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Bangladesh villagers still struggling after Cyclone Aila’s devastation

Bangladesh villagers still struggling after Cyclone Aila's devastation

Yusuf Dhali remembers vividly how he and his family survived when cyclone Aila destroyed his village as it struck Bangladesh’s south-western coastal region three years ago. He was in the fields when the Kholpatua river surged over the 30ft-high earthen embankment, sending a wall of water across the fields.

“I ran home when I saw the water and grabbed my wife, son and daughter,” he said. “We hung on to a tree for two or three hours during the storm.”

No one in Adarsha Gram died in the storm that killed 300 people and destroyed 4,000km of roads and embankments. But the villagers saw their livelihood from shrimp farming wiped out. The river created a lake that cut road access – the village can only be reached by boat – and deposited huge amounts of grey sludge around the village – which sits on land flat as a pancake, destroying the shrimp ponds.

“Before Aila, I lived very well from my shrimp pond,” said Dhali. “Now I work as a day labourer and I don’t have enough money to restart the business.”

Dhali’s story represents in microcosm the threat from climate change to low-lying Bangladesh. The densely populated country of 164 million is highly vulnerable to the prospect or rising sea levels and melting glaciers. Over the last 20 years, the country has been hit by six major disasters – four floods and two cyclones – affecting millions. In 1991 a cyclone killed 138,000 people, and in 2007 a combined flood and cyclone killed up to 10,000 and affected 15 million. About half of the world’s deaths due to tropical cyclones have occurred in Bangladesh.

Migration for those living at the edge of the Bay of Bengal – the world’s largest bay – area is not feasible as around 15 million Bangladeshis live in areas vulnerable to climate change. Adarsha Gram lies in the Sundarbans, a watery and muddy world of mangrove forests that is home to the famed Bengal tiger, wild boars, macaque monkeys and estuarine crocodiles.

With migration not a realistic option for many, adaptation becomes imperative. After Aila, Brac, a Bangladeshi NGO, supported the villagers financially and helped build cyclone-resistant homes. Designed by Brac university in consultation with the villagers and funded by the UN Development Programme (UNDP), the 43 cyclone-resistant structures at Adarsha Gram now stand on four concrete pillars, which are 7ft above ground and 6ft below.

Besides the houses built of wood and brick roof tiles, the village of 300 households also has a schoolhouse that doubles up as a cyclone shelter for people and livestock – a concrete staircase for people and an earthen ramp for the cows and other animals. The school’s distinctive wall has gaps between the bricks, allowing wind to pass through the building so that it doesn’t have to absorb the full shock of 240km/h winds.

Having cyclone-resistant homes may provide some reassurance for villagers in case a cyclone hits again, but that does not feed them. Apart from destroying homes, flooding also destroys livelihoods.

Three years after Aila, the villagers have only now begun to dig shrimp ponds in the expanse of grey earth that blends with grey February skies. They will, however, not be working for themselves, but for a businessman who has leased 850 acres of the communal land for shrimp farming, which is very popular in the Koyra region.

But shrimp farming has a downside, explained Mohammed Zahidur Rahman, from Brac’s disaster, environment and climate change programme. “Once land is given over to shrimp farming, it becomes useless to farming after 10-15 years because the land becomes too salty,” he said, “and most of the profits do not go to the farmers but those businessmen who have leased the land.”

Yet, whole villages have adopted shrimp farming and the landscape in the area is full of large rectangular ponds that alternate with paddy and maize fields. Brac is promoting alternative activities such as growing salt-tolerant rice and maize, as well as crab-fattening. Crabs, which mature in 15 days, have the advantage of taking up less space and – provided they are the right size – find a ready export market in countries such as Taiwan, Malaysia and Singapore. But there are no simple solutions.

Crabs have a tendency to fight. Those that lose a claw in combat are no good for export, although one-limbed crabs do end up in tasty curry dishes that are a welcome source of protein for some families. Crabs can also die from viruses.

“I’m earning good money. Crabs are more profitable than shrimp, but sometimes most of my crabs die,” said Jossi Rani, at Deyara village, 23km from Adarsha Gram, as she cuts up talapia fish to feed her crabs.

Apart from the threat of cyclones, a more insidious problem for those living in the Sundarbans is increasing water salination, making it hard to grow even salt-resistant rice and maize. Drinking water is also an issue. Even water in a deep aquifer – 700ft – in the coastal area contains too much salt to drink. Brac has imported two desalination plants from China to provide drinking water, but they have broken down and are awaiting Chinese engineers to come and repair them.

Brac’s work in disaster and climate change – from training tens of thousands of residents in disaster peparedness and response to helping people earn a living – blurs the line between disaster relief and development. But in areas of high vulnerability to climate change, from Bangladesh to the drought-prone Sahel in west Africa, development and humanitarian organisations increasingly see their work as complementary.

Kristalina Georgieva, the EU’s head of humanitarian operations, makes the case that it is no longer affordable to wait for crises to hit when it is cheaper – and the right thing to do – is to take pre-emptive action. In the Sahel, where relief groups are working hard to prevent a humanitarian disaster from the recent drought, the EU has agreed €150m in development funding on top of €123m in emergency assistance. In Ethiopia, the World Food Programme is increasingly moving into development work, helping farmers to rehabilitate degraded soil.

Three years on, the residents of Adarsha Gram have yet to recover from cyclone Aila – a stark reminder of the enormous challenges in building resilience. Shrimp farming has provided some welcome money, but the soil will get saltier and the embankment risks being weakened as villagers run pipes through it to siphon water from the Kholpatua.