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Bangladeshis learn flood survival

Basic education has helped to significantly reduce death tolls.

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Each year the floods come with greater force, but each year the women of Holokhana Shunashi are ready.

Like much of Bangladesh, their small village in the north is poor and highly vulnerable to annual floods. Last year, 40 percent of Bangladesh was inundated after a severe one-day rain like the one recently in Bombay (Mumbai), India.

In the past, such conditions might have spelled disaster when the monsoon floodwaters arrived between June and September.

But for several years now, the women have found refuge in a simple ritual, underscoring how basic education can mean the difference between devastation and survival.

On a recent morning, 25 women sat in the shadow of Nazma Begum, an instructor from the local flood- awareness center, which provides a daily training session during the flood season under the auspices of Zibika, a local NGO in Kurigram.

Using a picture book, Ms. Begum tested the women's knowledge of where to seek dry land, how to salvage belongings, and whom to contact for information. Their answers came quickly, with an air of battle-tested confidence.

Awareness centers like this have been replicated across Bangladesh, training women to become the first line of defense against the floods. "Women are the key people in this area," Begum says.

The community-based approach, started in the late 1990s, has changed how Bangladesh experiences its annual floods, and provided a model to preparedness workers throughout South Asia.

Bangladesh tops the global list of countries prone to natural disasters. It lies in the world's largest river delta, where two of Asia's greatest rivers, the Ganges and the Brahmaputra, empty into the Bay of Bengal. Every year these rivers overflow following heavy monsoon rains in the country and in neighbors farther north, like India and Nepal.

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