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Cyclone Sidr: Spared the worst, hamlet up against fouled water

Cyclone Sidr: Spared the worst, hamlet up against fouled water
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First Published: Fri, Nov 23 2007. 12 58 AM IST

Aid workers measured out rations of rice, lentils and salt to be distributed at the Caritas office in the village of Kanainagar, in southern Bangladesh, after a cyclone last week. (Ruth Fremson/NYT)
Aid workers measured out rations of rice, lentils and salt to be distributed at the Caritas office in the village of Kanainagar, in southern Bangladesh, after a cyclone last week. (Ruth Fremson/NYT)
Updated: Fri, Nov 23 2007. 12 58 AM IST
Kanainagar, Bangladesh: To the naked eye, this looks like a village that Cyclone Sidr barely grazed.
Most of the houses are standing. No one has died. The trees are not even decapitated, as they are in so many hamlets swallowed by the storm.
Aid workers measured out rations of rice, lentils and salt to be distributed at the Caritas office in the village of Kanainagar, in southern Bangladesh, after a cyclone last week. (Ruth Fremson/NYT)
But in this part of the world, where life revolves around water, look more closely and see how the storm has fouled so much of everyday life. Rice fields are waterlogged. Shrimp ponds have rotted. Women worry what their children will drink once their pots of rainwater run out. Not enough water, too much water, dirty water. Water bedevils everyone.
Aid began to trickle in across the cyclone zone on Wednesday, nearly a week after the storm. In this village, a long line of supplicants received sacks of rice, lentils and salt, and the country’s neighbours, allies and rivals seemed to fall over themselves to offer charity and succor.
Pakistan announced that it would send two military planes full of medical supplies and blankets. India said that an air force cargo plane would arrive on Thursday with 38 tonnes of aid. Two US navy vessels were en route and expected to arrive with helicopters within days. Saudi Arabia pledged $100 million (Rs394 crore) early this week, the largest amount, until the World Bank offered $250 million on Wednesday. Whether and how soon the pledged support will materialize remains uncertain.
Trail of destruction: A cyclone-wrecked house in Bakerganj, Bangladesh. According to government estimates, four million people have been affected by the cyclone, and 3,167 lives lost. (Photo: Rafiour Rahman/Reuters)
Neither the government nor aid agencies had an estimate on how much money was necessary to meet the humanitarian need, but a World Food Programme assessment found that $30 million would be required for food just for the next three months.
The United Nations (UN) resident representative for Bangladesh, Renata Lok Dessalien, said food, water and shelter were the immediate needs, and were all the more acute for cyclone victims who were already poor, likely to be malnourished and vulnerable to disease.
Cyclone Sidr has cut a wide and debilitating path through southern Bangladesh. The government estimates four million people have been affected, and the full scope of its impact may not be felt for many weeks. By the Bangladesh army’s latest count, 3,167 people have died.
In Kanainagar, near Dhaka, the capital, Sunita Mondol, 15, was already feeling the cyclone’s toll. She stood at the side of her family’s pond this morning and found no more than two tiny shrimp clinging to her net. On a normal morning, she would haul in a full basket and take it to the market to sell.
Women hung onto one another as they stood in line for food aid. Millions of Bangladeshis are in dire need of clean water, food and shelter after the cyclone. (Ruth Fremson/NYT)
But the storm had spoiled the pond, shaking the leaves and branches from the trees and fouling the water, so much that the shrimp died and floated belly up. On the first morning after the storm, Sunita and her family pulled up more than 13 pounds of dead fish. They threw most away.
Families such as hers, who make their living from selling the fish and shrimp they cultivate in their ponds, expect to feel the economic pinch of the cyclone for months. Every family in this village has a small pond, and family after family complained of theirs having been fouled.
Half of the fish in Pinjira Begum’s two big ponds floated belly up, which meant that her daily earnings plummeted by nearly half. The moneylender came to her home last Saturday for his weekly payment. “We told him we didn’t have money to buy rice for the children,” she said. She gave him half of what she owed. He cursed her and left.
Southern Bangladesh is one of the world’s most productive shrimp hubs. Shrimp is one of the country’s largest exports to the US.
Bangladeshi women waited in line at the Caritas office for their food rations. (Ruth Fremson/NYT)
The lucky ones here had rainwater left in their traditional earthen pots. Those whose water had run out, or whose pots had broken, had to drink the pond water, which had turned salty from seawater and had begun to stink from putrefying leaves.
A rickshaw puller down the road wondered aloud how long it would be until dysentery struck. Even without a cyclone, he said, water brings a constant spectre of disease.
In the hot months, when the rainwater stores run out and the ponds start drying up, the people of Kanainagar suffer rashes, dysentery and diarrhea. The cyclone made a chronic concern potentially acute. “Water is our main problem,” said Alamgir Hossain. “People get too sick to work, and still they have to buy medicine.”
Across the Mongla river, Muhammad Nantu Mian worked feverishly to salvage what the water had not wrecked. His rice field was flooded, just two weeks before the harvest was due. The stalks were blown down like scarecrows by the brute wind. He had drained some of the water by cutting channels in his fields. He hired workers to cut what rice stalks had not yet rotted. He figured a third of his crop was gone.
Normally, Mian said, he sold half of what he produced, saving the rest for his own family and for next year’s seeds. This year, he said, he could reasonably hope to be able to feed his family, and not much more. ©2007/THE NEW YORK TIMES
Julfikar Ali Manik contributed to this story.
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First Published: Fri, Nov 23 2007. 12 58 AM IST