Lessons From Aila

Fariha Sarawat

Published by the Forum on 5 October 2009.

This piece surveys the aftermath of an under-reported tragedy.

For the residents of the south-western coast of Bangladesh, John Donne’s immortal sermon has become a way of life: never send for whom the bell tolls. It tolls for thee.

With every disaster come a new batch of hardened, jaded survivors who have not only lost faith in the mercy and sense of justice of the higher powers, but also in the general populace’s will to help them out of their plight. They even give up trying to wonder how many of them will survive to see the next disaster and whether we’ll be able to save them the next time.

“Amader kotha ki shobai bhule gese?” is a question that resounds in every disaster affected area within months after a disasterof the event. After days of talking about the victims, within weeks we forget about the survivors. There are needs and responsibilities that transcend the immediate relief and rescue effortsthe need for recovery, sustenance and survival, and our responsibility to help build capacities of the survivors and of future generations because the next disaster is never too far.

The trail of devastation left by Cyclone Aila is still quite visible in most parts of Shyamnagar and Ashashuni upazillas of Satkhira, and, Koyra and Dacope upazillas of Khulna. Even months after the cyclone, the affected families are trying to rebuild their lives against the onslaught of a continuing fresh water crisis and the recurring collapse of the damaged river embankments. Schools are still closed as buildings are being repaired or rebuilt, and books and study materials are being replaced. Children are still dependent on humanitarian aid for their basic needs of food, safe drinking water, medicine and most importantly a safe shelter.

The bank of hope
The lives and livelihoods of the people who live in the southern coast of Bangladesh are intricately linked to the “polders” of embankments that protect them from the saline, coastal rivers. On May 25 2009, Cyclone Aila damaged over 1700 kms of the embankment, with complete collapses in several points that aggravated the plight of the local people.

This embankment, built in the 1960s, had not only been a source of protection from the saltine coastal rivers for the families living on the coast, but was also a source of income. Before Aila, fenced-off blocks of “ghers” shrimp and crab hatcheries and rice fields that had been the primary occupation of the residents of these villages had lined each side of the embankment. The embankment was, in many areas, the only road that reached remote areas like Bedkashi in Koyra and Gabura in Satkhira, transporting produce from farms and hatcheries, medicine and other essential supplies and allowing daily commute.

The tidal surge had washed everything away.
The damaged embankment is now home to thousands who lost their homes to the cyclone and have been unable to rebuild it partly because they don’t have the resources and partly because the embankments continues to collapse at old and new points, with every new moon tide–gon–and heavy downpours, despite continuous repair. The river mud being used for repair work either gets washed down by the rain or the high-tide, causing the weakened structure to cave in frequently. The make-shift houses on the embankment are by no means safe, sanitary or sustainable. Every time the embankment collapses, the nearby houses get flooded.

There are varying opinions on how and why such a large stretch of the embankments collapsed in a day.

In a blanket statement the government agencies had placed the blame on the shrimp farmers who had created holes in the river embankment to pipe in salt water from the coastal rivers into their hatcheries, weakening the structure.

Whilst this is true in many areas of Shyamnagar, Koyra and Paikgacha, there are other areas such as Dacope, where the residents are currently engaged in rice farming which as we know does not require salt water. Moreover, even the shrimp farmers in Dacope had been using sluice gates, built as part of the embankment, for irrigation. The locals of Dacope apportion the blame between a fierce tidal surge of unforeseen velocity and a poorly built and maintained embankment. Whilst the former claim is presently ascribed to climate change, the latter certainly can be attributed to a more definitive human folly.

While some damage to the embankment was surely done by the locals, one can’t help but wonder about the role played by the government agencies. Surely the pipes that punctured the structure were not built overnight and maintenance is not a one-off task. When the government’s Water Policy clearly states that any structural modification to the embankment must be investigated and approved by the Water Development Board, one can easily ask why the hatcheries were allowed to be built, cultured and developed on the embankment for years, why mangroves that were planted on the underlying buffer zone to keep the salt water away were uprooted to build fences for the hatcheries and why the relevant government agencies had turned a blind eye to the disaster when it was in the offing?

The discourse on why the embankment collapsed is by no means a monolith. Till date, no agency has been able to confirm if the tidal surge caused by Cyclone Aila had been entirely responsible for damaging the embankment or whether it was the punctures caused by shrimp hatcheries, decades of poor maintenance, or the culmination of all of the above. The communities who live around the embankments have the right to these answers because only by solving this conundrum will we know how to protect them in the long run. Merely building or repairing embankments in the existing manner may not help us in future if the pattern of elements that affect it rising water levels, increasing salinity, higher frequency of disasters or in other words climate change, is addressed and we build our embankments to be “climate-proof”. Furthermore, the entire process, wishful as this may sound, will need to be corruption free and participatory the communities whose lives and livelihoods depend on the embankment must be included in the decision making processes; not just in the cash for work construction phase. The communities need to understand how it is in their own interest to safeguard the embankment and therefore they must have a say in where and how it will be built or repaired.

Why couldn’t we warn them?
We now know that the scale of damage can be accredited to the fierce, over thirteen-foot high tidal surge that engorged everything that came in its path. But what is not clear is why the early warning system, which had warned the affected families of the storm, had failed to predict the velocity and ferocity of the tidal surge.

“We had heard a storm was coming the night before. When it began to rain early in the day, it didn’t look like a fierce storm. Then all of a sudden, water came gushing in from all sides and pretty soon, we were in waist-deep water. The current was so strong that I was struggling to just stay afloat, I couldn’t even swim up to the embankment, let alone save my own children”, recalls Nomita Mondol and her husband Shadeb Chandra Mondol.

The Mondol family, like other residents of Uttor Bedkashi union of Koyra sub-district Khulna, is in a unique and very dangerous predicament. Coastal rivers flow on each side of their village and when the tidal surge came, they were inundated by a swift and powerful tidal wave that washed away their home and belongings within minutes.

“We barely managed to stay alive. My wife and children were saved by neighbours. It was indescribable,” Shadeb Chandra remembers. “In my 48 years I had never seen a flood like it. I don’t know what we will do next time.”


Bayazid Akter/Driknews

Even by conservative estimates, the global-mean sea level is expected to rise by at least 55cm by 2050, and the Third Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) estimates that by 2100, the global mean will increase by 88cm. For Bangladesh that could mean that the volume of water in the coastal rivers will increase and we can see the coast being hit by tidal surges even more powerful than the one caused by Cyclone Aila.

Therefore, there is an immediate need to hone our early warning systems.

Who will fund this scale up? We need to discuss this immediately. Given how Bangladesh is not even negligibly responsible for global sea level rise, the countries who have contributed to the causal factors of climate change must step up, take responsibility and right the wrong by committing to cut down their carbon emissions. Donor countries must also look outside of just relief efforts for survivors of climate change and focus on helping communities adapt to their changing climate.

Children at the fore front
Disasters are frightening for adults, they are terrifying for children. Children are not just traumatized by the damage to their homes, schools and neighborhoods, but their fear is also heightened by seeing their distressed and anxious parents. Children are the most vulnerable after a disaster because it changes the very realm of their living environment and destroys their comfort zones. They are unable to get regular meals, they stop going to school, and in most cases they end up sleeping under the open sky or in make shift houses which pose a serious threat to their security.

Diarrhea is one of the most common causes of child deaths during and after disasters, even though it is easily preventable. Malnutrition and discontinued breastfeeding are other threats to children’s lives during emergencies, both of which can be easily addressed through interventions such as continued breastfeeding and low-cost, highly nutritious food supplements.

Breastfeeding mothers are also often unable to breastfeed because of stress, lack of privacy and overcrowding. This increases the chance of young, breastfed children becoming ill or suffering from malnutrition, and the younger they are, the more vulnerable they are.

Hence, immediately after an emergency, there is a need to establish at least one safe area in a community where children can come to just be children. They can come to play, study and retain some semblance of normalcy in their upturned lives as they recover from the disaster. Lactating mothers are also able to use such spaces to breastfeed their children with some peace and privacy.

Immediately after Cyclone Aila, Save the Children set up 145 such safe places that provided support to 314 lactating mothers and protected over 7 000 children daily. But there still remains a need to scale up these efforts on a national scale. The safety and security of children during emergencies need to be addressed on a national scale.

The most wonderful thing about children is their inherent ability to learn and adapt. Given the right support, guidance and tools, children can develop the skills and resiliency to adapt to climate change and be better prepared for disasters. Therefore, all efforts to reduce or mitigate the risks from and of disasters must include children, as participants and at the fore front.

Bangladesh needs a child-centered community-based framework where children play leading roles in their communities to minimize the negative impacts of disasters. This will include meaningful and ethical child participation in assessing, planning, implementing, monitoring and evaluating, all predicated on the principles outlined by the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, to which Bangladesh is a signatory. This will mean that whilst children will play lead roles with the support of adults in their communities, the responsibility and accountability for preparedness, mitigation and response will still lie with adults.


Tomzid Mollick/Driknews

Additionally, we must build the schools’ capacity to deal with disasters. For example, through Save the Children programs in India, children take part in the design and reconstruction initiatives of houses in their communities and in schools they form committees to identify and mitigate risks and hazards. In Sri Lanka, children take part in formulating their communities’ preparedness plans and schools include risk reduction messages in the curriculum. Children also play an active role in the reconstruction of schools to ensure they are child friendly and draw up hazard and evacuation maps that best address their unique needs. In Bangladesh, Save the Children, following up on their earlier disaster risk reduction work, in partnership with Plan International and support from Unicef have just begun an Education in Emergencies program that aims to reduce risk and damage to the education systems during disasters.

We will never be able to prevent disasters. But we can prevent people from dying. The people of Bangladesh have historically demonstrated their resilience in the face of disastersfrom the cyclone of 1970 to 1991 to Sidr, and now Aila, or the floods of 1974, 1988 or 1998. With every disaster, we have learnt something new. We have learnt to reduce the death toll.

Now is the time to think about the survivors. We must be able to provide the child survivors of disasters with a better life.

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