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Destruction by Cyclone Amphan continues to haunt its survivors after one year

  • Published at 05:13 am May 30th, 2021
Storm surge rushes into a village in Satkhira, destroying a road, following Cyclone Amphan. Photo taken on Thursday, May 21, 2020. Photo: Dhaka Tribune

Cyclone Amphan affected the lives of about one million people in Bangladesh’s coastal areas

Hajatkhali village of Uttar Bedkashi union in Koyra upazila of Khulna district is located at the southwest coast of Bangladesh. On the night of cyclone Amphan on May 20, 2020, under strong tidal pressures, the embankment on the village broke, and water broke the bank of Hajatkhali village damaging several houses. 

Kartik Chandra Mandal, 39 year old resident with his family of five lived in a pacca building that he built with a lot of effort using his and his father’s savings. It was one of the houses that became engulfed by the tidal water. On the ill fated night of the cyclone, Kartik and other villagers had rushed to climb the top of the embankment to save their lives. From the top of the embankment, they saw their houses and belongings going under water. 

For the last one year Kartik has been surviving in a leaf fenced thatched shed he built on top of the embankment. Many people from the area of Hajatkhali, Katmarchar, Bedkashi and neighbouring villages also started to live on the embankment. The villagers have been facing extreme crises in every aspect of their livelihood for over a year and many people have left the area in search of livelihood and employment. 

The same scenarios are seen in Kurikahunia, Sreepur, Sanatankathi, Pratapnagar of Asashuni upazila Banyatala and Gabura of Shyamnagar upazila of Satkhira district. Cyclone Amphan affected about one million people across the five upazilas of Shayamnagar, Satkhira, Koyra, Dacope and Paikgacha. 

This is just a fragment of the people affected by Cyclone Amphan. If we want to see the real picture of how coastal lives and livelihoods are affected by cyclones, we have to look at  Kalabagi village of Dacope upazila of Khulna district. 

The houses of the people there have been turned into `hanging’ houses. The river Shibsa has washed away their village. One misfortune after another has fallen on these people. In contrast to the situation of Kartik Chandra Mandal, the people of Kalabagi `hanging village’ have been living with water for the last 12 years since the 2009 cyclone Aila devastated their lives. These villagers have no land left to build houses on, every other disaster since cyclone Aila has made extensive damage, leaving them destitute.

Sources from  local union councils and non-governmental organizations said about 50,000 people had been permanently and temporarily displaced from the ten unions affected by the cyclone.

Sources from  local union councils and non-governmental organizations said about 50,000 people had been permanently and temporarily displaced from the ten unions affected by the cyclone.

The burden of natural disasters 

This burden of natural calamity is felt all over the coast of Bangladesh. Before the independence of the country, a strong cyclone hit the coast in 1970. According to non-government statistics, about one million people were killed in the cyclone. According to the United Nations, that cyclone is the biggest cyclone in the history of the world. 

After independence, many more powerful cyclones hit the coast of Bangladesh. But for more than a decade, the southwest coast of Bangladesh seems to have been the target of cyclones. As a result of frequent cyclones, the area is becoming increasingly uninhabitable. 

Agricultural land is declining, drinking water crisis is intensifying, salinity is increasing, vegetation is declining. The embankments are also getting weaker due to the cyclone. On the other hand, there is no proper initiative to reform those weak embankments. 

“The hungry river is coming towards us. Our houses are slowly sinking, and we are moving backwards. Where a year ago there were roads, houses - now there is about 60 feet of water. By road we went to town. Now we have to cross that path by boat. A new island has been created here after the cyclone Amphan,” said Akbar Hossain Moral, 65, a resident of Fakirkona area in Kalabagi village of Sutarkhali union in Dacope upazila of Khulna district. 

Akbar Hossain has been living in this area all his life. But since Cyclone Aila, he has been unable to continue farming; moreover there has been many changes in the area; once the village was surrounded with big trees and plants and crops in the field. Now plants cannot regenerate due to excess salinity.

"Sources from  local union councils and non-governmental organizations said about 50,000 people had been permanently and temporarily displaced from the ten unions affected by the cyclone"

Numerous hanging houses can be seen outside the new embankment in the far south of Sutarkhali union of Dacope upazila. These houses have been built with increased height to withstand the tidal waters. 

But Cyclone Amphan has left many of these houses and families completely isolated as the Fakirkona part of the long hanging village has turned into an island especially at high tide, the houses in the hanging villages seem to be floating in the water. 

The people in this region were dependent on natural resources. At one time the people of this area used to depend on agriculture and fishing in the river for livelihood. Now they do not have professional security due to the environmental crisis in the whole area. They lost their jobs or business and are being forced to move away from the area at an alarming rate. The crowds are increasing in the surrounding district headquarters, such as Satkhira, Khulna, Barisal and Jessore. 

Abdus Sobahan Gazi, 70, has moved ten times throughout his life. Now he lives in a small hanging house next to Kalabagi Bazar. He has lived through many disasters in the area and recalling those events he said the cyclone of 1988 had caused the most damage in the area. 

Since then the cyclone that hit the hardest was Sidr. Followed by Cyclone Ayla which caused severe damage to Sutarkhali and Kamarkhola Unions, of which Sutarkhali suffered the most. The area was under water for about five years, resulting in the houses being built becoming like hanging houses after Aila. The village that was once surrounded by greenery has now turned into a barren desert like landscape. 

The number of displaced people is increasing

Post Cyclone Amphan, many affected villages were submerged with water making it uninhabitable, resulting in people fleeing the village in search of survival. Many were forced to move to the city in search of work and food. 

After Amphan, Tripti Das's house was submerged for about ten months. Though he tried his best to hold the ground of his house, eventually he left his home. Many like Tripti Das have left the area permanently, some temporarily. Some have gone to the city, others to distant villages. Many have changed their livelihood. Some have lost businesses. 

Sources from local union councils and non-governmental organizations said about 50,000 people had been permanently and temporarily displaced from the ten unions affected by the cyclone. Some people will be able to return home when the water recedes. 

But a large part will never be able to return home. Shamsur Rahman, chairman of Dakshin Bedkashi Union Parishad in Koyra Upazila, said more than 2,000 people had fled the area after Cyclone Aila in 2009. Many people have left this year even after Cyclone Amphan. A large part of them never come back. 

“The tidal wave caused by the cyclone has increased salinity in new areas. Due to weak infrastructure, a huge area is being damaged due to breakage of embankment. Production has declined in various areas due to adverse environmental effects. The village of Jaliakhali in Dacope upazila has been completely lost after cyclone Aila. Erosion has increased at a huge rate in Kalabagi and Nalian areas of the same upazila. As a result of the increase in erosion, a small part of Kalabagi is on the verge of extinction. There is only 30-35 meters wide space left now. Yet people are forced there. This place will become extinct at any time when another big cyclone hits,” said Hassan Mehdi, chief executive of the Coastal Livelihoods and Environment Action Network (CLEAN), a non-governmental research organization. 

Changing profession: Farmers become van drivers or day labourers

Many people in the southwest have been forced to change professions due to natural disasters, including in the aftermath of Cyclone Amphan. Someone who once identified themselves as a farmer of the village is a van driver or day laborer of the city. 

Many are struggling to survive in the area of boating or fishing. The big fishermen of one time have now turned into small fishermen. Natural disasters are destroying the lives of the people in this area. From the dire state people are trying to recover  . Some are borrowing from NGOs, some are borrowing from moneylenders. This only increases the burden of their lives.

"After independence, many more powerful cyclones hit the coast of Bangladesh. But for more than a decade, the southwest coast of Bangladesh seems to have been the target of cyclones"

Shrimp farmer Nur Islam, 45, of Kurikahunia village in Pratapnagar union of the Asashuni upazila is now making a living by boat. Managing three meals a day for his family members has become difficult. The last resort  was  to sell the cows and return the lease money to the land owner of the shrimp farm making him incapable of continuing shrimp cultivation. Nur Islam has now changed his occupation to a boatman from a shrimp farmer. 

Mafuar Rahman, 35, of the same village farmed shrimp on three bighas of land Amphan flooded his shrimp farm and his house. Like Mafuarno, other farmers have been able to prepare for shrimp farming in the entire Pratapnagar Union this year. 

Since Amphan these individuals are trying to make ends meet by earning Tk20-30 taka daily, if they are lucky. 

Abdus Samad, an elderly man from Pratapnagar village, said the damage to agriculture and shrimp farms in the area was at least two metric tonnes per acre which costs about Tk75 thousand. Every shrimp farmer will incur a loss of at least two and a half to three lakh taka. 

On the other hand, the yield per acre of aman is 1.6 metric tons which is worth Tk62 thousand. If IRRI and Aman could be  properly cultivated there would be no crisis for the people of the area. If there were activities in agriculture and shrimp farms, many people in the area would have job opportunities. 

Some sell assets, some survive on debt

In the face of the crisis that unfolded with the cyclone Amphan, many had sold their properties. Almost everyone has taken loans. Debt burden has increased in almost all households. Families have no budget to deal with natural disasters or to build houses more than once a year. In this financial crisis, Akbar Hossain Lashkar sold his motor van worth Tk40,000 for only Tk15,000. Natural disasters are increasing their family’s `hidden climate costs’.

The non-government development organization Uttaran has conducted a survey on the affected people of the upazila and verified their coping mechanism. There are seven types of strategies. These are: reduction of daily meals; borrowing and begging; reduction of medical expenses; sale of assets; displacement; child labor; and relief assistance. 

"The hungry river is coming towards us. Our houses are slowly sinking, and we are moving backwards. Where a year ago there were roads, houses - now there is about 60 feet of water"

A survey conducted in May 2020 after Cyclone Amphan found that in May 2020, 74% of those affected had reduced food intake. But when the survey was conducted again in  December, the rate was 100%.

The rate of borrowing and begging in May was 45%; However, in December this rate went up to 67%. In May, 83% said they would reduce the cost of treatment. But in December the rate rose to 98%. In the May survey, 39% said they sold their assets, but in December 2020 the rate stood at 73%. 

The rate of displacement in May was 22%, which decreased to  17% in December. The child labour rate was 59% in May, which went down to 54% in December. In May, 94% of the people paid for their families with relief, compared to 79% in December. 

Christian Commission for Development in Bangladesh (CCDB), a non-governmental development organization, went to the village of Vamia to assess how the cyclone affected their lives. The team was tasked with investigating the double impact of Covid-19 and Cyclone Amphan at the local level. The aim of the investigation was to understand how people are coping with this double crisis and how they can be helped to recover and improve. The people of the village had told the research team how borrowing was a  significant technique and how many had to sell their assets and reduce daily food intake. 

Some statistics on Impacts

A non-governmental organization Leaders-Bangladesh conducted a family-based survey (within three month of the cyclone) in six unions of the three upazilas affected by Cyclone Amphan, and found that 3,822 people had been displaced by August 2020. 

People living in cyclone shelters, school buildings and embankments for more than six months are off the list. If these are added, the number of locals is estimated to be more than 25,000. Among the affected unions, the worst situation is in Pratapnagar of Asashuni upazila. Of the 18 villages in the union, 18 were under water for about a year. Many areas are still under water. 

However, sources in the Climate Council, a civic organization working in the cyclone-affected areas, say that at least 100,000 people have been displaced from the three upazilas on a permanent, temporary and seasonal basis. Ashek-e-Elahi, member secretary of the Climate Council, said they received the information through union-based volunteers.

Demand for strong embankments

“The main cause of this problem in the area is the weak embankment. The dam, built in the sixties, has become increasingly weak. The previous cyclones that broke this weak embankment also endangered the people of the area. The government says it is not going to build a strong embankment due to lack of necessary funds. The people of the area have been demanding a sustainable embankment for several years,” the chairman of Koyra Sadar Union Parishad Humayun Kabir said.  

“Build us a strong embankment. We will be able to make a living by working in this area. If there is no strong embankment, we will have to move to another place,” said Sukumar Chandra Baulia, 65, of Hajatkhali village in Koyra upazila. Nirmal Chandra Barkandaj, Suchitra Sarkar, Rekha Rani Sarkar, Parimal Mandal and many others who stood by his side said the same thing.

"A non-governmental organization Leaders-Bangladesh conducted a family-based survey (within three month of the cyclone) in six unions of the three upazilas affected by Cyclone Amphan, and found that 3,822 people had been displaced by August 2020"

Parimal Mandal said, “The help of government and non-government organizations comes for the people here. However, it is much less than necessary. Most of the government and non-government assistance is relief based. No one is thinking about sustainable development.”

Mizanur Rahman Moral, a resident of Napitkhali village in Gabura union, a cyclone-hit area in Shyamnagar upazila, said, “As the tide rises, panic spreads in the area. We cannot sleep at night during high tide. The embankment has to be guarded at night. We would not have this problem if there was a strong embankment.”

National and international initiatives are needed 

Alexandra Balik, director of the Geneva-based Internal Displacement Monitoring Center, or IDMC, said “It will be easier to find a sustainable solution if the displacement information is available properly. Along with this, initiatives have to be taken to create stable housing. We have to build sustainable urbanization. The risk of displacement can be significantly reduced through ecosystem management.” 

“The ongoing Covid 19 epidemic has affected the local economy. Due to this, the disaster has put additional pressure on the displaced people. On  one hand, facing natural disasters, on the other hand, the fear of being affected by the Covid 19 . These people face a three-pronged challenge. Therefore, an integrated action plan needs to be adopted that takes all these factors into consideration.” 

Prof  Saleemul Haq, Director, ICCCAD, said, “Cyclone warning and shelter management in the coastal areas of Bangladesh is one of the best in the world. Because we are able to successfully remove millions of people we can prevent loss of life. But people are still losing their homes, land and livelihoods. There is a lack of support even after the cyclone.”

“Unfortunately, with climate change and rising sea levels, people in the lower coastal districts of Bangladesh will gradually lose their livelihoods as fishermen and farmers. They will be forcibly displaced. This needs to be actively addressed by both the national government and the international community,” he added.

Rezaul Karim Chowdhury, executive director of Coast Trust, a non-governmental development organization working in the coastal areas of Bangladesh, said, “The broken dam was not repaired in time. As a result, people from different parts of the country, including the coast, have to move elsewhere every year. Most of them are slum dwellers in the city. They were also evicted from the slums for several years. Arrangements should be made so that these people can live in their own area.”

Rafiqul Islam Montu is an award-winning Bangladeshi independent journalist and coastal journalism specialist. He is a contributing reporter for The Guardian (UK), The Third Pole (UK), Gaon Connection (India), and Risingbd (Bangladesh). He is Fellow of Internews's Earth Journalism Network (UK). Has been involved in journalism for over 30 years. He is a pioneering figure in coastal journalism.

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