What they aren’t Telling us about Cyclone Aila

Fariha Sarawat

Published in the Star Weekend Magazine on 26 June 2009.

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We can’t even find dry place to bury the dead, this is worse than Sidr: a resident of Nolia village remarked. Nolia village is located at the interior of the Khulna delta, in the Sutarkhali union of Dacope upazila, and is among the regions worst affected by Cyclone Aila. We have never seen so much water before, not even in ’88, stranded residents of Nolia village informed us. Making our way into the interiors of the south-western coastal delta of Khulna, much of which now lies inundated in salt water, with plants, fish and vegetation rotting in it, we came across many small villages like Nolia. The sight of dry land and fresh water was an anomaly in our journey.

On May 25, Cyclone Aila swept across the south-western coastal belt of Bangladesh, packing winds of upto 90 kmph, propelling tidal waves 13 ft high, and damaging over 1700 km of river embankments, washing away the lives and livelihoods of people in different places. Khulna is among the worst-affected districts, followed very closely by Satkhira.

The scale of the damage caused by Aila is much larger than the damage caused by Cyclone Sidr. In some places, particularly in Khulna where I was in the week following Aila, people have been living in make-shift houses on any available highland because the flood had washed away everything but the clothes on their back. Cyclone Sidr had damaged homes, crops, and livestock overnight. But Aila, with its stagnant, saline flood waters, is like a slow poison that is steadily, but surely, killing vegetation, fish and fruits, destroying arable land, and leaving behind a trail of homeless, internally displaced people whose homes have either been water-logged, completely inundated, or destroyed by the flood and livelihoods– their assets and occupations– have been destroyed. According to official figures, over 200,000 people have been displaced, the actual numbers might be higher.

In Dacope, whole villages have been lost to the flood. From the trawler that carried us to the interior of the delta, southwards towards Sutarkhali, all we could see was water. Sutarkhali was about five hours away from Khulna city. It seemed the rivers had devoured everything that had stood in their paths. Of the four severely-affected unions of Dacope, almost 90% of Sutarkhali and Komorkhola, and, 40% of Banishanta, and 25% of Tiladanga remain inundated in flood water varying in depths of between 1 to 5 feet. It is feared that the upcoming full moon and the monsoon rains will make the situation worse by causing a further rise in water levels.

The government and NGOs, national and international, are working very hard to assist the survivors of Aila. But the fact that there is little awareness of how bad things are at the coast is hampering our ability to take some crucial decisions about the long-term effects of Aila.

And All the Boards Did Sink
The availability of dry, safe places is scarce in Koyra and non-existent in the interiors of Dacope. The river embankments have been damaged in some places and have completely collapsed in others, making it difficult to tell floodwater and river-water apart. In some places, you couldn’t tell that a village, with people, homes, schools, rice-fields, crops, children and their games had ever existed there because the river has submerged everything.

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We could just see the thatched roofs of sunken houses in some places, looking as though they were floating. Lone school buildings stood tall in the middle of the waters looking forlorn. Since the storm hit, all of the schools have been shut.

In Koyra upazilla Aila caused a flood that kept the entire area inundated for two days. Even weeks after the storm, about 60% of the upazilla area still remains waterlogged in at least ankle-deep water during high tide. Most residents of the river-side Gazirpara, Maizerhait, Gabbunia and Shakbaria villages of Uttor Bedkashi Union, Koyra have lost their homes and belongings to Aila and are now living in make-shift houses on the scattered remains of the river embankment, the only dry highland available. Some are residing in cyclone shelters and the homes of other villagers whose houses are not water-logged. Large numbers have migrated outside of the region is search of shelter and food security.

Schools out
The children in the Aila-affected areas are suffering from diarrhoea and skin diseases brought on by their unhygienic living conditions and the salinity of the floodwater. Their playgrounds are submerged in water that is almost five feet high in some places.

They now spend their time on the remains of the embankment waiting for relief or at least a distraction from their struggles. They have not had the chance to be near books or pencils in at least ten days.

In Koyra, around 25,500 students are enrolled in 125 primary and community schools. 118 of these schools have been affected and 71 have been damaged. 7,100 students are enrolled in the 18 secondary schools that have been affected. 19 out of 22 madrasahs have been badly affected, as have been 3 colleges.

Almost 90% of the children have lost their reading materials and uniforms.

In Dacope, I spoke to Laboni, a traumatised 11 year old whose entire family had to hold on to a tree for over four hours when the embankment collapsed and the flood gushed in, destroying all the things that of were of any value to her.

“All my school material is gone. I have no clothes but the ones I am wearing she said with tears in her eyes. Did you bring anything for us?” another villager interjected as I spoke to Laboni. We’re surrounded by so much water, but we can’t drink any of it they echoed the ancient mariner.

Schools and colleges have been shut down because of flooding, and the ones that remain usable are being used as shelters for the homeless. In Dacope, schools are inaccessible as they remain submerged in water.

The Long-term Imperatives
Over 1700km of river embankment has been damaged. The saline water has contaminated most, if not all, fresh water sources available. Though de-watering of the contaminated sources is underway, a vast majority of people are dependent on water purification plants, bottled water and purification tablets. The odds of the water receding are slim given that the monsoon is already here and there is no longer an embankment. Repairing the earthen embankment is quite a challenge as the repairs continue to get washed away by the rain and the tidewater.

We face long term challenges in terms of agriculture and other livelihood options as the salt water stagnation over a longer period of time will kill all the remaining local plants, fruit trees, destroy arable soil and kill fish. Already, banana, jackfruits and berry trees have been found to be dead or dying.

The only work available is embankment repair under the Government’s ‘food for work’ and ‘cash for work’ programmes, but payments in cash and kind have not been regular. In the long term, we have to explore climate resilient livelihood options for example, salt-water resistant plants and crops for the residents as salinity is going to be a long-term problem.

The people in the severely affected unions have felt compelled to sell surviving cattle and poultry for meagre prices, for lack of animal fodder and poultry feed, and need for food and drinking water. Some are sending off cows and goats to relatives’ homes in un-inundated places with the hope of at least retaining their productive assets.

The fisherman, who would previously go out to the Sundarbans for a day’s catch, are stranded at home with no fishing nets or boats, as the storm had blown or washed them away. These are the same fisherman who had finally just recovered from the blow dealt by Cyclone Sidr in November 2007.

Outward migration from some areas is probably permanent as water levels are not expected to recede anytime soon. We’re talking about villages of displaced people who will need shelter, food and eventually a job. And ominously, there has been an increase in girl/child trafficking in these regions.

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The struggle to rebuild their lives. With scores of displaced people still living in makeshift houses on river embankments, suffering from an acute lack of food and drinking water, we are still in the midst of a problem that calls for more.

Break the silence, NOW
As daunting as the long-term challenges are, we can overcome them. We have overcome worse natural disasters in our history.

But, there is something different about this disaster. The biggest obstacle facing the survivors today is the strange sound of silence about their plight. The biggest hurdle that we face in survivor rehabilitation is general apathy. No one seems to be taking the situation seriously enough. There has been no visit to the river embankments, where the displaced people reside, by senior officials. The print and electronic media report more important issues like oaths to change the country. And the chattering classes babble on a general’s retirement, oblivious to the disaster.

The donors and international NGOs can’t release funds towards rehabilitation till the Aila survivors’ predicament is given the profile it deserves–a profile that calls for immediate action for rehabilitation. And yet, the government, with a bold refusal to solicit external help, seems to be playing down the crisis. The government is now solely responsible for helping these people recover from this situation. Saying no to help is fine, just as long as we are able to solve the problem by ourselves. With scores of displaced people still living in makeshift houses on river embankments, suffering from an acute lack of food and drinking water, we are still in the midst of a problem that calls for more. We are in the throes of a humanitarian crisis that seems to be spinning out of control. The immediate task is to break the silence on it.

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