahim (7 months old) caught a cold. She keeps the water in the sun to give her son a warm shower.
“This flood has troubled our life a lot. Especially when you are a family man, it’s more difficult. Saving your own life and your wife and children is not easy. No matter how difficult the situation is, can we stop living? We have to survive.”
Mohammad Imam Hossein previously lost his house twice in flood. Then he decided to come to this new village in Sunamganj and has been living here with his family for two years. He had a small tin shed grocery shop beside the river. His shop got damaged severely during this year’s flood. But somehow, he could save some of the tin sheets while the flood water washed everything away. He will rebuild another shop with those as soon as possible.
“I was very scared for my children. We only could save our life – nothing else. We are people of the river bank. This is how life is here.”
Abeda Khatun, a mother of two daughters, and two sons, lives in a village on the outskirt of Sylhet. Her house was submerged in the flood water. She left everything behind to save her and her children’s lives and went to the highland area by boat. She came back after ten days. She lost everything she had in her house. The flood water took everything away. Even her small hut got severely damaged. She collected waste materials like plastic and clothes and covered the damaged part of the wall of her house.
“We are brave because we have no other choices.”
Jamila Begum works in a fish factory. She is a single mother and the only earning member of her family. She made a raft with banana tree trunks and carried her children, old father and other relatives to a safe shelter beside the main road. Now she regularly moves around by the raft, checking up on her relatives’ houses. Daughter Nadia often accompanies her.