Bangladesh: Cyclone challenges remain

SOUTHKHALI, 14 November 2008 (IRIN)

  • One year after a devastating cyclone hit south-western Bangladesh, huge challenges remain.

"Communities still need urgent help - both to recover from the impact of Sidr, and to be able to prepare for future storms, floods or cyclones," said Heather Blackwell, Bangladesh-Oxfam country director.

More than 3,400 people were killed and millions more rendered homeless on 15 November 2007 by Cyclone Sidr - now described as the most powerful cyclone to strike the impoverished low-lying nation in just over 15 years.

According to the Bangladesh Ministry of Food and Disaster Management, some nine million people were affected by the cyclone in 30 of the country's 64 districts.

Damage to property, livestock and crops was estimated at US$1.7 billion.

More than a million people are struggling without proper homes and are at greater risk of disease than before, Oxfam said. But despite funding pledges from foreign governments, international donors and NGOs to help build new homes for about 78,000 families, only about one-quarter of these planned houses, designed to be more resilient in future storms, have been built, it said.

Another 276,000 families have received no reconstruction help and are living in unsafe shelters, built from polythene sheets and salvaged materials.

In addition, landless families living on government-owned land or Khas areas are excluded from receiving any government shelter support because they have no official land titles, Oxfam said.


And while significant efforts were made to assist millions of those affected, many survivors still feel neglected 12 months later.

"There are people who did not lose even a chicken, but received buffaloes and bullocks. Some people got more than one house, while there are many who lost their houses but did not get anything," said Anisur Rahman, a senior teacher. "Many are still living on the flood-protection embankments."

"People with connections and influence received more than they needed while the hardcore poor, especially on the shore-line, were deprived of their rightful share," complained Abdur Rahim Ghazi, a chicken farmer in Kadamtali village.

Yet according to local authorities, such cases were exceptional.

"Some people always try to find loopholes. There may have been one or two cases where some people received more relief than others, but there is not a single case where the needy did not get any," said Anwar Panchayet, chairman of Southkhali union. "As soon as we found any fault in our work, we corrected it."

More shelters needed

One issue that was acknowledged, however, was the lack of cyclone shelters, credited with saving so many lives.

After Cyclone Bhola in 1970, which claimed hundreds of thousands of lives, Bangladesh moved to build shelters throughout the region, recognising their life-saving potential, particularly in densely populated coastal areas.

But since then, many of these shelters - some of which also accommodate schools - have been neglected and fallen into disrepair, while others have been abandoned altogether.

There are 2,400 cyclone shelters in high-risk areas of the country.

And while more than 1.5 million people were moved to shelters at the time of Sidr, another seven million were left to their own devices.

"At the time of Sidr, many refused to go to these shelters because there were no facilities for the cattle and other livestock at the cyclone centres. Most shelters had no provision for the special needs of women," one resident said.

A 2004 study by the Centre for Environmental and Geographic Information Services (CEGIS) found that 75 percent of the cyclone shelters had no provision for water storage, 80 percent made no provision for sheltering livestock and 87 percent of all shelters had some structural vulnerability.

"Not much has changed in one year. If another Sidr hits today, another 3,500 will die," Mohammad Majibur Rahman, a member of Southkhali Union council, warned.

Moreover, the country is still not receiving the public information it needs, he claimed.

"The early-warning system is not efficient. People do not understand the meaning of various early warning and danger signals. Not all families have radio sets. Political commitment to address disasters and mitigate their effects is poor. As always, our lives depend solely on the mercy of the Bay of Bengal," he said.