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Six months out, Bangladesh's cyclone woes unresolved

1.3 million people still live in makeshift homes, often built from cyclone debris.

By Mahtab HaiderCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / May 23, 2008



Bogi, Bangladesh

The night on which cyclone Sidr engulfed her village, Hawa Begum, seven months pregnant, grabbed her son and ran to a shelter. They survived – but her husband, daughter, and 16 other relatives didn't.

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Six months after the cyclone killed nearly 4,000 people on Bangladesh's coast and left more than a million people homeless and destitute, Ms. Begum says she doesn't feel so fortunate to have made it.

Begum is one of 1.3 million survivors still living in temporary shelter as the South Asian monsoon nears.

"Where is the luck in living, if you have no income, no food, and a roof that doesn't even keep out the drizzle? When the storms start again, I will be homeless with two children," she says, gathering firewood in the yard of what used to be her house – now a makeshift squatter with walls of dried grass and a sheet of corrugated iron held up by bamboo.

Begum's situation in Bogi, one of several fishing villages hit hardest last November, illustrates a common problem in disaster recovery: Aid groups and governments can deliver emergency supplies fast, but their efforts flag before the more complex, long-term problems of massive homelessness and its economic ripple effects are resolved.

"Housing costs are large, which is one of the reasons you need a more comprehensive plan to provide materials," says Heather Blackwell, who heads the aid group Oxfam in Bangladesh.

Aid agencies and foreign countries have provided or pledged enough core housing – an incomplete structure that families live in and add to – for about 60,000 families, but "this is only a fraction of those who need help," said Graham Saunders, head of shelter for the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.

While aid groups' work has slowed since November, some Bangladeshis also accuse the military-controlled interim government in Dhaka of dragging its feet. It has yet to utilize donations from foreign countries, such as India and Saudi Arabia, that were earmarked for reconstruction.

Meanwhile, people are living under scraps of corrugated iron sheets and bamboo matting salvaged from the cyclone. "The hardship that these families living in temporary shelters are suffering is unimaginable," says Adeel Quaiser Khan, a program manager of Oxfam who has been in Sidr-affected areas since last year. "These are not houses they are living in.

"They cannot keep food safe because the roofs leak, and we have just a month left before the rains will start again," he adds. "What will these survivors do when their houses collapse?"

Two-thirds of the 1.5 million affected families are starting to rebuild, says Ms. Blackwell. But many are doing so with no safety guidelines. Along the affected coastline are villages where homes are rickety structures strapped together with damaged rope and warped tin roofs.

"We need to make sure that people are aware of simple and practical techniques that make their homes more resistant to storms, floods, and cyclones," Blackwell adds. Building homes on bamboo stilts is an inexpensive way to protect homes from floods, and using thicker corrugated-iron sheets held down with long nails is a simple way to better secure them from strong winds, she explains.

Residents benefit from continuing food aid and work-for-cash programs, administered by nongovernmental organizations and the government, but the lack of permanent shelter has had ripple effects.

"Without the security that a house provides, many adults are not being able to leave to look for work as migrant labor, or even in the vicinity," says Blackwell.

The millions of families on the coast make their living from homestead farming and as agriculture workers for other landowners. While the former typically meets food needs, families rely on the money that their men earn in the planting and harvest season by working on larger farms for other basic goods.

The cyclone's widespread agricultural damage has made it hard to find work locally, and insecure houses make adults reluctant to seek work far away, lest their children be harmed or homes occupied.

Most homestead farmers here rely on one crop, which means infrequent harvests. "Even those who have survived and built some form of housing will not see any income until September or October," says Adeel.

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