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A cyclone, pandemic and struggle for survival in coastal Bangladesh

Poor communities in the impoverished nation are still reeling from a double whammy

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A cyclone, pandemic and struggle for survival in coastal Bangladesh

A girl goes to school in a village in Gabura in Satkhira district. This remote area close to the Bay of Bengal and Sundarbans mangrove forest is among the most vulnerable to frequent natural disasters. (Photo: Stephan Uttom)

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For Sabura Begum, 35, life has always been an everyday struggle for survival — to eat three meals a day, have clothes to wear and sleep in a two-room, fenced and tin-roofed house with her children and husband.

Sabura is a Bengali Muslim mother of three sons living in the Gabura area of Shyamnagar subdistrict of Bangladesh's coastal Satkhira district.

The area, close to the famous Sundarbans mangrove forests, is extremely remote and surrounded by rivers connected with the Bay of Bengal, making it inaccessible without a boat at most times of the year. It takes about three hours by boat to have a look around villages in Gabura.

Largely unsustainable muddy river embankments meant for protection of villages are a mere consolation as they struggle to withstand frequent high tides, flooding and storms. Houses get flooded and washed away each year, causing misery for villagers.

The intrusion of saline water makes agriculture impossible in the area, so vast fields have been turned into shrimp, eel and crab farms. Most villagers are fisherfolk, work on fish, shrimp and crab farms or collect honey from the forest.

Collecting pure drinking water is a major challenge and many villagers need to walk several kilometers to fetch water.

Like their fellow villagers. Sabura and her husband have been through a two-edged crisis this year — Covid-19 and Cyclone Amphan have made them even poorer and presented more hardships.

“I was a crab farm worker and my husband collects honey from the forest and crabs from rivers to sell in the market. I was fired with most workers when the coronavirus hit the business. The price of crab also dropped, so my husband could earn less than half what he could make before. We started struggling to eat two times a day properly,” Sabura told UCA News.

Then, on May 20, Cyclone Amphan, one of the strongest storms in decades, hit coastal areas of Bangladesh and India, leaving about 118 dead and affecting millions.

The extremely strong wind blew away the tin roof of Sabura’s house and a powerful tidal surge smashed village embankments and washed away bamboo fences. The family survived thanks to taking refuge at a cyclone shelter.

After the cyclone, Sabura received aid from local NGOs and rebuilt the house. She has received minimal food and cash aid from charities, and they have run out fast. The loss of livelihoods continues to plague the family.

“The tidal surge has caused enormous damage for us and other villagers. We have been already suffering due to loss of work and income due to the coronavirus. We are struggling to eat properly each day, and we look at the government and NGOs desperately like beggars for some help,” Sabura lamented.

Prosenjit Munda, 29, an indigenous Munda, has been facing similar hardships to Sabura’s family. He owns a shrimp farm of 1.33 acres in Gabura and works as daily wager in brick kilns. His farm and house were washed away by Cyclone Amphan.

“I invested 10,000 taka [US$118] in the shrimp farm and all are gone. There is a scarcity of work in the area due to the coronavirus. Brick kilns are shut due to the rainy season. We are struggling to manage two square meals a day,” Prosenjit, a Hindu, told UCA News.

He said the cyclone and tidal surge were extremely severe, while broken river embankments have not been reconstructed even months after the cyclone.

“Now and then the village gets flooded during high tide, making lives difficult. There is no work, no aid and people are helpless and suffering,” he added.

Media reports and data from aid agencies suggest millions of people in the coastal region are languishing in suffering months after the deadly cyclone.

 

Workers repair a broken river embankment in the Shyamnagar area of Satkhira district. (Photo: Stephan Uttom/UCA News)

Millions still need support

Caritas Khulna is one of the aid groups covering the southern coastal region and it carries out projects covering most affected areas like Gabura.

Following Covid-19 and Amphan, Caritas has offered aid packages to 3,500 families of affected communities including food, cash and house-building support, said Daud Jibon Das, Caritas Khulna regional director.       

“People living in coastal areas are among the poorest and most vulnerable in the country. Due to Covid-19 and Cyclone Amphan, millions of people have become penniless and helpless. Without substantial support they cannot stand on their own feet, even in years,” Das told UCA News.

Many programs and activities are carried out by government and non-government agencies in coastal areas on an emergency basis but not for sustainable support and development, he said.

“The efforts are often wasted as actual needs remain unaddressed. Better and stronger embankments should be erected, thousands of trees must be planted and people need to get help for better housing so that they don’t need the same kind of support after every storm,” he added.

Promises of assistance

The people of Gabura continue to suffer but efforts are underway to help them, said G.M. Masudul Islam, chairman of Gabura Union Council, a local government body.

“Thousands of villagers are trapped by inundation and waterlogging following the cyclone as broken river dams were not repaired. Stronger dams will be constructed by the military starting from November when the rainy season will be over,” Islam told UCA News.

Abujar Gifari, chief government officer in Shyamnagar, said the government has been collaborating with NGOs to assist needy people and noted that many still require support for rebuilding of lives.

“We faced multiple crises starting from Covid-19, the cyclone and a monsoon full of heavy rain. Strong currents in the river made it impossible to repair broken river dams. The military will be assigned to fix the dams. Aid support for most affected people has been going on,” Gifari told UCA News.

Cyclone Amphan has affected 26 coastal districts in Bangladesh and caused damage worth 11 billion taka, according to government data. The storm destroyed 50,000 houses completely and 167,000 houses partially. In the Indian state of West Bengal, the cyclone affected about 13 million people, destroyed 1 million houses and crops of over 100,000 acres and killed about 1 million livestock.

Experts warned the cyclone has pushed thousands of people into extreme poverty who were already badly hit by the economic fallout from Covid-19.

In April, Zahid Hussain, a leading economist at the World Bank, predicted that due to Covid-19 about 50 million people in Bangladesh, who live slightly above the poverty line by earning more than $2 per day, may fall below the line in the aftermath.

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