Dhalchar exposed to the elements
The hapless people of the remote island of Dhalchar union, 35 kilometres from Kossopia on the mainland, have found an innovative way of facing cyclones -- they go deep into the mangrove forest and hold trees to hang on for saving life.
The union under Charfashion upazila in Bhola has no cyclone shelter or brick building where people can take cover to shield themselves from storms and tidal surges.
The island faces almost all the storms generating in the Bay of Bengal, which often wash away their buffaloes and damage fishing boats, their only means of livelihood.
There was a shelter for the island inhabited by 16,000 people, including 1,500 children, but that was lost to erosion by the river about five years ago. No initiative has been taken since to rebuild the shelter.
The 25-square kilometre island is surrounded by the ocean on all sides except one, which faces erosion by the Meghna river.
The island currently has no mobile network as the lone mobile tower belonging to Grameenphone was lost to erosion last month, said Abdus Salam, chairman of Dhalchar union parishad (UP).
The mobile operator is currently working to rebuild it.
Before any storm hits, the administration warns the people and gives promise of arranging coast guard ships to rescue them but such promises are hardly kept, said locals.
No ship came to evacuate the people from the exposed island prior to Cyclone Bulbul that struck on November 10, said the UP chairman.
The people of the island can usually commute to the mainland once a day with small trawlers. However, they are unable to do so for rough waters prior to any approaching storm. The boats are moored in canals in the mainland to reduce damage.
When Cyclone Bulbul hit, about 4,000 people and children took shelter in the forest, along with their buffaloes too, as there is no highland to keep them safe.
Many others decided to stay back in their corrugated iron-made homes for fear of loss of valuables or other belongings.
It is possible to make the 40-50 minute journey inland to Kossopia on speedboat, but the people of the island cannot afford it.
“We are left with no other option but to pass the night frightened inside the forest under the open sky,” said Sathi Aktar, who took shelter inside the mangrove forest.
The population mostly relies on rearing about 6,000 buffaloes and selling the milk. Cyclone Bulbul washed most livestock out to sea, said the chairman.
The fishermen also pass anxious nights as there are at least 1,000 small, medium and large boats in the island.
While some affluent fishermen may spend about Tk 60 lakh to purchase a large boat or Tk 40 lakh for a medium sized one, it is usually the small boat fishermen who are gravely affected. They purchase small boats for about Tk 10 lakh to Tk 25 lakh by borrowing money at high interest rates from individuals.
The marginal fishermen fall deeper in debt when they have to repair their boats battered by the storms.
The onslaught of Bulbul damaged at least 100 boats and washed five boats away to sea this time, said Shahid Alam, a fisherman.
The island has a long canal linked to the sea, but they cannot anchor their boats in the shallow water for a lack of excavation, he added.
This correspondent saw six buffalo carcasses floating in the water during his visit to the island a few days ago.
The buffaloes would survive if there was a “killa” or raised land for them to stand during the storm, fishermen said.
While the poorest groups of people usually receive relief materials such as 30 kg of rice, dry foods, and corrugated iron sheets to rebuild their homes after any severe cyclone, this time the authorities deemed the damage to be negligible and so, no relief materials were handed out, they said.
“Demanding a cyclone shelter, highland for the buffaloes, re-excavation of the canal to moor the boats, and an embankment around the island, I have approached different authorities, including the local MP. But there is no response,” said UP Chairman Abdus Salam.
“The proposal to construct a shelter, re-excavate the canal and build a killa was sent to the respective ministries a few months ago. It is in the final stages to call for tenders,” said Masud Alam Siddique, deputy commissioner of Bhola.
Despite repeated attempts, this reporter could not reach Abdullah Al Islam Jakob, the local MP, for his comment.