Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Cyclone Aila: An Update from the field!

Reproduced from Facebook Update from Cyclone Aila 2009 - Support Group

Dear All,

Apologies for the delayed posting. Thanks very much for all your support and concern that you have so passionately expressed through this group.

I and Bikram Grewal (from WPSI) just returned from Sunderbans after a hectic field visit. In the last two days we visited some of the worst-hit islands such as Gosaba, Basanti, Bali, Satjelia,Choto Mollakhali and we met thousands of affected villagers and talked to hundreds of them.

It is difficult to describe the devastation in writing.

The situation is much worst than what we had imagined. Thousands and thousands of houses have been reduced to dust by the storm. With nearly 500 kilometers of embankments destroyed, more than a million people are still marooned – most of them without drinking water, food, shelter and emergency medical support even after a week since the Cyclone Aila had hit the Sunderbans. There is no correct figure as to how many hectors of arable agricultural lands have been inundated and what the extent of damage to the crops and livestock is. In most of the villages the grain storage which usually supplies food to a family is washed away along with the main house resulting lack of food security of the islanders. During the field survey it seemed evident that in most of the islands agriculture would be impossible in next 3 years. During the interviews many of the islanders confirmed they had never faced such a devastating cyclone in the last 20 years (the last super Cyclone had pounded in 1988).

A primary guesstimate suggests that:

•Roughly one and half millions people in Gosaba, Pathrpratima, Sagar, Basanti, Higangunj and Sandeshkhali blocks have lost everything and are facing a grim and uncertain future with no hopes to return to normal life unless something miraculous happens!
•Nearly Forty Thousand houses disappeared
•Crops, vegetables, farm fishes worth Rupees 30 Crores (3000 Millions) are lost
•Around Six Thousands people are already affected by the outbreak of Diarrhea

In every village or island we stopped, we saw endless queue of villagers including small children with empty pots - crying for a drop of drinking water. Many villagers are forced to hire boats everyday and travel half a day to fetch a pot of drinking water from another village where a tube well is working by chance! The Government relief that started trickling down since yesterday with personal initiative of few Ministers and elected Public Representatives and with the intervention of the Chief Minister of West Bengal who visited the affected areas yesterday, appeared to be way below what could be termed as adequate. There seems to be a lack of coordination and planning as far as distribution of Government relief is concerned.

Our visit to some of the interior villages produced horrifying pictures with house after house being abandoned by the dwellers and pile of rotting dead animals and fishes and decaying trees and plants lying everywhere. There is no one to clear the debris and remove the carcasses. The sweet water ponds already got contaminated with the surface color turned into deep black perhaps spelling out the message of death! All the drinking water sources are lying dead. There is no fodder available for the cows and goats to survive. The villagers are either shifting the animals to nearby towns or are selling them at throw-away prices. The only sign of life that punctuated our journey through the haunted villages was the occasional cry of the lonely dogs left by their masters. While driving to Gadkhali jetty we observed that driven by hunger and desperation thousands of Islanders started fleeing the only world they know the city of Calcutta. We do not know if the city that took 3 full days to restore electricity, water supply for its bonafide citizens after the Cyclone is still left with any more capacity to face this exodus!

A quick visit inside the National Park did not apparently reveal much damage to the mangroves and mud flats though we did not see much wildlife except few birds and a water monitor. There are reports of crocodiles to have slipped in with tides in few villages, but no attack, rescue or release was heard of.

The Project Tiger team, under the able and firm leadership of Mr.Subrat Mukherjee - the Field Director of Sunderbans Tiger Reserve, is doing excellent work and deserves high appreciation for their timely intervention and initiative. It was heartening to see and know how the team and Mr.Mukherjee immediately rushed to the affected areas and have been working tirelessly to support the villagers and also to protect the park and the wildlife simultaneously. I have posted pictures taken by Mr.Anil Mistry from WPSI of a Bengal Tiger being rescued by the forest department from a village in Satjelia Island to our friend Marcus Bauer who will upload the same on our Facebook group. The tiger had strayed in a village house to take shelter when the storm and tide was on peak. Both the family staying in the house and the tiger shared same space till the forest department got the information and reached there with a rescue team. Such co-existence only speaks of the gravity and power of the Cyclone that brought both together under a single domain. We must salute the villagers of Jamespur who extended their best support to the rescue team despite their unfathomable miseries. It is hoped that the striped cat will once again thrive in its mangrove kingdom.

The local NGOs with support from NGOs from nearby towns and Calcutta are also doing their best to standby the people of Sunderbans. Many of them are running temporary relief camps and are supplying essentials to the islanders by boats. Few are supplying cooked food as well. We feel that there should be a working cell in every administrative block with representatives from local administration, all local and partner/donor NGOs working there and set up a common agenda with specific task, responsibilities and targets instead of following individual plan and bringing many unnecessary items just for the sake of the relief. I think we should take lessons from the post-Tsunami situation in Andaman Islands. A proper documentation of the post-Cyclone situation could be a vital instrument for the human society to get a real picture and also to find remedies in future.

The three-storied concrete building of Bijaynagar Adarsha Bidya Mandir on Bali Island is now providing shelter, food and water to nearly 4000 villagers including many children and aged people everyday since 25th May. Mention should be made of the efforts and selfless service of the head teacher of the school Mr.Sukumar Paira and his colleagues supported by our coordinators Mr.Anil Mistry, Mr.Arabinda Biswas and Mr.Shambu Sinha Roy and the volunteers and the members of local Nature Clubs. Unfortunately, the
School building and its premises got partially damaged by the Cyclone.

The immediate support (relief materials) received from our partners such as WPSI, Samarpan Trust, Sanctuary Asia, Kolkata Birds, Delhi Birds, Bangalore Birds have already been distributed in the villages by our volunteers. Details will be available on the group in due course. More support is requested and is expected. The tube wells that exist in Bijaynagar Adarsha Bidya Mandir and in the premises of Sunderbans Jungle Camp are luckily still functional and are providing drinking water to nearly fifteen thousand villagers in Bali, Satyanarayanpur, Saterkona, Amlamethi, Gosaba, Pakhiralay, Dayapur, Satjelia everyday with the help of our motor boats.

The villagers of Bali 9 were surprised when a city-bred and leading West Bengal-based Industrialist Mr.Bipin Bhora arrived at their village at 3 A.M with three boat load of relief materials. He after reading reports in Newspapers and watching news on Television wanted to distribute the relief items himself and was accompanied by his wife and a team from his office. When asked by our coordinator Mr.Shambhu Sinha Roy how best the relief items could be distributed and to which areas, the villagers of Bali 9 unanimously told that they were in much better condition due to the immediate relief support they had received after the Cyclone. Based on their advice Mr.Bhora distributed the relief items in Satjelia, Lahiripur with the help and inputs from our volunteers.

What next?

•With another full moon tide approaching fast and set to hit the islands on 7th June, the first and foremost task lies with us, the villagers and administration is to raise alert call and confirm minimum repairing and protection of the broken embankments on war footing basis. Proper and long term repairing of the embankments can follow once we are able to protect the islands from further inundation by the forthcoming tide. If we can not do that, there is no chance that we can really do much later. We must reach the communities in the villages urgently and organize community groups and initiate action as fast as possible. If we can do that, we may expect that the legendary Sunderbans Islanders will once again prove their unputdownable fighting spirit and add another chapter to the history of their never-ending battle in the land of the hungry tide.

•Secondly, emergency Medical assistance and supply of primary medicines to combat Cholera and Diarrhea would be crucially important and must be made available immediately. Support groups may be formed with local youth who after receiving a very short and basic training/ briefing by a qualified Doctor (one such programme will be held in Bali 9 village on Wednesday for 30 local health volunteers) can provide emergency medical support with stock of basic medicines readily available with them.

We will get back to you soon with more updates.


For Cyclone Aila 2009 - Support Group

Asit Biswas, Calcutta, India.
1st June 2009


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