Cyclone Aila – No end in sight to cyclone misery

Nearly two months after cyclone Aila devastated East India and the coast of Bangladesh, the plight of survivors is no longer headline news. However daily flooding is making their recovery almost impossible. In North 24 Parganas, one of the worse affected areas in West Bengal of India, MSF is providing humanitarian assistance in remote villages.

23-year-old Usha MONDAL points to a mud house sunk deep into the floodwaters.  It lies just a few metres from the embankment where she now lives with her husband and her 5-year-old son in a temporary hut made of flimsy bamboo and whatever else they could find.  The roof of the house emerges from the murky water like the tip of an iceberg. It’s all Usha has left after cyclone Aila struck: a flooded home and the hope of being able to return. But that hope is now fading. Nearly two months after the disaster, which affected millions of people, Usha and the rest of the villagers in the small village of Tongtala, West Bengal, have been unable to return home.

Huge needs in remote areas

“How long can we last like this?” asks Usha MONDAL. “We’ve been living in this mud with very little aid for over a month now. We received food from the government, but nothing for the last ten days,” she says listing with precision the exact food rations she received. “200 grams of rice per head per week, 200 grams of chula (puffed rice), 50 grams of dahl (lentils)….” Each gram seems precious and she says it has really helped, but more is needed.

“We used to be farmers but all the paddy fields are still under water and we can’t work now, so we’ve begun fishing,” she explains. “But this doesn’t provide us with enough food for the whole family.”

Joining a queue of neighbours Usha lines up, ticket in hand, to receive blankets, water purification tablets, soap and plastic sheeting provided by Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF). MSF plans to meet the needs of 15,000 people in the worst affected villages of Sandheshkhali Block II. MSF health educators are showing the villagers how to use plastic sheeting to collect rainwater and how to store and purify it.

“We focus on areas where the needs are the greatest and where access is difficult and requires a boat,” explains MSF project coordinator Rivkah VAN BARNEVELD. “Although the immediate cyclone response has been adequate, in some places people need more and we’ve seen situations where several families have had to live under one plastic sheet.”

Daily floods

North 24 Parganas district is among the worst hit areas of West Bengal.  Close to the Sundarbans, a large mangrove forest that straddles the Indian-Bangladesh border, it is a series of islands dotting the river. A few weeks ago, the water started receding but water levels have risen again and flooded the area once more.

The embankment here is now a long line of temporary huts where people have taken refuge, often after weeks in schools or other government buildings on the mainland.

Villagers report that daily high tides are flooding their villages. “The embankments are breached, it never used to be as bad as this. Now the tides come in the early hours of the morning and in the afternoon, and the water rises to waist level with strong currents and floods the village again and again,” explains Krishnap ADAMONDAL, from his daughter’s house on the embankment where he is staying along with five other families. “Each time we have to go upstairs and wait for three hours for the water level to fall again.”

And with monsoon season approaching, conditions could deteriorate further.

Poor conditions

Unable to resume normal life, villagers are forced to stay in crowded temporary shelters. Poor hygiene conditions and the lack of clean drinking water pose high risks of disease outbreaks.

“The water quality is a serious concern,” explains MSF water and sanitation expert Prashant KUMAR. “There’s stagnant water everywhere that has been contaminated and smells. People defecate in the water and use it for domestic use. Latrines, tube-wells and ponds have been submerged.” But Prashant stresses that tests have shown that the water is not turbid and purification tablets can be used with the water from the local hand-pumps to provide safe drinking water.

Surveillance system

MSF has set up a surveillance system to monitor and control potential disease outbreaks. Health workers and medical staff are scouring villages for cases of malaria, diarrhoea, measles or cholera and meeting regularly with the nurses at the local health centres. “If we find cases of, say measles, we will alert for immunisation,” explains MSF medical doctor Homa MANSOOR. “But so far it hasn’t been the case. We have found many people with diarrhoea and skin rashes and other ailments linked to the lack of hygiene, but the general health situation is acceptable given the conditions.”

Logistical challenges

Providing assistance to these remote villages has been a big logistical challenge. Each day the MSF teams travel by boat to assess the needs and health situation before proceeding with non-food item distributions. “I’ve never seen so much mud”, explains MANSOOR. “Sometime we have to wade knee-deep through the mud or floodwaters and by the end of the day we are all covered in mud. It’s slippery and dirty and it gives you an idea of what these people have been going through for all that time.”

Structural aid needed

The people are resilient, but continuing floods and seasonal rains will take its toll. Paddy fields remain submerged and many farmers have lost their stocks of grain to the floodwaters.  Salt water has inundated the fields, which are expected to remain infertile for several years.

The long-term impact of the disaster is likely to be devastating. “Surviving each day is a struggle that takes all our strength. We haven’t had time to make any other plans,” says Usha MONDAL. “This is my village and I don’t want to leave, but we can’t hold on like this for ever. I have two children to feed.  If things don’t get better soon, we will have to go to Kolkata in the hope of finding work there.”