Coping with Aila devastation
BANGLADESH, during the last few decades, has been identified as a disaster prone area. It has been barely 16 months since the killer Sidr struck the coastline of Bangladesh and took a toll of 3,500 lives, according to official count, with huge loss of property and livestock.
Cyclone Aila, that hit the south western coast of Bangladesh on May 25, left a trail of devastation, killing at least 175 people, with several hundreds missing and several thousands injured, according to official count. The tidal surge that accompanied the cyclone caused widespread damage, affecting the lives and livelihood of about 33 lakh people, as revealed by an official handout of the Disaster Management Bureau.
The damage caused in Shyamnagore and Assasuni upazila under Satkhira district is extensive. People in these places don't have any houses, water or sanitation facilities. In the words of Anwara Begum of Dumuria villge under Gabura union: "This is a living hell." The air there is heavy with the stench of decomposed livestock washed away by the surging water from the rivers linked to the sea. The direst need in these places is drinking water.
Officials cannot get food and medicines across to the needy. Relief experts have an adage: "For the survivors of the natural disaster, a second man-made disaster may be looming." Given Bangladesh's dismal record in calamity management, it usually holds good. But with the government tackling the situation, this can be a different story.
With committed officials and a host of well meaning individuals and institutions, there can be a change in the lives of the shattered people. Unhappily, even seven days after the calamity, relief is meagre, food is scarce and government officials are conspicuous by their absence on the plea that disaster-hit areas are inaccessible.
Paradoxically true, most tragedies have no end, just a beginning. Equally true, most tragedies expose the bureaucratic bungling and political callousness that heighten the crisis. Octogenarian Golman Bibi of Bir Laxmi village and housewife Farida Khatun of Uttar Atulia, taking shelter on raised land, lament in desperation not for food but for a bottle of drinking water and a packet of Orsaline to save Farida's diarrhea affected daughter. For the people of Shyamnagore, it's a double-whammy. They not only faced the brunt of nature's fury, but have to suffer government apathy as well.
The government's task after the calamity is enormous. Confronted by an army of NGOs all offering to help, the problem before the government is efficient utilisation. The reports of the sufferings of the battered people, heightened by the scarcity of drinking water, coming in everyday seem almost too horrific to be true. But they are.
As reported by WDB officials, about 1430 sq km of embankments have been breached and, in Bhetkhali, Gabura, Jogindranagore and Protapnagore bordering the rivers linked with the sea, about 109 sq km of embankments have been totally washed away by the tidal surge, allowing intrusion of salt water over vast areas that will remain submerged unless the embankments are either built afresh or repaired.
Because of the submergence of land and ponds in salty water that continues to inundate the land bordering these rivers, drinking water will be hard to find.
It seems impossible for the government machinery to continue long-term relief, rescue and rehabilitation efforts. Even seven days after the tidal surge inundated Satkhira and Khulna, thousands are still without food, water, shelter or hope.
The key to combating a disaster of such proportions is speed, commitment and will, so that damage can be minimised and rescue, relief and rehabilitation is swift and effective. The government needs to appoint a disaster management coordinator from the civil administration or from the army to supervise the entire rehabilitation program.
A coordination centre must be set up, and placed in charge of the coordinator who will monitor all activities related to the repairing and building of embankments breached or washed away. One thing is certain. Proper utilisation of the money allocated for construction of the embankments is most important to avert future catastrophe.
One reason for the collapse of the embankments is the weak foundation of the embankments, caused by the plastic pipe pushed through the bed of the embankment for bringing in saline water from the river on the other side for the shrimp farms.
During my visit to Shyamnagore and Assasuni after the last Sidr disaster, I saw hundreds of such pipes. This must be stopped. The shrimp farm owners must be forced to pipe in saline water only through the sluice gates. Sure enough, the damage these areas suffered that time was trivial compared to what has happened this time.
If the administration or WDB fails to put the embankments in place at the earliest, no solution will work and there will be hundreds and thousands of Aila refugees who will have no other option but to migrate to high lands, preferably the district town Satkhira, for food and living.
The drinking water problem will haunt the cyclone victims for a long time. With advanced communication and warning systems available these days, Bangladesh can't fail miserably in its response to such events.
We might recall that after the tsunami in 2004 in the coast of Tamil Nadu, its drinking water sources were polluted with excessive salt-water intrusion because of tidal surge. Responding to a call from the Tamil Nadu administration, Tata Projects Limited installed a desalination mobile van that could produce 3,500 litres of potable water per hour. The plant is still in operation now. The disaster management bureau should install such "kits" in coastal zones, operated by diesel engine.
In exceptional times, exceptional solutions have to be found. The real test of nations, governments and peoples is how they react to crises. If the availability of fresh water is endangered due to natural disasters, the government should employ the desalination process followed in the Gulf States and Saudi Arabia.
In the distillation-based desalination plants in the Gulf states, salty water is heated to produce vapour, which is then condensed to produce fresh potable water. But this could be a costly venture for Bangladesh because it uses a huge amount of electricity.
The second way is the reverse osmosis process -- which is more flexible than distillation and often cheaper. Engineers at the California Metropolitan Water District (MWD), in collaboration with others, have come out with an economic breakthrough by designing a plant that uses aluminum instead of titanium and concrete instead of steel to keep construction costs down. These plants turn out water for less than 50 cents a cubic metre, with production capacity of 75m l/d.
With the region extending from Satkhira to Teknaf coming under the grip of salty water because of the frequency of natural hazards like cyclone and hurricane accompanied by tidal surge, the government is left with no other option but to go for desalination plants in these places to meet the cataclysmic situation resulting from such recurrent nightmares that seem to haunt the coastal population these days.
Md. Asadullah Khan is a former teacher of physics and Controller of Examinations, BUET. firstname.lastname@example.org.