Rebuilding lives of Cyclone Aila victims still a challenge

By Arun Anand, IANS,

Pathar Pratima (West Bengal) : Many of the one million people affected by Cyclone Aila live in small islands amid a maze of rivers and canals in the Sundarbans, the world’s largest mangrove forest. The topography is making it tougher for them to rebuild their lives.

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The damage inflicted by the May 25 cyclone on the poor residents of Sundarbans is so severe that the best efforts of humanitarian agencies are proving inadequate.

Thousands of people in the two West Bengal districts covered by the Sundarbans – South and North 24 Parganas – have lost their livelihood options. Survival itself has become the most challenging task for them.

“Huge resources are required to provide even immediate relief; much more would be required to rebuild their lives,” Zubin Zamin, humanitarian response manager with NGO Oxfam India, which is working in the Sundarbans to provide relief to the cyclone victims, told IANS.

Zaman’s immediate requirement is 10,000 mosquito nets as all residents face an alarming increase in the number of mosquitoes. “We are trying to raise resources for that,” he added.

“After the cyclone, the island villages were flooded with the river water as embankments were breached. There has been no effort to pump out this water from these villages even after more than a month has passed. The stagnant water has led to breeding of mosquitoes. This is proving to be a major health hazard,” Gopal Pramanik, president of local NGO Sundarban Social Development Centre, told IANS.

Pramanik’s organization is working in close coordination with Oxfam India and several other agencies for providing relief to the victims. “The only mode of transport to most of the villages in this area is boat. There are very few boats that can travel fast and carry enough relief material,” said Pramanik.

“Toilets and septic tanks remain underwater, plants in inundated areas are dying on account of saline water, cattle and livestock are also affected since water and food sources remain scarce,” says an Oxfam India assessment report.

Volunteers working in the Sundarbans emphasise the need to build a long-term plan for creating livelihood options, rebuilding houses, repairing schools and creating fresh and clean water sources.

“That is the only way to rebuild their lives and this is the biggest challenge,” says Jyotika, a local volunteer who has been camping in the area for about a month now, distributing relief material.

The saline water, which flooded most of the villages after Cyclone Aila, has destroyed the fertility of the land. “Nothing can be cultivated in these fields for the next three years,” says Pramanik, adding “this means loss of livelihood options for thousands of families”.

In the absence of livelihood options, migration has already begun from many villages. The men are moving out leaving the women and children back. While some are going to neighbouring districts, many have moved to cities in West Bengal as well as other states.

According to a Unicef assessment report: “The situation is precarious in South 24 Parganas and North 24 Parganas districts of the Sunderbans area. Approximately 920,000 houses have been damaged, the majority of them in Sundarbans.

“Facilities in the affected blocks are overwhelmed, with a lack of human resources and guidelines. Disease surveillance is weak in facilities and in the medical camps, which will lead to difficulties in the rapid identification of outbreaks and infectious diseases.”

(Arun Anand can be contacted at [email protected])