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    Volume 9 Issue 22| May 28, 2010|

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The Brewing Storm

Shudeepto Ariquzzaman

On May 20, 2010 the skies finally opened up, pouring heavy rain onto the capital and much of the country. While this welcome rain provided respite from the onslaught of the scorching summer heat that was tormenting the people, it was also a reminder for a more ominous eventuality. Cyclone season is approaching and millions of lives are at risk once again. The memories of cyclone Aila and Sidr are still fresh and if another cyclone were to hit Bangladesh, the repercussions would be, devastating.

Meanwhile, people in the coastal areas are breathing a sigh of relief. They are safe, for the time being. The previous 48 hours have been a period of tension bordering on panic, mixed with sheer fear of the cyclone Laila. Fortunately for Bangladesh, cyclone Laila after making landfall in the Andhra Pradesh of India weakened into a depression as it moved in a north or northeasterly direction.

Although cyclone Laila has spared Bangladesh, the hard reality is that sooner or later another cyclone will take its terrible toll. Climate change has also resulted in increased frequency and intensity of cyclones. So how prepared is Bangladesh for combating the fallouts of the next cyclone? No doubt Bangladesh has come a long way in terms of disaster preparedness and management, but there are still enormous shortcomings and these shortcomings mean that when the next cyclone takes place, hundreds if not thousands of innocent lives will be in great danger.

Mime artists depict the sufferings of cyclone victims at the Shaheed minar Photo: Zahedul i khan

“There are inadequate numbers of cyclone shelters in some areas, but not everywhere. The regions of Khulna and Satkhira lack adequate number of shelters. But when you consider Barisal and Chittagong, there is a greater concentration of shelters since most of the cyclones in the past have hit those regions.” says Dr Babar Kabir, Director, BRAC Disaster, Environment and Climate Change Programme (DECC).

“The patterns of cyclones are changing. Our systems had tracked cyclone Laila six days ago. It was predicted that cyclone Laila would hit Chittagong but suddenly it died down. In case of Aila, the wind speed almost doubled in the last four hours. We cannot yet comprehend these anomalies. More attention is required to determine this phenomenon. Climate change might be the reason but we have no empirical evidence to prove it. But we relate this phenomenon to the climate because if you take the trend of the last 20 years, the pattern just does not match, there is an anomaly,” Dr Babar says.

It has been a year since cyclone Aila struck on May 25. Even two days after that horrific day, one eyewitness reported a corpse flowing into the river through a breach in the embankments, which had collapsed from the cyclone. A government official speaking on condition of anonymity remarked, “ There was total chaos. Any relief that was rushed to the spot was immediately finished, as the people were desperate to get their hands on anything they could get. They were a total rabble but who could blame them? They were completely without drinking water and food. We were not remotely prepared to accommodate all the people who had suffered the calamity.”

A year after cyclone Aila, most of the displaced people are still struggling to survive. Officials and local people were worried that the breached embankments could not be repaired before the coming monsoon season. As it turns out, their worst fears have come true. Monsoon season is here and in spite of the pledges made by the government that work will be completed by February, major points in the embankments are yet to be repaired. Now the only other option available is to wait till winter.

Water water everywhere, not a drop to drink Photo: Zahedul i khan

The embankments that surround the area were constructed with the intention of keeping the seawater out during high tide. Now in most areas whenever there is high tide, water flows inland and the original inhabitants of the area cannot live there permanently. Locals complain that they cannot cultivate in the previously arable land, and the tube-wells and even the ponds are regularly submerged by seawater. As a result, in many areas the scarcity of drinking water remains at alarming proportions one year after the disaster has taken place. In many coastal villages, people have to walk for miles to get access to drinking water provided by the NGOs.

The government's handling of the crisis has come under fire from almost all quarters. But there are always exceptions. “ We have been getting a lot of assistance from the government. The displaced people have been getting a lot of relief, and the community as a whole with cooperation from the government has managed to repair most of the embankments,” Abdul Bari, Upazilla Chairman of Shyamnagar, one of the worst hit areas, says.

“Since cyclone Aila, four new shelters have been constructed, two in Padmapukur union and two in Gabura. We are awaiting the arrival of the honourable Member of Parliament to inaugurate the shelters. We have also been promised more funds by the government of Saudia Arabia for more shelters in this area.”

However, few people will agree with the Upazilla chairman. The fact of the matter is that the government and local authorities have failed miserably to live up to the expectations of the people. Disappointment was noticeable even among government party lawmakers. Saber Hossain Chowdhury, a ruling party lawmaker speaking at a meeting organised jointly by IOM and BRAC has said, “ The government has not yet been able to mitigate the aftermath of the disaster. However, it is still working on solving the problems.” Many victims of the catastrophe are harsher in their views. “ What warning? We did not receive any warning before the storm. There were no activities from the government before the storm and there were no activities after the storm. It was a total disaster. Relief came but very slowly and it was not enough,” Choybor Ali, a day labourer in Padmapukur Union says, “ We do not want charity; we want to work. But water from the sea has made the land unsuitable for agriculture, and work is difficult to find.”

He is however, a fortunate victim. For others, like Abu Bakr, a former fisherman from Gabura union finding work or setting up a pukka house is not of any consequence anymore. Like thousands of honest and hard working fishermen before him, he is forever lost to the sea that has once provided for him and his family. Sadly his case is hardly the only one, and with the monsoon coming, millions are at risk if another cyclone hits their adobe.



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