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World - Asia/Pacific

Floods devastate rice Bangladesh rice fields

In this story:

November 28, 1998
Web posted at: 11:49 p.m. EST (0449 GMT)

SHAHABAZPUR, Bangladesh (CNN) -- Floods have destroyed more than two million tons of rice in Bangladesh, cutting rice production by at least 75 percent.

Agriculture, which provides a living for 80 percent of the country's 125 million people, has been hard hit by the floods with submerged three-fourths of this impoverished country for more than two months.

"Usually, one acre of land yielded one ton of rice, but today we have at best one fourth of the harvest," said farmer Hanu Miah, trudging home while balancing a load of rice plants on his head.

So many fields of rice have been destroyed that Bangladesh's annual food shortfall has been pushed to 4.3 million tons, according to official figures.

Miah's neighbor Mohammad Salahuddin said his family of 10, including his parents, would have starved if they had not saved some grain from last year's harvest.

"We are lucky to have some foodgrains left from the last season...otherwise we would have no food this year," he said.

Anxiety over heavy rains

Salahuddin is a wealthy farmer in Shahabazpur village in Brahmanbaria district east of the capital, Dhaka. He owns 10 acres (four hectares) and a business in the village market.

He bought most of the land with money he earned in Saudi Arabia as an expatriate worker, like many others in his village.

"Now we are trying to grow winter crops, like wheat, pulse and spices that could make up the shortfall partly. But that, too, depends on the unpredictable weather," Salahuddin said.

"A couple of days of heavy rain is enough to destroy pulse and spices," he added.

The next rice harvest was not expected for six months because the replanting of land was delayed by the floodwaters.

The government has been giving the villagers food and other help.

"All flood-hit villagers received plenty of relief goods during the floods. Later, the most affected families have been provided with VGF (vulnerable group feeding) cards," said Mohammad Ishaq, brother of village council member Mohammad Nasiruddin.

"Each card-holder receives 14 kg (31 lbs) of rice and wheat every month, which ensures at least one full meal for a family each day," Ishaq said.

Devastated farmers sold cattle

It is not easy to begin farming again. Many villagers sold their cattle for money or because they were unable to feed them during the floods. Now they have no money to buy draught animals to till their land, Salahuddin said.

Now villagers are selling their milk-giving cows -- their last valued possession -- at unusually low prices.

"A cow giving three and a half litres of milk daily was sold at no less than 14,000 taka ($290) before the floods. Now you can buy one at 8,000 taka," Miah said.

The floods, which killed more than 1,500 people, also hit the rural economy in other ways.

It washed away fish from tanks and forced villagers to sell their poultry and to borrow from individual lenders and non-government organisations at huge interest.

Money lenders charge at least 25 percent interest annually and some charge more than 100 percent, villagers said. The maximum one-time loan to a villager is 6,000 taka.

"I borrowed 1,000 taka at 100 taka interest per month," one villager said. "They (private lenders) squeeze us to the bones to get their money back."

Fraud a constant problem

The government says loans are available from banks at better terms but they seem to elude the mostly illiterate villagers, who are often misled or cheated by village headmen or their agents.

Bank officials, however, said they did not discriminate against villagers or delay processing their loan applications.

At the same time, the Asian financial crisis has forced the return of many expatriate workers from countries that can no longer afford them. Many have returned from Malaysia.

"Thousands are coming back every month. I believe no expatriate workers would be able to stay on there (Malaysia) for long," said Mohammad Aslam, who returned to Shahabazpur this month.

There is hardly any family in this village without one or more members working abroad.

"I had my dreams...while working in a rubber plantation near Kuala Lumpur. Now I am afraid of my future. I had sold my land for passage money to Malaysia," he said.

Expatriate Bangladeshis send home nearly $1.5 billion a year -- the nation's biggest source of foreign income after exports worth $5.0 billion.

Reuters contributed to this report.

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