After the cyclone: rebuilding in Bangladesh

Wednesday, July 3, 1991

By Craig Cormick

In the wake of the recent disastrous cyclone and flooding, Bangladesh self-help organisations have been busily providing local assistance to hundreds of thousands of victims still struggling to survive and re-establish their lives.

One of the most respected organisations is Gonoshasthaya Kendra (People's Health Centre), known locally as GK. It was established in 1971, during the Bangladesh-Pakistan war, and has long provided relief and medical aid to the poor, particularly during the 1988 flood and the 1989 cyclone.

Zafrullah Chowdhury, a medical doctor and founder of GK, toured the most devastated districts immediately after the cyclone and subsequent storms, and provided this diary account.

"The dead bodies and carcasses were still visible ... 7000 out of the 10,000 of the population are dead or missing in Matarbarl. As far as the eye could go there are no houses except two broken buildings by the bank.

"The stagnant salt water polluted with carcasses and dead bodies has already become a serious health hazard for those who are still alive."

The cyclone hit Bangladesh in the early hours of April 30, bringing winds of up to 233 kilometres per hour — the strongest storm ever recorded in the region.

International aid organisations began organising relief, but such international projects take time to establish — and the first days after a catastrophe are the most critical for survivors.

Immediately after the initial cyclone had passed, GK began its relief operation. Two medical teams arrived in southern Bangladesh on May 2, and the first relief materials arrived the following day.

After touring the affected regions, Zafrullah Chowdhury summed up the most important needs as:

  • medical relief

  • food relief

  • water purification works and pumping saline water from wells.

One of the first jobs of the medical teams was to bury the dead.

With assistance from many organisations, this was largely completed by mid-May, when large-scale international relief was arriving. With its experience from previous natural disasters, GK had ensured that each medical team was well equipped with shovels.

The GK medical teams consist of six doctors and 48 paramedics. Once they dealt with the dead, they began helping those lucky enough to have survived — such as those who were able to seek safety in concrete cyclone shelters. There are some 300 such shelters built around the coastal belt of Bangladesh, raised on eight metre columns to withstand flood waters, and capable of holding 1000-2000 people.

"... there are three thousand persons in the shelter. Until then [they] had received eight bags of rice and 23 bags of chire [puffed rice]. A medical team is also stationed here. Supply of medicine is not sufficient."

During his tour of the devastated areas, Zafrullah Chowdhury established that most areas could be reached quickly with available local aid, even if only by trawler and fishing boat.

GK quickly began the distribution of specially prepared "family packs" to survivors, which continued throughout June. Each family pack contains six kg of rice, three kg potatoes, 1 kg lentils, some onions and chilli, in a jute bag — chosen because it will do less damage to the environment than plastic bags. In addition, children received specially baked high calories biscuits.

Most of this food aid is produced in GK bakeries. With the assistance of local volunteers, up to 20,000 families are receiving family packs which initially enabled them to survive and now will help them to begin re-ordering their lives.

About 10 million of Bangladesh's 110 million people were made homeless by the cyclone, which struck during the winter grain harvest, seriously damaging the crops. Many coastal rice fields have been inundated with salt water which may also damage the soil. With most drinking contaminated by salt water or dead animals, by mid-May up to 100,000 cases of gastroenteric diseases were reported.

GK identified housing relief as a major priority, but most aid organisations classify housing as rehabilitation, not emergency aid. Rather than wait, GK sent out a task force of 100 carpenters (21 of them women) to construct emergency housing in Kutubdia. Two hundred local helpers were recruited to help in this program.

Zafrullah Chowdhury also said that housing relief was important in stemming the migration of survivors from the affected areas. Such

a migration could lead to a collapse of the agricultural economy of the region.

Community Aid Abroad in Australia has been working in partnership with GK in Bangladesh for over 10 years, and has launched an appeal to help them with their work. Donations can be sent to: Bangladesh Appeal, c/- Community Aid Abroad, Box 1323, Canberra 2601.

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