India + 2 more

South Asia: On the edge of disaster

Each year about 210 mill. people are affected by Nature's ruthless raging. Most of them are poor and live in developing countries. Millions of lives and money can be saved if the natural disasters are anticipated.
By: Maiken Skeem

Flooding, cyclones, typhoons and earthquakes each year leave their destructive traces all over the world. Natural disasters leave people behind with empty hands and broken lives. Especially the poor people fight an endless and almost impossible struggle against Nature's havoc. Again and again Nature ruins their existence, smash their houses and kills their friends and family. Again and again they pick up the broken pieces of their lives and try to glue them together even though they know that it is only a question of time before Nature will put them to the test again. But they don't have any choice. Often they are forced to live in places where no one else would live, in the world's most vulnerable places, on the edge of disaster. South Asia is one of the areas where Nature is especially difficult and the consequences are often catastrophic. An enormous and extremely poor population makes the area especially vulnerable. First and foremost it is a question of survival and people rarely have the energy to think about what they can do next time flooding or a cyclone hit their area and how they can prevent damage or loss of lives. This is where local humanitarian organisations can have a crucial role to play. They will not only provide the poor people with relief in the wake of the disaster, but in their every day work to fight poverty they also inform about how to prevent the often horrific extent of damages and loss of lives. This will leave the population in the disaster prone areas better prepared when Nature again will put them through the test. DanChurchAid and it's partners in India, Bangladesh and Nepal work together in the network AZEECON (Asian Zone Emergency and Environment Co-operation Network). Having received funds from EU's humanitarian aid office (ECHO) they try through training and education to prepare the population in particularly disaster prone areas. The partner-organisations gather people from the village in order to discuss, inform and to prepare the people as much as possible to the next meeting with a raging Nature. The purpose is most of all to minimize the loss of human life but also to utilize the economical resources in a more appropriate way. It is after all more efficient and economical to prevent than to tidy up.

Joined hands

The training of the villagers in the disaster prone areas is to a considerable extent built on the villagers own knowledge about the results of a disaster. Many of them know how to prevent the catastrophe but there is no tradition for sharing this information with the neighbours and try to get organised and join hands. A simple initiative like planting banana trees next to the house can in a emergency situation mean a difference between life and death. The stem can easily be transformed into a primitive raft and keep you afloat if flooding occurs. Some of the villagers know that already but they don't think about passing the advice on to the neighbour. The organisations try to keep the villagers on standby and establish a sort of Civil Defence Forces. A group of key-persons from the village are selected to map the village and to make a plan of evacuation. They are to find out who are the most vulnerable in the village, who will need extra help, for example old, sick and handicapped people, who has a boat which can be used to rescue people, and who will listen to the radio.

The task of the organisations is first and foremost to make the villagers join hands and exchange ideas so that they are as well prepared as possible when the disaster comes. It is about gathering the villagers, make them discuss the consequences of a disaster and create a feeling of community and solidarity - and of course encourage them to take action.

Eye witness descriptions from India, Bangladesh and Nepal:

India:

The small village of Dharijana is situated in the north-western state of Orissa. Placed only two kilometres from the Bay of Bengal and between two rivers Dharijana is surrounded by water. A walk through the narrow and muddy streets of the village witness that the 450 villagers know what it means to be prisoners of Nature. Many of the palm-trees do not sway in the wind any longer. They lie broken and withered on the ground. Most of the mud-built houses don't have a roof but are covered by blue plastic. During the years Dharijana has witnessed a vast number of n floodings, orcans and typhones.

The members of the Mallick family particularly recall the orcan of 1999, which killed 52 of their neighbours:

"Our house was in an open field. The wind grew more and more violent and the waterlevel rose rapidly. We clung to each other inside the house hoping not to loose sight of one another. All of a sudden one of the walls of the house was taken by the water and we realized that if we decided to stay in the house all of us would be taken by the water within few minutes. We started to move towards some trees not far from the house. My parents did not have the strength to swim all the way, they disappeared in the dark and muddy water. My sister-in-law carried my youngest son but she did not have the force to hold him, clinging to the tree and fighting the current at the same time. She tried to hand him over to me but I lost my grip and he disappeared just like my parents," Sidheswar Mallick cries silently but finds the strength to continue his horrible story:

"That day my own son died in front of my eyes. I thought that it would be the very last day of my own life. For three days we sat in the trees. We did not eat and we did not drink. The water below us was salt. We only survived because it was raining and we were able to suck the water out of our clothes. As soon as the water level sank so much that we could touch the ground we managed to get to the only stone house in the village. Here we found other survivors. After 12 days the relief reached us."

Mr. And Mrs. Mallick lost two sons and three daughters during the flooding in 1999. To prevent another disaster they take part in a disaster prevention project carried out by LWS-India (Lutheran World Service India). LWS-India is supported by DanChurchAid by means from ECHO, the relief office of the European Union.

"I am still full of fear when I think about that a new disaster might hit us. But at least now thanks to LWS-India we started discussing what we can do to minimize the hazards and reduce the effects. Some of the suggestions of LWS we know already but we never sat down in order to discuss what we can do ourselves and how we work together most efficiently. I believe that our chance to survive another disaster is better now that we know how to cooperate. During the flooding of 1999 a man in the village heard that a storm was on its way, but he did not know the meter-system. When they said on the radio that the waterlevel would raise up till ten meters he thought that they meant ten feet. (3.3 meter). I am more confident know that we learned how to prevent and how to take action," says Sidheswar Mallick.

Bangladesh:

In northern Bangladesh on the vast Brahmaputra River the Char people live according to Nature's laws. Flooding and erosion force them to lead a nomadic life.

From May to September when the melted water runs from the nearby Himalayas into the arms of the Brahmaputra River, the flood rises alarmingly. The river floods the sandbars and forces the Char people to leave their houses and their fields. When the tide begins to go out, erosion greedily consumes the sandbars. The houses and fields of the Char dwellers are drawn into the deep of the river.

The meeting with the violent water is hard to forget for Mr. Abdul Hossein:

"I remember everything as clearly as if it happened yesterday. The terrible day in 1998, when the river flooded. We ran like we had never run before until we reached the boat. We were 22 persons on board clinging to each other in the raging storm. We were surrounded by huge waves. Personal belongings and dead animals were floating around the boat. All of a sudden the boat started sinking. Fortunately another boat passed by and saved us all by throwing ropes in the water. I'm still haunted by the sight of an old lady being drawn down by the violent current. Her eyes were full of fear."

Also Mr. Abdul Hosseins neighbour Mrs. Golapi Khartoum recall the bad memories:

"Every year when the time of flooding is approaching I get nervous and tense. I constantly fear the river will affect my family's life and me in a negative way. I often think of when I was only eight years old. My two sisters and I were playing in the peanut field when the river started flooding. My parents took us to my father's raft heading towards another Char. Suddenly my sister lost her grip and fell into the black and whirling water. We all panicked but fortunately my father managed to catch her and get her back on the raft."

Nepal:

Every year when the monsoon begins in the village of Ilam in the south-eastern Nepal is in danger. Heavy masses of mud slide down the surrounding mountains and the river running around Ilam starts to flood. Each year the 2000 villagers face the same problems. The water goes into their houses and pollutes their drinking water. Diarea and other diseases invade the village. LWF-Nepal (Lutheran World Federation Nepal), DanChurchAid's partner started education and training of the villagers with financial support from ECHO. They learn how to minimize the effect of a disaster and how to prevent a disaster from being a major disaster. Today many of the villagers have showed up in the local school to attend the LWF meeting.

"We prevent the disaster by helping each other making our houses safe. We construct the houses on bamboo-sticks so that the water will not reach the floor level. We can minimize the effects of the disaster but we can't prevent it completely though. Every year somebody has their house flooded and they loose their belongings. We help them by collecting money in the village and by constructing a new house without charge," tells one of the participants.

Fact about Disaster Preparedness:

  • DanChurchAid will during 2002 receive 450.000 EUR for a Disaster Preparedness programme. Funding agency is ECHO (European Community Humanitarian Office).

  • DanChurchAid implements the Disaster Preparedness programme in cooperation with its partners in Bangladesh (RDRS), India and Nepal (Lutheran World Service). All implementing organisations are members of and work under the AZEECON network (Asian Zone Emergency & Environment Cooperation Network).

  • The purpose of the programme is to enable to communities to cope with the consequences of natural disasters.

  • In Bangladesh the major purpose of the programme is to reduce the consequences of flooding and erosion in the north western part of the country, particularly in the Chars.

  • In India the programme aims to reduce the consequences of flooding caused by hurricanes in Orissa.

  • In Nepal the programme aims at minimizing the destruction caused by earthquakes, landslides and flooding especially in the western part of the country.