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Before the floods: How an early warning is saving lives in Bangladesh

The photograph shows a young woman navigating through a flood-affected area in Bangladesh using a raft made from banana tree trunks.

A CARE study found that 93 percent of people who received an early flood forecast took proactive measures to mitigate potential impacts. All photos: Asafuzzaman/CARE

A CARE study found that 93 percent of people who received an early flood forecast took proactive measures to mitigate potential impacts. All photos: Asafuzzaman/CARE

Because of the hundreds of rivers that traverse Bangladesh, over half the country is submerged every year by floods, costing countless lives and causing billions in damages. In 2020 alone, floods affected 40 percent of the country.

But for some communities in northern Bangladesh, the story of the annual disaster is changing.

By using an early flood-warning system, people from three northern districts – Kurigram, Gaibandha, and Jamalpur – have managed to mitigate their losses.

The idea is simple.

Ahead of the 2020 floods, local people received flood-related early warning messages and to-do advisories. Local volunteers and community members helped spread the messages, using various innovative approaches — from pre-recorded mobile voice messages to local broadcasts from mosques and other religious centers to loudspeakers mounted on boats and bicycles. These messages about the flood’s timing, duration, and to-be-affected areas helped save lives and properties.

“Since 2019, I’ve been receiving mobile voice messages from SUFAL, which have consistently kept my family and friends informed about approaching floods,” says Parveen, a local community group member.

What is SUFAL? 

SUFAL, an initiative that stands for “Scaling-Up Forecast-based Action and Learning,” was launched in 2019.

This community-based initiative SUFAL now works with 100,000 people across four northern districts to send these early messages and announcements to help local residents better prepare and take timely actions. CARE leads SUFAL with two other partners: Concern Worldwide and Regional Integrated Multi-Hazard Early Warning System. SUFAL, a consortium, is funded by the European Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid Operations (ECHO).

Boats equipped with loudspeakers are used to broadcast flood-related messages.
Bicycles with loudspeakers help spread flood-related early warnings.

People at the center and in action

Since SUFAL proactively disseminates early warnings and actionable recommendations, people are able to safeguard their lives and possessions before an approaching flood, which is essential because between 1971 and 2014, 78 floods claimed over 41,783 lives and inflicted significant economic losses.

“We receive guidance on seeking secure shelter, preserving dry food and fuel, stocking up on medicine, vaccinating cattle, protecting against snake bites by keeping carbolic acid at home, and monitor paddy fields – all before the flood arrives,” Parveen says.

SUFAL offers evacuation support for people to move to nearby shelters and other safer places.
Because of early warning messages, people can move to nearby shelters for safety.

In addition to mobile voice messages, SUFAL resorted to other traditional means of communications for better coverage. “We made announcements with loudspeakers, so that people from the inundated places could seek refuge in elevated locations,” CARE Bangladesh’s Fazlul says. “We offered a boat to evacuate.”

In SUFAL working areas, people play a pivotal role in disseminating information. Those who receive flood alerts via mobile phones proactively share the updates with their neighbors, especially those without access to a phone.

Parveen, a community group member, shares pre-recorded flood warnings with a neighbor without a mobile phone.
Residents with mobile phones regularly share flood warnings with their neighbors who lack access to or cannot afford a mobile device.

“This time [2020], one week ahead of the floods, I received voice messages delivered at least thrice in the evening, ” Parveen says. “Upon receiving advance flood alerts, some of my neighbors chose to harvest jute from their fields before the floods.”

Before the flood hits, people usually stock fodder as part of preparedness.
Flood preparation also includes vaccinating livestock.
Farmers then can take their cattle to nearby protective sheds ahead of any floods.

“After receiving forecasts, we took early actions like protecting our seedlings, arranging fodder and shelter for livestock,” says Ranju, a local resident. “We harvested our vegetables just before the flood,” adds Mukta, another resident.

How people are benefiting

A SUFAL evaluation found that 93 percent of people who received early flood forecasts took proactive actions to mitigate potential damage and losses. During the 2020 floods, each household was able to save over $200 and reduce the post-flood loan burden by up to 18 percent.

“SUFAL’s impact transcends mere statistics, resonating through the narratives of individuals such as Parveen, Mukta, Ranju and Siddik, underscoring the efficacy of community-driven approaches in disaster response and resilience,” says CARE’s Kaiser Rejvi, CARE Director in Bangladesh for Humanitarian & Climate Action Program.

“With the ability to predict floods through forecasts, we hope our sufferings will hopefully alleviate,” says Siddik, a community member, who earlier faced repeated inundation and displacement during floods.

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