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Caught in the eye of the storm

Bangladesh's coastal villagers are struggling to rebuild their lives after Cyclone Amphan's devastation

Caught in the eye of the storm

A village woman near her house in Koyra of Khulna district that was destroyed by Cyclone Amphan. (Photo: Piyas Biswas)

Ananda Mondol has been having a difficult time with his family of four in his village home in Assasuni of Satkhira district in southern Bangladesh. The monsoon season has arrived and added to the misery of his poor family.

“Our makeshift tent of tarpaulin cannot last much longer if the heavy rain continues. Our food stock has almost run out, but I am unable to go out for work,” said Mondol, 27. 

Mondol is a Catholic who attends St. Xavier’s Church in Baradal. He worked as a hairdresser in Dhaka until the end of March when the salon closed due to the nationwide Covid-19 shutdown.

His wife, mother and 7-year-old daughter used to live in a mud-walled thatched house in the village. He struggled to run the family with an average daily income of about 250 taka (US$3) from the salon.

Their lives were turned upside down on May 20 when Cyclone Amphan hit the coastal region of Bangladesh and neighboring India. The family fled to a local cyclone center for safety and on their return they found their house completely flattened.

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Mondol has experienced previous strong storms including Cyclone Sidr in 2007, but he considers Amphan the most devastating. Almost all the 70 families in his village have been affected.

“I am still wondering how to rebuild the house. So far, I have not received any government or NGO aid. I received some rice and lentils from the parish, and that was all,” he said.

People in coastal villages have experienced many natural calamities and they are not afraid of them anymore, he noted, but they are more concerned about losing houses, property, crops and livelihoods. 

“They get some support from the government and NGOs after natural disasters, but these are not enough for having a better life. They continue to be poor and become helpless when disasters strike again,” he added.

A homeless family sheltering at a cyclone shelter in Assasuni of Satkhira district after losing their house to Cyclone Amphan. (Photo: Piyas Biswas)

A poor community

Satkhira, near the famous Sundarbans mangrove forest and Bay of Bengal, is considered one of the poorest districts in Bangladesh, largely because it is a part of the country's long coastline frequently battered by natural calamities like cyclones.

Poverty and vulnerability to natural disasters are part and parcel of life for local communities, says Father Philip Mondol, parish priest of Baradal Catholic Church for six years.

The priest noted that the majority of more than 3,200 local Catholics are poor people who earn a living by working as daily laborers, porters, rickshaw-van pullers and barbers. Some of them are fishermen, fish farm workers and farmhands.

“Most villagers live in mud-walled, thatched and tin houses, which are most vulnerable to natural disasters like storms and flooding,” Father Mondol told UCA News.

The community was already struggling due to the Covid-19 shutdown and Amphan has cast a double blow to them, the priest said.

“According to our estimate, 45 families have completely lost their houses and belongings, while another 100 families have been partially affected. Caritas and Khulna Diocese provided some food aid for the victims,” Father Mondol said.

“I came to know the affected villagers cannot expect further support as there are severely affected people in other areas and they deserve rehabilitation support more.”

The Church does not have the funds and resources to support local communities to have better housing like brick buildings so that they are secure during natural disasters.

“Maybe it could be best if the government and NGOs collaborate to provide them with concrete housing so that they won’t have their houses and belongings destroyed when the next storm hits,” the priest added.

Everything lost

Kartik Mondol, 50, a Hindu father of five, lost everything in a tidal surge triggered by Amphan.

Mondol, his wife, children and parents used to live in Mohabbat Khali village in Koyra, Khulna district.

The village, straddling the Kopotaksha River and Dewan Khali canal, was battered by strong winds and the tidal surge. Mondol’s tin house with land vanished in the river in hours. The family have been living on a narrow strip of a riverbank dam since then.

“We have been struggling hard to survive. We have nowhere to go to start life over again,” he said.

“When it gets dark in the evening and a storm brews, I get extremely frightened and worry about how long I can carry on with my family. How can I save myself, my children and my family? I have no way to move to another place.” 

Amphan lost strength after hitting the Sundarbans forest on May 20 and it caused less damage in Bangladesh than it did in West Bengal and Odisha states of India.

Some 2.4 million people were evacuated in Bangladesh before the storm hit and 24 were killed, mostly by falling trees and collapsing houses.

However, it left a trail of destruction in 26 coastal districts. The government estimated that 50,000 houses were completely destroyed and another 167,000 were partially damaged. The loss of property, crops and livestock was estimated at 11 billion taka.

Rehabilitation not sustainable    

Like various aid agencies, Catholic charity Caritas Khulna reached out to more than 5,000 affected families in Khulna, Satkhira and Bagerhat districts with relief and rehabilitation packages including cash handouts, tarpaulin and food.

The highest amount of cash was allocated for rebuilding and repairing houses. A total of 555 families each received 20,000 taka and 345 families received 18,000 taka.

Daud Jibon Das, regional director of Caritas Khulna, believes the current approach for relief, rehabilitation and development is unsustainable.

“The government and NGOs have been prioritizing community-based development and trying to reach as many people as possible, but the funding, time and energy are wasted as people continue to remain poor and vulnerable during disasters,” Das said.

Family-based development models should be introduced for better results, he says.

“Instead of assisting 500 families, we need to select 100 families and provide them everything including good housing and livelihood means so that they can beat poverty completely and never need to approach anyone for relief even after a natural disaster,” he explained.

Shortage of funds, a relief mentality among people and political pressure are major challenges for sustainable rehabilitation and development for coastal communities.

“If adequate funding was available, we could assist people to build strong houses made of concrete that can withstand cyclones, and they won’t need to flee their homes with whatever they have when the cyclone strikes,” Das said.

Government agencies and NGOs need to collaborate with local politicians to carry out development and relief activities. Politicians are often unhappy when plans are made to support a few people with more aid.

“A local politician wants more people to get aid because these people are voters and it will help him win the next local election,” Das said.

“Also, people need to get out of a relief mentality — seeking aid whether they actually need it or not. This impedes really needy people from getting vital support.” 

Mohammad Abdul Based, government relief and rehabilitation officer in Satkhira district, has similar observations.

In Satkhira, more than 117,000 people have been badly affected by Cyclone Amphan and need support for rehabilitation, he noted, adding that more funding and a comprehensive database of poor and vulnerable coastal villagers is badly needed.

“The coastal region is home to millions of poor and vulnerable people, and there is not enough national and international funding available to secure the lives of these people,” Based said.

“There is no comprehensive database to determine the exact number of poor and vulnerable coastal communities who can be categorically supported from time to time in order to improve their socioeconomic conditions.

“The sad repeat of lines of people running to cyclone centers to save lives and wailing after losing everything after the storm needs to be stopped.”

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