I’m blown away by Hasna Khatun, the bold young lady from the cluster village that I’ve just visited.
I asked her, given the chance, what would she ask of UN Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon and she replied, “I would ask him to visit my village and build similar settlements for people struggling from floods, like we were.” Hasna Khatun lives in Sharadpur, in the flood-prone Sirajganj district of Bangladesh where ActionAid’s partner has built a cluster of houses.
This ‘cluster village’ as it is called, is a raised piece of land with houses, latrines, tubewells for drinking water, a pond, a place for homestead gardening and livestock-rearing; and a community room for 10 households. Importantly, each individual household is owned by a person or family who was once landless and affected by floods.
Hasna couldn’t even remember when floodwaters had destroyed her home - it was so long ago. Some of the other women I spoke to had been living on the roadside for decades before finding a home here. In Bangladesh, all the productive and useful land is owned by 5-10% of an elite class of industrialists and landowners. The rest are landless.
When ActionAid talks about working with the most vulnerable people this is what it looks like. This initiative is working with landless people who, when I was chatting to them, were able to identify the risks they faced and at the same time were extremely confident that their new home and livelihoods wouldn’t be washed away. They felt safe.
The government had, a few years back, built shacks for these same households, but they were not liveable in. One elderly member of the community told me that when it rained, water flowed under the walls and streamed under his bed. Most people abandoned this thoughtlessly designed government housing. In contrast, people valued living in the cluster village, which provided them with a design and lifestyle that preserved their dignity and valued them as people who could thrive.
As I walked around the village, I was amazed by the proliferation of vegetable plants and fruit trees, cultivated by the community. They were trained in courtyard gardening for vegetables, but diversified into growing papaya, bananas, mangoes, pomegranate and were even experimenting with lemon trees. On the trellises outside their front doors they grew gourds and the slopes of the raised structures that they lived on were reinforced with strong grass varieties that prevented the soil slopes from eroding away when floodwaters came.
The community decided to raise ducks, cattle and chickens to supplement their income. A few had weaving and sewing machines – a seasonal livelihood for some. Speaking to the community, they told me how they made 3000 taka (£24) per month from selling their surplus fruits and vegetables. They consumed produce worth around 1500-2000 taka (£12-£16) per month, which they would have to otherwise buy from the market.