NewAge Extra, May 28-June 3, 2010
Mohiuddin Alamgir narrates the miseries of the Aila-affected area residents, a year after the cyclone had hit these parts.
On the night of May 25, 2009, 50-year-old Babu Ranjan Baisnab, a resident of Dophadi Kheyaghat, of the Dacope upazila of Khulna district about 400 kilometres south-west of Dhaka, was relieved after the cyclone Aila gradually died out a few hours after hitting the area at a speed of 100 km per hour. Having survived with all of his family members, he vowed to start things afresh and work hard to fill up the losses of his house, substantial storage of food grain and other items required to support daily life.
Ranjan was helped by the government and non-government organisations (NGO) members for the first few days, through the relief they provided, helping his family have two meals a day. However the regularity of this support faded as time passed.
Ranjan, like hundreds of other families in the area, currently live with his family at a makeshift house near the embankment. Although they were promised and committed many things over the past one year by the government organisations, NGOs and even foreign governments, all of these promises are yet to materialise.
‘I had lost around 30 bighas of land along with my house, which is still underwater,’ says Ranjan on May 13. ‘The authorities did not take any steps to rescue these and I am in doubt whether I will ever get to see these during my lifetime,’ he adds.
He mentions that while the government is still providing 19 kilograms of rice per month for his six-member family, the NGOs seem to have forgotten the promises they had made to him and many other family heads of the area.
‘I had heard that once the Water Development Board (WDB) reconstructs the embankment, I will get back my submerged land; however, I have not seen any work yet,’ he says.
‘I do not want any relief. I want my land and house back,’ he demands.
60-year-old Sarala, of the same upazila, demands only clean water and food while collecting filthy water from a nearby pond at the Choto Jaliakhali area beside the Nalian-Dacope embankment. The water of the pond has turned yellow and is undoubtedly unhealthy.
‘We have to collect water from here as the water of all other bodies have turned into salt water and the wells and tube-wells are not functioning either,’ she says. ‘The scarcity of drinking water is driving most to go hungry for days as we are unable to cook food without water,’ she says.
The residents of Gabura, an island union surrounded by the Kholpetua and Kapatakshi rivers, Chaudda Rasi canal at Shyamnagar in Satkhira and Koyra upazila of Khulna are also affected as they have to live in submerged houses and there is a dearth of clean drinking water and a crisis of proper sanitation system.
Al Mamun Gazi, a class five student of Jaliakhali Government Primary School, rarely goes to school as his own family is living in submerged conditions and fears that he will not do well in the upcoming examination. ‘I cannot even play as there is no dry space for playing,’ he says.
Mamun also misses his classmate Mallika whose family shifted to India earlier this year.
Due to the persisting problems in these areas, a good number of families have relocated themselves to other parts of Bangladesh like Satkhira, Khulna and Dhaka while others, like Mallika’s, have moved to India after losing their houses, lands and means of livelihood.
Crisis at large
* Most of the Aila-affected people are living in submerged houses
* The situation will be much worse if another disaster occurs in these areas this year: locals
* Most residents have moved to other parts of the country with their families while other families have migrated to India for good
* There is a crisis of clean water, dry and open spaces and proper sanitation system
Negligence at repairing and rebuilding of the embankments by the authorities, profiteering mentality of the NGOs,embezzlement of relief and rehabilitation funds by government officials, NGOs and the local leaders as well as other factors, are worsening the situation in these parts, thus driving the cyclone-affected locals toward an uncertain future. Most residents of the worst-affected embankments fear that vast areas could be submerged permanently as embankments are fast deteriorating beyond repair.
The WDB failed to reconstruct the embankments entirely at a number of points, while at others they tried to temporarily stop the water from overflowing by applying mud. According to locals, most parts of the embankment are not built effectively, leading to the growing threat of breach and overflow of water during the upcoming rainy season.
Jaliakhali, a remote village which has been flooded after a breach in the embankment point, cannot be reached that easily, with any form of vehicle. After the breach, the 15 to 20 feet wide canal of the area has turned into a 200 to 250 feet wide water body.
Most of the mud-made four kilometre Kamarkhola-Jaliakhali road, by the river Dhaki, has been washed away during the first week of April this year at the Choto Jalikhali point. Although the embankment at Jaliakhali was reconstructed from February to April, after the cyclone last year, it was damaged within two days of completion, during the high tide at the Dhaki River.
Most locals inform Xtra that the contractor, who took on the reconstruction work, had handed it to a sub-contractor who had used substandard materials in order to make more profit. As a result, the reconstructed embankment could not hold off the water pressure of the river for even 48 hours.
Like Jaliakhali, other villages of Kamarkhola, Saharabad, Joynagar, Srinagar, Fakirdanga and Bhitedanga of Kamarkhola and Sutakhali, Taltala, Bainpara, Telirkona, Gunari, Kalabagi, Kewratala, Golbunia, Dakkhin Kalabagi and Nalian of Dacope and Koyra Sadar, Koyra 2 and Koyra 4 of Koyra are still underwater.
According to NGO and government officials, riverside villages in the affected districts are submerged regularly during high tide, plunging at least 100,000 people of the embankment areas in severe problems.
The locals point out that the crisis is getting worse as WDB is never prompt at taking the necessary measures. They inform Xtra that the work usually starts when the rainy season is knocking at the door leading to three times the expenditure of public money.
Also, sub-contractors cannot ensure quality work due to the climate and water pressure during this time, and the work takes at least six months to be completed. The locals point out that the best season for such work is winter after which the water depth and velocity increases naturally.
The Aila-affected people of these areas blasted WDB for their failure at doing the repair work within the shortest possible time, due to low salaries of the workers and the contractors’ tendencies to make more profit through the delay.
Locals fear that as the construction work may take at least one year, thousands may lose their lives if any cyclone or floods hit these areas during this time.
The Khulna WDB sources inform Xtra that most of the 10 to 15 feet wide eight enclosures of the 51 kilometres long polder number 32 of Dacope, starting from Nalian project, whose boundary also ends around the same area in an anti-clockwise direction, have increased to 100 to 150 feet in width due to excessive water pressure, making the construction work there difficult.
These sources also add that as most of the embankments in the area were built around the sixties, the average height of the embankments is 4.27 metres. However, due to the increase in water level over the past few decades, the embankments need to be increased to a height of at least 5.27 metres now, to prevent water from entering the villages during any climatic disaster.
To add to the concerns, WDB sources inform that the reconstruction and repair of the embankments may not be completed within this year. However, they are hopeful at being able to prevent river water from flooding the villages by raising smaller embankments.
As WDB could not initiate the repair work within time despite floating tenders a number of times, the government deployed navy personnel in the affected areas to speed up reconstruction and repair work to complete the task in time.
Executive engineer of Khulna Water Development Board, Mosaddeq Hossain, informs Xtra that only in Dacope, an area of around 84 square kilometres are submerged in water while around 120 square kilometres of land is underwater in Koyra Upazila of Khulna and Satkhira districts. According to Khulna WDB sources, around 17.9 kilometres of embankments were damaged entirely and 31.6 kilometres of embankments were partially damaged in the Dacope upazila by Aila.
‘Although we tried to prevent the flooding of the villages and worked hard to complete the work within time, we did not find contractors for the work although we did float tenders,’ says Mosaddeq.
Both Dacope UNO Quazi Atiur Rahman, and Chairman of Kamarkhali Union of Dacope, Samaresh Chandra Roy, blame WDB and the contractors for the failure at reconstructing and repairing the embankments within time.
Locals also blame the increased concentration of unplanned Gher projects (enclosure used to cultivate shrimp) as one of the reasons for the crisis in these areas as the natural flow of water has been hindered by these enclosures.
* Reconstruction and repair of embankments are being delayed
* Repaired Jaliakhali embankment was washed away only two days after the work was completed: locals
* The contractors and subcontractors are using substandard materials to make more profit: locals
* Locals and some decision-makers of the area blame the Khulna Water Development Board for the problems
* Government employees, local NGO workers, political party leaders and some influential have formed a syndicate that embezzles relief and rehabilitation funds: residents
The prevalent problems have driven most locals to migrate to other parts of Bangladesh while some have left the country with their families as the affected areas are not good for farming, fishing, day labour work and so on. Most of the locals, currently living in these areas, work for the numerous shrimp enclosures.
At least 15 families of the Jaliakhali area have shifted to India. ‘Families of Bhupati Zoardder, Bhaben Zoarder, Shushanto Roy, Amal Roy, Sujit roy, Shanjit Roy and Komol of the area have shifted to India,’ says Paritosh.
On the other hand Gabura union council chairman, Shafiul Azam, informs Xtra that about 5,000 residents have already left their homes for towns seeking jobs at the unions.
‘As we were facing an acute shortage of food, shelter, drinking water and proper sanitation, I moved to Khulna with my wife and only child from my village,’ says Shamsu Ali, a 45 year-old rickshaw puller in Khulna city. ‘I am fortunate that I am pulling a rickshaw when most of the Aila-affected people are currently begging in Khulna and other adjoining cities while also living substandard lives at the slums of these cities,’ he adds.
People currently living under the open skies of these cities allege that the relief and rehabilitation work of the government and the NGOs are not sufficient. ‘Local leaders and NGO workers are embezzling funds, not providing rightful wages to the workers regularly while still making false promises to people like us, who have lost everything to Aila,’ complains a slum resident of Khulna city.
There are also strong allegations of nepotism and partisanship against the local Union Parishad Chairman, most of the ruling party leaders and other influentials of the area. Some even claim that these individuals have formed a syndicate through which they embezzle the relief and rehabilitation funds and materials.
Local leaders and elected representatives of the area, both from ruling party and the opposition party, are busy with their politics in the name of solving the problems, according to the Aila-affected people.
They provide the government allocation of 20 kilograms of rice per family per month under the Vulnerable Group Feeding (VGF) programme as an example. Although this is insufficient for most five to six member families, the local authorities are actually providing only 19 kilograms of rice and keeping at least one to two kilograms to themselves while accounting this as ‘compensation for transport costs’.
However, it was learnt from government sources that separate transport costs are paid to these individuals. ‘Relief and rehabilitation work is not reaching the affected due to the greed of local administrators, leaders and local NGO workers who consider the post- Aila situation as a profitable business opportunity,’ says Azizul Islam, a local inhabitant of Kalinagar.
Samaresh, chairman of the Kamarkhali Union, when contacted, denied all allegations.
Residents of Kalinagar village allege that although the NGO’s have allocated Tk 17,000 for the repair of every 100 feet of local roads, in reality only Tk 8,000 is being used. They also point out that the local NGO workers are not paying the day-labourers regularly and are not implementing their campaigns in the way they were supposed to.
Local NGO officials deny the claim. ‘Dissatisfied people are making these false accusations,’ says Samir Das, disaster monitoring officer of Rupantor a local NGO that works through USAID, Oxfam, Development Agency Corporation, Save the Children UK and the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) funding.
According to Nani Gopal Mondal, parliamentarian from the Khulna-1 constituency, consisting of Dacope and Batighata area, large-scale repair work on the embankments will commence from coming October. ‘Irregularities by NGOs at distributing relief is taking place in the area as there is no authority to monitor and coordinate the relief and rehabilitation work of the NGOs,’ he says.
He also stresses that although corruption is taking place, it is not at the scale at which the locals are alleging.
When cyclone Aila had hit these coastal areas around a year back, tidal surges as high as seven to eight feet, accompanied by heavy showers and wind had struck the residents on May 25, 2009. The cyclone claimed lives of 190 people, 1,50,131 livestock, affected 39,28,238 people of 9,48,621 families, damaged 6,13,778 houses, crops on 3,23,454 acres and 1,742.53-kilometre stretch of embankments, according to the official records.
‘I can only pray that our families will survive and our living conditions will not worsen as the rainy season approaches with increased possibility of cyclones, hurricanes and floods,’ dreads Ranjan.
additional reporting by Tapos Kanti Das