Bangladesh: Striking before disaster does

As floods threaten the nation, FAO teams up with UN allies in anticipatory action

Jamila Begum, who lives with her husband, three sons and their respective families in Kurigram district, tends to other people’s livestock for a livelihood. Anticipatory action keeps the cattle alive. ©FAO/Fahad Abdullah


“Wherever you look, there is water. You see people wading through knee-deep floods in search of shelter, carrying small livestock in their arms to find some place for them to feed – but often there is none,” says Robert Simpson, head of FAO’s office in Bangladesh.

He is describing the floods that have recently ravaged a third of the country – the worst in ten years. Such events can leave farming families’ lives and livelihoods in tatters, with hard-to-replace assets washed away or destroyed and their animals hungry and sick.

But even when flooding takes place at this magnitude, it is possible to help people prepare and withstand the water’s onslaught. This year, FAO and partners in Bangladesh used state-of-the-art data collection and predictive analytics to anticipate when the flooding would peak. They could thus intervene ahead of time, helping farming families secure their livestock and essential assets before the waters struck.

The intervention was made possible by an extraordinarily swift release of funds from the UN’s Central Emergency Response Fund (CERF), which took only four hours to make USD 5.2 million available – the fastest such funds have ever been disbursed in UN history.  As well as to FAO, funding went to the World Food Programme (WFP) and the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) to support a variety of protective interventions.

The rapid distributions were completed before the once-in-a-decade floods hit their peak in late July. Tens of thousands of people received supplies. FAO’s focus was on supporting nearly 19 000 small-scale farmers – altogether some 94 000 individuals – in in the Jamuna flood plains, in northwestern Bangladesh, with animal feed and waterproof storage for their seeds, grains and farming tools.

Left/top: Rafting to fetch drinking water in Shakrahati village. ©FAO/Fahad Abdullah Right/bottom: A “silo” is a floating barrel that allows people to store assets safely. ©FAO/Fahad Abdullah

The effort testifies to an increasing shift towards anticipating crises and acting while they still loom. The UN’s humanitarian chief, Mark Lowcock, has earmarked USD 140 million for anticipatory action projects around the world over the next 18 months, in which FAO will play a major role.

For such early interventions to succeed, they need to fit the needs of farmers in each country. Because many families in Bangladesh rely on their livestock and small-scale farming to make an income and feed themselves, they must be able to protect their farming assets to make it through and recover.

“The job of rearing small livestock falls predominantly to women in Bangladesh. When monsoons hit, many bring their animals to community livestock shelters in safe areas,” FAO’s Simpson notes. But, he adds, these shelters are no guarantee that animals will survive. “Overcrowding, feed shortages, a shortage of vaccines – all these can spark outbreaks of animal disease. This is especially in times of COVID-19, when access to veterinary care is more limited.”

The bags of animal feed provided to livestock keepers helped them keep their herds strong, healthy and productive throughout the floods and ongoing pandemic.

Each of the families also received a large plastic drum that can float, and ropes which allowed them to anchor their assets to their house or take them along when evacuating through flooded streets. FAO staff paid special attention to those who were most vulnerable, including single-headed or low-income households and landless people in fragile housing.

Acting early also means families do not have to take on debt; can keep children in school; and need not cut down on meals or reduce the quality of the food they eat. Moreover, anticipatory action saves limited aid budgets and protects years of hard-fought development gains that could otherwise be wiped out overnight.

Sustenance for a community under the double threat of the pandemic and the monsoon. ©FAO/Fahad Abdullah

“The joint action in Bangladesh is a great example of how data analysis and forward planning allows humanitarian partners to intervene when livelihoods can still be protected,” says Dunja Dujanovic, head of FAO’s anticipatory action team. “FAO is committed to doing the same for farming families, as part of anticipatory interventions we are preparing with our partners in other parts of the world.”

These include a USD 15 million CERF-funded intervention underway in Somalia to protect people against the triple threat of floods, desert locusts and COVID-19, and other projects across nine countries to protect farmers and pastoralists from the pandemic’s evolving impacts on their livelihoods.

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