Life After Cyclone Aila: Ben Spencer
Cyclone Aila was an act of God. So how can we blame God?
Every year people in Sheffield raise £65,000 for Christian Aid Week to help some of the poorest people in the world. Star reporter Ben Spencer travelled to Bangladesh to see how the money is being spent.
GOLAM Hossain vividly remembers the day Cyclone Aila struck.
“Very early in the morning the wind started increasing,” said Golam, aged 31, a shopkeeper in the Satkhira district of south-west Bangladesh.
“It was raining hard and it was very dark and gloomy.”
As the rain fell the main river flowing through Golam’s village of Jodindra Nagar got higher and higher until around midday, when the embankment broke.
“The water began pouring in,” Golam said.
“Someone picked me un p and put me on the roof.”
Golam, whose childhood polio had left him unable to walk, clung on, buffeted by the wind and rain.
“I didn’t know if I would see my family again or whether my life would meet its end there.”
That day, May 25, 2009, more than 500,000 people in the Satkhira district alone were forced to flee their homes as the cyclone swept in from the Bay of Bengal.
Golam was stranded on the roof for 16 days as the floodwaters slowly subsided.
About a mile away Asha Biswas, 28, stood on a raised dyke as the cyclone hit, watching the waters rise with her husband Sonnashi, 32, and their two children.
“We watched our house being blown away by the rush of water and wind,” she said.
“Some of our things were saved – some clothes, some rice, some drinking water – but we lost everything else.”
Asha and her family escaped the rising water in their small boat and for the next month and a half lived on the village road with 500 other people, sheltering under a small polythene sheet.
Despite the devastation, Cyclone Aila killed just 300 people, compared to a cyclone in 1991 which killed 138,000.
Aid workers say the low death toll was partly because Bangladesh had developed an effective early warning system and built hundreds of cyclone shelters.
But, despite the relatively small loss of life, the economic impact of Cyclone Aila was immeasurable. Nearly three years later the people of the Satkhira district are still recovering from the disaster, which left them isolated for months, wiping out 4,000km of roads and embankments.
Christian Aid has funded intensive rehabilitation work in the area, through its partner organisations Shushilan and the Christian Commission for Development in Bangladesh (CCDB), and ploughed money into training people how to adapt.
With cyclones and flooding hitting the low-lying country more frequently than ever before, people have also been taught to bury rice, fuel, money and valuables in waterproof bags, so they are equipped to rebuild their lives if another disaster strikes.
Asha and Sonnashi lost their main source of income in the flood waters.
Asha said: “When the cyclone hit we had 20,000 Bangladeshi taka (£150) worth of crabs in our pond. It was totally destroyed.”
Christian Aid-supported Shushilan helped them rebuild their lives on a sustainable footing.
Sonnashi said: “Shushilan gave us 3,650 taka (£27), six pieces of bamboo and nets to build a crab cage and training on how to raise the crabs better.”
It took the couple two years to rebuild their home, where they now live with son Gopal, nine, daughter Jointika, 11 and Sonnashi’s mother Usha, 49.
“Since Aila, with the help of Shushilan, we have rebuilt our house, we have rebuilt our business and our children can go to school,” Sonnashi said.
Shopkeeper Golam is also back in business.
“The cyclone waters washed through my shop,” he said. “I lost everything.
“Shushilan donated 4,000 taka (£30) to restock my shop.”
Golam, does not earn as much as before Aila struck, only making about 600 taka (£5) a month, unable to buy enough supplies to make more.
But he added: “Most people in the village are in the same position. The poor people of Bangladesh have been hit the worst.”
Golam, Asha and Sonnashi are fortunate to have been able to rebuild their livelihoods.
But others have not been so lucky.
One of areas worst hit by the cyclone was the island of Gabura, a vast, flat area surrounded on three sides by wide rivers, and on the fourth by the Sundarbans, the mangrove forests that fringe the coast of south-west Bangladesh.
When the cyclone struck Gabura was flooded with salt water.
Three years later, the previously lush land is a bleak, lifeless desert, the salt that is still in the ground making growing crops impossible.
Mother-of-four Rashida Khatun, 40, said: “Before Aila this area was fertile, people used to grow vegetables and rice.”
Rashida and her husband were already very poor, not owning land of their own to farm, but they were able to work for others, collecting crops for a wage.
But the desert conditions created by the cyclone left them without work and Rashida’s husband chose to go into the Sundarbans to fish and search for honey.
“He was forced to go into the forest,” she said.
“There was no other work for him.”
Last April Rashida’s husband was killed by a tiger as he collected honey in the mangroves.
“The tiger attacks are very frequent now,” she said.
“There is no other source of income so more people are going to the forest and risking their lives.”
CCBD has built Rashida a cyclone-resistant house, built on a raised mud plinth with reinforced concrete pillars and corrugated iron.
The organisation has also trained her in shrimp farming, so she can gain an income from the large industrialists who are taking over much of the salt-ridden land to raise prawns.
It will take another four or five years before the land of Gabura recovers from Aila to become fertile enough to farm, but the shrimp farmers are making matters worse by pumping more salt water onto the land for their ponds.
Despite her bleak outlook, Rashida has hope for the future for her and her four sons.
“We do have hope for the future,” she said. “If there is no hope then how can we survive?
“Aila was an act of God – how can we blame God?
“I can’t be more powerful than God but the knowledge I have gained from the training will help me.”