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During last year’s severe flooding, Rahima was out in the field when the water started to rise. She raced back to her small hut to find her children cowering neck deep in water. “They can’t swim and didn’t understand what was happening,” she says tearfully. “They must have been so scared. We were lucky they didn’t drown.” Rahima and her husband swam to safety, each carrying a child on their back.
The family is waiting to move to the new plinth.
“Moving to a safer environment will be better for us. Due to my children’s disabilities, I live in constant fear of what might happen to them,” says Rahima. “They are constantly sick. One currently has a waterborne skin infection. We get all their medication for free from the Friendship clinic; we couldn’t afford it otherwise.” As main carer, Rahima capacity to work is limited.
Friendship has built 20 plinths since 2011. Each costs around £40,000 to build. Photograph: Courtesy of Friendship
A recent UN report
highlights how women’s lack of access to and control over basic resources makes them even more vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. “Climate impacts are not gender-neutral and affect women and girls more due to societal norms and gender inequalities,” says Maud Aba’a, a project officer at UN Women Bangladesh. “Restricted mobility, especially in the char areas, puts women in Bangladesh at higher risk during climate disasters and at a greater disadvantage. A long-term solution requires a more gender-centred approach.”
Friendship has set up disaster management committees and encourages women to join. “We can all work together to find better ways to keep the community safe,” says Sohrab Hossain, the chair of Austamir char. “Women need to be a part of key decision making as they are the most impacted.”
Several factors are taken into consideration for each plinth, including making space for a schoolroom. “Both the school and our home are solar powered, which means my daughter can study in the evenings and access resources,” says Shoneka Begum, 26, who moved to a plinth in Goynar Potol village, south of Chilmari in 2018.
Shoneka Begum with her children. They moved to a plinth in Goynar Potol in 2018. Photograph: Farzana Hossen/The Guardian
She is determined her three children should get a good education. “It is the only way out of this poverty,” says Begum. Her husband is a vegetable farmer earning 4,000 taka a month, which pushes the couple towards taking loans to make ends meet, a common practice in the community, but microfinance company loans come with interest, often pushing people further into debt.
Begum lives in one of the bigger buildings on the plinth. Her home acts as a temporary shelter during emergencies. In 2020, extreme flooding in the village meant she had to take in approximately 50 people. “I don’t mind helping,” says Begum. “I know how tough it gets down there for families not yet living on a plinth – we all need to help where we can.”
For Begum, living on raised land means she fears her children might hurt themselves. “My son is only two and is constantly running off,” she says. “I’m always having to watch him in case he falls off.” But design features are being built in, for instance, the pond at the centre is barricaded to prevent children falling in and stoves are built away from the reach of young arms.
On the other side of the plinth lives Ibrahim Mollah. “It gets so exhausting moving from one place to another,” he says, sitting outside his home on a warm afternoon. At 80, Mollah finally feels a sense of stability. “I no longer have to worry about what will happen when the flood comes in. And it always does eventually.”
Ibrahim Mollah and his wife Shurjo in their home in Goynar Potol. Photograph: Farzana Hossen/The Guardian
Mollah and his wife, Shurio, have been displaced three times; each of three homes washed away during different floods. In 2015, the couple almost drowned.
“We were so scared. The water kept rising and I no longer had the energy to swim,” recalls Mollah. “My wife was holding on to one arm and I could feel her slipping away. I could see dead animals floating around us. I didn’t think we would make it that day.” They were rescued by a passing boat. “We spent the next few months living in a shared emergency shelter. It was very difficult.”
Mollah and Shurio now take regular walks around the pond and can access a nearby medical clinic. “The plinths have been designed so thoughtfully,” says Mollah. “There are people and homes all around us, which makes us feel less isolated. It is more than just a raised hill, there is an intentional sense of community here.”
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