David Snyder on Bangladesh

Dhaka, Bangladesh, September 12, 2008: In Dhaka for one night after five days here in Bangladesh. It’s my first time to Bangladesh, and while the learning curve is often steep when you arrive for short work trips in new countries, the numbers here are particularly hard to get your head around.

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Construction projects like this are part of rebuilding efforts undertaken after Cyclone Sidr hit Bangladesh November 2007. Photo by David Snyder for CRS

Bangladesh is one of the most heavily populated countries in the world – 153 million people living in a country slightly smaller than the U.S. state of Iowa. Imagine half of the entire US population living in one state, then flood it, and you get an idea of what Bangladesh is dealing with. Some estimate that as many as 41 percent of the population subsists on less than $1/day and 70 percent subsists on less than $2/day – consuming less than 800 calories a day – while increasingly frequent natural disasters, from large-scale flooding to cyclones, are taking a toll on the country’s poor.

I traveled to several of those affected areas this week to see Catholic Relief Services projects, implemented through local partner Caritas Bangladesh. Down south in the district of Bagerhet, I saw massive rebuilding projects following Cyclone Sidr, which struck Bangladesh on 15 November 2007, destroying more than 363,000 homes and affecting a staggering 8.9 million people. CRS is funding the construction of 2,500 new homes – part of the 7,300 total homes Caritas is rebuilding following that storm.

Traveling to the north-central district of Sirajgang, I spent time in communities facing another type of disaster – massive flooding that has left many of their villages cut off by water.

Though seasonal flooding has always been a way of life in this region, where floodwaters from neighboring India routinely inundate low-lying Bangladesh, those floods have intensified in recent years, destroying homes and damaging existing tube wells, upon which all there depend for clean water. CRS is working to provide new tube wells – 334 in all – as well as repairing and decontaminating those 432 existing wells that have been damaged. Additional projects include 2,646 household latrines, 10 community block latrine s to support the high risk families, and 940 new shelters for the most vulnerable families affected by 2007 South Asia floods.

Yesterday I saw another side of CRS work here, visiting a school built by Caritas Bangladesh that provides pre-primary school education to impoverished local youth in a remote village called Sangoil. Of the many projects I have seen through my work with CRS, education projects are among my favorite, both for the beautiful photographs they offer, and for the impact that such programs have on impoverished communities.

In Sangoil, which got a paved road only two years ago, 56 students now have access to early childhood education, preparing them for national primary school at a time when many in Bangladesh are simply helping their families take care of their homes and farms. For me, such projects are the best way to help break the cycle of poverty that grips so many countries around the world.

Off now to Bosnia.

– David Snyder

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