100,000 stranded from their flooded homes and fields 1 year after cyclone hit Bangladesh

By Julhas Alam, AP
Sunday, May 23, 2010

Year after cyclone, 100K stranded in Bangladesh

CHAKBARA, Bangladesh — Jahanara, a 30-year-old mother of two, stands in front of her thatched hut on a raised embankment.

“I always dream of going back home,” she said, pointing to where her family once lived, an area still under water one year after Cyclone Aila battered this remote part of southwestern Bangladesh.

As tropical storms go, the cyclone on May 25 last year was not the deadliest. About 300 people died in Bangladesh and eastern India, fewer than the 3,500 killed when Cyclone Sidr hit Bangladesh in 2007. But the destruction of 430 miles (700 kilometers) of coastline has left an estimated 100,000 people stranded, unable to return to their flooded homes and fields.

“It came as a silent disaster,” Stafan Priesner, a senior U.N. official in Bangladesh, said on a visit to the area last month. “In fact many of us could not understand what was going to happen here.”

From a sea plane, hundreds of inundated homes could be seen across the region. Schools, markets, farms and shrimp ponds are all under water.

International aid groups have called for the immediate repair of the heavily damaged earthen embankments, which were built to prevent storm surges from flooding coastal communities. It is a daunting task for Bangladesh, an impoverished nation of 150 million people.

As time passes, Jahanara is losing hope. She and her husband no longer have any regular income. Their 12-year-old daughter and 10-year-old son have had to stop going to school. She worries the storm has taken away their chance for a better life.

“I wanted them to study and get jobs, but now they have no schools,” she said. “We did not want to see a repeat of our lives, but what will we do? Life has become very uncertain, ours and theirs.”

The family is among hundreds living on what remains of a 17-mile- (28-kilometer-) long embankment that was supposed to protect Chakbara, a seaside village of 4,000 people about 110 miles (175 kilometers) from the capital, Dhaka. Part of the embankment lies tumbled into their former homes.

While some survivors have left for major cities in search of work, Jahanara is among those who are sticking it out.

With the monsoon season approaching, officials expect the situation to worsen.

“This is the urgent need to rebuild the embankment, otherwise, all efforts will fail,” said Diana Dalton, deputy country representative of the British Department for International Development. “I visited this place six months ago, but I don’t see any change today.”

In February, 18 aid agencies including Oxfam and Care expressed their concern over the slow pace of repairs.

In March, Stefan Frowein, the head of the European Union in Bangladesh, warned in a statement of catastrophic humanitarian consequences if coastal embankments were not fixed quickly.

The government says it is trying to repair the Chakbara embankment, but it needs funds. Authorities also are struggling to provide other assistance to survivors.

“We need financial and technical support from the donors for a long-term solution,” said Dileep Kumar Das, a senior official with the government’s Economic Relations Department. “I am happy that the donors are taking this issue very seriously.”

The United Nations is reassessing the situation.

“We again call all our development partners to realize that Bangladesh needs external help,” said Priesner, the resident representative of the U.N. Development Program. “All the donors need to come together. It needs a coordinated effort.”

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