Tuesday, December 27, 2011
Jobeda, 45, has already been forced to move 10 times due to floods and river erosion. The resident of Fular char, an island in the riverine district of Kurigram, has struggled to feed herself and her daughter after her husband remarried, living on just Tk.10-20 per day from her earnings from maid work.
As a female-headed household, Jobeda and her daughter are particularly vulnerable, yet such impermanence, food insecurity and low, unstable incomes are the reality of the daily existence for hundreds of thousands of people living on the chars of North-West Bangladesh, home to some of the poorest people in the country.
Island chars are formed as a result of river erosion and silt deposition. The chars are continually reformed as the westward shifting Jamuna River creates and destroys land in its path, causing near-annual flooding which leaves many households with little other option but to live on their rooftops.
The temporary nature of the chars and their detachment from the mainland means poor infrastructure, communication and limited access to markets and services. Yet the majority of the Jamuna Chars are inhabited and cultivated.
The limited employment and livelihoods opportunities mean that most chars dwellers earn a meagre subsistence living from the land. Dependence on the land is most apparent during the seasonal hunger period — monga — the period between the planting and harvesting of the aman crop when few agricultural employment opportunities are available. During this period many chars men migrate to find work. This combination of factors offer little prospect for chars dwellers to move out of extreme poverty.
The Chars Livelihoods Programme (CLP) seeks to improve the livelihoods, incomes and food security of up to one million extremely poor men, women and children living on island chars. This is done by increasing social and economic assets, reducing economic and environmental risks and improving access to markets and services.
The precarious livelihoods of chars dwellers are exacerbated by their lack of physical, social and economic assets. During the seasonal decline in employment between mid-September and mid- November, households usually cope by selling the few assets they have and borrowing money for food. Depletion of the already low savings and asset base leaves the poorest with nothing to fall back on.
During annual flooding, water borne diseases are widespread and there is a lack of safe drinking water available. To reduce the environmental risks faced by the chars dwellers, the CLP raises homesteads on plinths 60 cm above the highest known flood level to mitigate flooding and provides access to safe drinking water and sanitary latrines.
The cornerstone of CLP’s holistic approach is the transfer of an income generating asset of the household’s choice, to the value of Tk.16,000. 99% of households choose cattle as they are considered secure investments and their mobility makes them suitable to the itinerant chars lifestyle. The CLP provides training to enable participants to generate a sustainable income from their asset and initially provides a monthly stipend to offset the need to sell assets during crises. A CLP survey shows that households’ asset values and average incomes have increased and households continue to build assets after support from the CLP ends.
The transfer of physical assets alone is not sufficient to achieve sustainable development. Therefore, CLP complements the asset transfer with social development group meetings which improve community cohesion, enhance participants’ awareness of civil rights and laws, and increase their knowledge of issues concerning health, hygiene and disaster preparedness. This increased social capital is vital to equip the communities to act collectively to lobby the government and demand food security, education and healthcare. All these remain unmet needs at the moment in the remote and underdeveloped chars.
Access to health services is particularly limited in the chars and many chars dwellers rely on traditional healers known as kabiraj. The CLP trains and funds community health workers to run satellite health clinics and increase awareness of health, hygiene, nutrition and family planning issues at the household level, as well as offering referrals to the mainland. As the CLP prepares to phase out of some areas, Brac will move into the chars areas and continue provision of healthcare services under a similar model to the CLP’s.
Improving market access and linkages are essential to increase the livelihood options for chars dwellers. The CLP focuses particularly on market systems for livestock products to develop profitable opportunities within the uncertainty of the chars context. This entails a range of projects from fodder production, to milk marketing, model poultry rearing, training livestock services providers and poultry vaccinators and establishing village savings and loans groups.
Chars dwellers’ dependence on seasonal labour means that when the demand for agricultural labour is low during monga, many households become food insecure. The CLP creates employment through a cash-for-work project that uses local labour in the construction of homestead plinths. The CLP also provides safety-net grants for the most vulnerable, such as widows and the disabled who are unable to work during this period.
Poor communication, lack of access to markets and basic services, dependence on daily labour and seasonal migration, exacerbated by continual erosion and annual flooding trap the chars dwellers in a cycle of extreme poverty. The CLP has demonstrated that it is possible to work in this challenging environment to improve the livelihoods of its inhabitants. There is indeed scope for the government and other development organisations to respond to these challenges to improve the livelihoods of chars dwellers, who are some of the poorest citizens of Bangladesh, and to contribute to the Millennium Development Goal of reducing poverty and hunger.
The writers work for the Chars Livelihoods Programme.