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Thirst haunts cyclone-affected poor on Bangladesh's coast

Church charity provides drinking water and rebuilds houses in the aftermath of the natural disaster

Thirst haunts cyclone-affected poor on Bangladesh's coast

Villagers rebuild embankments that were collapsed by Tropical Cyclone Yaas in the coastal region of Khulna, Bangladesh. (Photo: AFP)

Swapna Akhter’s priorities have changed these days. Each morning she hurries to join the women of her village in southern Bangladesh to stand in a line to collect a 5-liter can of drinking water.

“That is the only drinking water available for my family for a day,” the 35-year-old says matter-of-factly. Her family comprises husband Mamun Ali and their two schoolgoing sons.

All drinking water facilities in their Gabura village in coastal Satkhira district were destroyed when devastating Tropical Cyclone Yaas made landfall in their area on May 26.

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"The storm wasn’t that strong. But when the storm hit at high tide, the seawater rose too high and broke the embankment. The water rushed into our mud house," Swapna said.

Their home was among thousands of mud houses destroyed in the area. However, for Swapna’s family, it was a double tragedy as it came 14 years after they rebuilt the house in 2007 after Cyclone Sidr flattened it.

“Our house was comparatively stronger. It did not fall in the first two days after Yaas. But later it collapsed later because of the waterlogging in the area,” she said.

We came out with the children to see the walls falling one after another

Swapna said they were woken by sounds from the mud walls. “We came out with the children to see the walls falling one after another. The infinite grace of Allah … we were not harmed.” Swapna told UCA News.

Heavy rains that accompanied the cyclone and surging waves caused floods in the area, with brackish water filling up water sources. Waterlogging either collapsed houses or rendered them unsafe for habitation.

Officials say some 90 kilometers of dams were damaged in seven coastal districts, resulting in tidal waters inundating 682 villages in Satkhira district.

Some 200,000 people from 35,000 families were flooded in Satkhira, according to official estimates soon after the cyclone.

The disaster has also rendered thousands jobless as the floodwater destroyed their shrimp farms. They now rely on dry rations and water from non-governmental agencies such as Catholic charity Caritas.

“We have water everywhere but not enough to drink. Is 5 liters of water enough for a family of four to cook and drink in a day?” Swapna wondered.

“But consider if that too was not there,” she said, thanking Caritas, which provides daily water to her family and some 150 families in their village.

Caritas official Daud Jibon Das said several agencies are working in the area trying to help people.

“But our job is limited to providing temporary help like food and water to the affected. The main job is to build the dams and embankments, and the government has to do that,” Das told UCA News.

Das, Caritas director for Khulna Diocese, said the dams and embankments often breach because corruption at government level eats up the money allocated for such work.

“Caritas Bangladesh will work to rebuild the houses of those whose houses have been demolished. However, we can only reach a limited number of people,” he said.

Climate scientists have warned that rising sea levels due to global warming and polar icebergs melting might wipe away Bangladesh’s entire coastline

According to the Bangladesh Water Development Board, Bangladesh has 16,261 kilometers of embankments. Of these, the condition of 5,500 in the coastal region is “very fragile or fragile.”

In the past 30 years, at least 200,000 people have lost their lives in 234 natural calamities in the country, which has hundreds of rivers that empty into the Bay of Bengal.

This unique geography makes the country’s agricultural land fertile but also vulnerable to natural disasters like cyclones, flooding, tidal surges and river erosion, which kill people and destroy livelihoods every year.

Climate scientists have warned that rising sea levels due to global warming and polar icebergs melting might wipe away Bangladesh’s entire coastline and displace about 20 million people by 2050.

However, that is not the big worry for Swapna. She looks forward to the day when she will not have to line up to collect drinking water for her family. “And having a safe place for my family to sleep,” she said.

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