issue 222 - August 1991
The wind, the wave
and the forgotten
Arshad Mahmud visits the Bangladeshis ravaged by April’s cyclone
– and explains how they could be protected next time.
On a May afternoon at Santoshpur – a remote village on the island of Sandwip – a middle-aged woman, her chin resting on her folded hands, squatted on a muddy ridge overlooking the spot of mud where her thatched hut had once stood. Emaciated and grim, with years of hard labour etched into her face, Hasina Begum bemoaned her fate. She had survived the cyclone – and the six-metre tidal surge that slammed into her village – but she had lost her husband and her seven-year-old only son. The loss of her loved ones had made her half mad. When asked what had happened she only howled: ‘Why did I survive, why did I survive?’
The horror of the storm had passed. But now, lacking shelter, food and safe water, she faced the possibility of a slow, wrenching death from hunger and disease.
More than a month after the cyclone struck the south-east coast of Bangladesh – killing nearly 140,000 people, leaving over ten million homeless and destroying property worth two billion dollars – emergency food and supplies had reached most areas. This was due to the efforts of both national and international relief agencies – most notably the involvement of the US task force in the relief operation.
But the stepped-up operation hardly guaranteed any improvement in Hasina Begum’s condition, simply because of the enormous difficulty of getting supplies to her remote village. Communications were almost non-existent, bridges and culverts had been swept away and the unpaved roads (there’s not a single paved road in the village) had been washed out.
Bullock carts and rickshaws – which are the only mode of transportation – could not operate because their wheels got stuck in the mud. Food and other supplies had been delivered to the nearby town of Santoshpur but could get no further. The great fear was that people in remote villages and on offshore islands were quietly starving.
Even if no-one was starving, nearly everyone was hungry. And now that the cyclone had levelled everything, now that it had swept away their huts and their loved ones, now that they had lost everything they had, their burden of poverty would be more unbearable than ever.
Pressure on the poor
Like Hasina Begum hundreds of thousands of Bangladeshis have been living on innumerable alluvial islands like Sandwip, known as chars. The drama of the world’s expanding population is played out here in the starkest terms as overcrowding on the mainland drives the poor and landless deeper into more perilous portions of the Delta, where they battle for survival against nature and one another.
In the competition to cultivate these shifting, inhospitable spits of land, hundreds die each year as they fight each other with knives and clubs for homesteads. On 14 May, for example, two weeks after the cyclone, a man was murdered in Sandwip by his own nephew. A row broke out between the two over some possessions they were trying to salvage from under their flattened homes.
‘The pressure on the land in Bangladesh is so overwhelming that it leaves little choice for the poorest segment of the population but to move to vulnerable chars and settle down,’ says Aminul Islam, Professor of Geography at Dhaka University. More than 115 million people are packed into an area about the size of England and Wales – and one-fifth of that area is water, as two great river systems, the Ganges and Brahmaputra, converge to form the largest delta in the world.
The paucity of habitable land is further aggravated as widespread deforestation helps erosion by the rivers. Erosion can eat away more than a kilometre of riverbank in a year, and sometimes entire towns are imperilled. Chandpur town, for instance, is today fighting off the encroachment of the Meghna River. Vast areas of the town have already disappeared into the river, including its main marketplace and its railway station.
The shifting landscape of Bangladesh increases the hardship of an impoverished population. At least 30 per cent of the people cannot find paid work or are underemployed, mostly as agricultural labourers. More than 50 per cent are considered landless by the Government, and 70 per cent live below the poverty line – set not in terms of money but as a daily intake of 2,100 calories. It is these landless, undernourished people who find their way onto the coast and the islands formed by silt in the Bay of Bengal – and who become easy prey when disasters strike.
‘In a way they’re a disposable lot and nobody really cares about them,’ said a relief worker. ‘That’s why you never get any accurate statistics about them – like how many people live there, how many chars there are and so on.’
The char people in turn feel they are forgotten, left to fend for themselves – which is why they don’t really look towards the authorities in times of calamity. The sheer inaccessibility of their islands has further reinforced this feeling. Sandwip, for example, can only be reached twice a week by passenger ship in normal times. Rough sea and high winds often reduce the frequency. Economic development in the area seems to have been frozen in time.
Sandwip is considered better off than many of the other islands off the south-east coast. Yet in the whole of the 220-square-kilometre island there are no more than five kilometres of paved roads. Getting from one place to another is very difficult even in normal times and communication during the rainy season is a nightmare. None of the villages has electricity, telephone or running water.
My 27-kilometre journey from Santoshpur to Haramia, another village, by motorbike, boat, rickshaw and foot proved that the chars are a world apart. There were hardly any concrete or brick buildings besides the couple of dozen belonging to the Government. This helps explain why 98 per cent of the houses on the island were destroyed or badly damaged.
The journey offered a grim picture. Flattened houses, debris and uprooted trees were to be seen on both sides of the road. Corrugated metal sheets, plastic sheeting and household utensils were strewn all around. The nauseating stench of putrefying flesh, faeces and urine hung over the island. Sandwip lost 40,000 of its people as well as countless animals.
‘We issued repeated warnings to the people over the radio, megaphone and other means, but they apparently were unmoved,’ says Major Mohammad Abdul Khaleque, commander of the Bangladesh Rifles, a paramilitary force, in the coastal town of Cox’s Bazar. It is not unusual for island people to ignore the authorities’ calls to evacuate to safer places in the face of impending disaster. This is partly because so many of the calls turn out to be false alarms, and partly because they are convinced they have no alternative but to live with calamities anyway. But it is mainly for the simple reason that there are hardly any solid structures to which they could evacuate.
Major Khaleque confirms the last point. ‘Frankly speaking,’ he hastens to add, ‘there were not enough shelters for people to move to.’ Only 22 cyclone shelters were available in Sandwip on the night of 29 April. Since each of these can contain 800 people, it means that under six per cent of the island’s 300,000 population could have taken refuge.
Shelter from the storm
Bangladesh’s perilous geographical location makes it naturally disaster-prone. Cyclones are inevitable – but the fearful death toll is not. Tens of thousands of lives that were swept away at the end of April could have been saved.
Nevertheless there were fewer people killed this time than in the great cyclone of 1970, believed to be the world’s biggest ever natural disaster, in which at least 300,000 lives were snuffed out in the space of a few hours. The reduction in death toll this time is mostly due to the Cyclone Preparedness Programme, run by the Government’s Red Crescent Society. But this consciousness raising is not enough: physical defences are necessary too and the Government’s contribution to those has been marginal since the late 1970s, when it last built concrete cyclone shelters. The only shelters built in the last decade have been the 60 contributed by various national Red Cross societies.
In the whole of Bangladesh, some 300 shelters were available on the night when the cyclone hit – woefully inadequate for the ten million people in the danger areas, one million of them on the horribly vulnerable low-lying islands.
Yet the good that shelters can do was demonstrated on the tiny island of Sonadia, where the entire population of 700 was saved. One of the newer shelters is there. V-shaped, pointing like an arrow into the prevailing wind, it stands on four-metre stilts. It’s the only solid structure on the island; Sonadia’s only schoolroom and community centre as well as its shelter.
When the danger signal was issued, as everywhere else, the people of Sonadia were reluctant to leave their homes and possessions unguarded – a reflection of the cruel reality that these are more valuable than their lives. Red Crescent volunteers received a radio message from their Dhaka office and urged people to move to the shelter. No-one heeded them until the wind and sea began to rise but, by the time the full force of the cyclone struck, everyone was huddled on the first floor of the shelter.
Panic-stricken radio calls followed. The water had risen almost to the top of the stairs. Dhaka control room told Sonadia to stay calm and prepare to move to the flat roof. It was not necessary: the surge of water stayed at first-floor level. In 1970 almost every living soul on Sonadia perished. This time the people were saved but everything else was lost.
To blunt the ferocity of cyclones and minimize loss there is an immense amount to be done. According to Emdad Hossain, the Cyclone Preparedness Programme's project director, at least another 500 shelters would be needed to protect the population in the high-risk areas. That is more than 16 times as many as have been built in the past 20 years.
‘If you really want to save lives by preparing properly, you not only have to build shelters,’ he said. ‘You have to strengthen the weather forecasting, and build better warning systems. Then you need more feeder roads for transport and solid embankments. We also need to grow more forests (as a barrier to absorb the shock of the wind and the giant waves).’
The cost, if these things are ever done, will be colossal. One shelter alone costs around $70,000. Bangladesh, as one of the poorest nations in the world, simply cannot accomplish the task alone. The world community in general and the developed world in particular must contribute in a big way. The dreadful television pictures of the tragedy seem to have shaken their conscience a bit. But that only prompts them to send emergency relief. They proffer that readily, confirmed in their assumption that Bangladesh is a land of perpetual disaster where cure is easier than prevention. But prevention would be possible if only the money were available.
There will be more cyclones. There will be more appalling and unnecessary casualties. That is, unless the First World cares enough about human life to match the killer waves of the Bay of Bengal with a high tide of cash and compassion.
Arshad Mahmud is a reporter based in Dhaka who covered the cyclone and its aftermath extensively.