Between the horns of the disaster risk reduction dilemma

Fariha Sarawat

Published by the Daily Star on 14 October 2009.

MODHUMITA, a housewife and mother of two, hasn’t had a full night’s sleep since May not since her house and the small shrimp hatchery her family owned got washed away by Cyclone Aila and her two small children almost died.

The last time I was down in her village Shakbaria: a small community of about a 40-50 mainly Hindu families on the south-western coastal belt of Khulna her family of seven was still living in a makeshift house made of straw, fronds and plastic sheeting provided by Save the Children UK.

This was almost four months after the Cyclone had hit the house that got washed away. That was an NGO-prescribed “climate-resilient” variety of the kind that had been built to stand tall even against the onslaught of violent, tropical storms. It got washed away by the fierce tidal surge of unprecedented velocity. The early warning systems in place had only predicted the storm, not the ferocity of the tidal surge. The collateral damage was not caused by the storm, but by the mighty tidal surge that it had propelled. This shows once again that we need to scale up our disaster risk reduction efforts and hone our early warning systems.

I have worked with two different kinds of climate change survivors the ones who live at the forefront, on the coast, and deal with the frequent calamities, and the ones who have migrated to the cities because they figured survival, which is hard enough in this part of the world under normal circumstances, would just be easier if they didn’t have to fight a huge storm or flood every few months.

The latter group seems to be increasing in number. But not out of choice.

For the families who live at the coast, migration to cities is not a choice; it’s a necessity. The coast now has fewer jobs, less arable land, or even dry land to build houses on; schools get flooded and closed down; trees, crops and vegetation are dying from salinity, and fresh drinking water is always scarce in supply.

But here’s the ironythings are worse in the cities.

The cities are overcrowded. The slums where the migrant families take shelter are already too cramped with their former residents. The condition of the sewerage system is abominable, and it continues to contaminate drinking water sources; housing is scarce and expensive, as is the general cost of living. Hence entire families, including the young children, have to work for food and rent. I met one ten-year-old boy in a Dhaka slum called Rubel, who’s been working since he was just five years old. His parents had moved to Dhaka after their home had been washed away by river erosion.

Sitting here at the forefront of climate change, we hear talks of helping climate change migrants cope with their changing lives in the city. While I applaud this effort, I can’t help but wonder if this is how we’re looking at reducing risks and damage from disastersby shifting people away from the disaster zones.

Is this not myopic? Will it be sustainable?

Where are we planning on whisking people away? We have no space!

As the world gears up for the December talks in Copenhagen, life is still not picking up speed in the Aila-devastated areas of Khulna and Satkhira. With scores of families still living in makeshift houses on the embankment and children still dependent on humanitarian aid for their basic needs of food, safe drinking water, and medicine, and most importantly a safe shelter, life is still far from “normal”.

But what is most jarring about the whole tragedy is that given the present trends in climate changehigher frequency and intensity in disasters, more forceful tidal waves and rising water levels this “makeshift” lifestyle can become the norm for the region.

How will these people cope? Who will help them? Or will they also be forced to migrate?

While most of the world’s brilliant minds are occupied with developing complicated models and equations to figure out the phenomena, very little is being done to help the people living at the forefront adapt to their changing situation. People like Rubel and Modhumita are the human faces of the climate change. And while the world negotiates the policy trade offs, they’re the ones left to pick up the piecesa job that is becoming increasingly difficult.

After the next disaster that strikes Bangladesh, Modhumita, like Rubel’s family, will also move to the city, which will in no way improve her situationthis is provided of course that we are able to save the family from the next flood or cyclone. Without a comprehensive disaster risk reduction and emergency preparedness plan in place, saving people from the onslaught of high frequency disasters will get increasingly difficult.

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