Cyclone Remal: Minor storm, major damage

Cyclone Remal causes large swaths of land in the coastal areas to go under waterAFP

The force of the cyclone has crossed the coast and entered the mainland.  Signal No. 10 (27 May afternoon) was lowered to Signal No. 3. According to updates, the havoc wrought by Cyclone Remal has left 15 dead in Bangladesh and West Bengal. Of them, 11 were killed in Bangladesh.

This time the day of the cyclone began with a trawler capsizing. The Mongla trawler did not capsize because of the wind or the cyclone, but because of an overcrowding of passengers. According to the rules, vessels must not move on the rivers once Signal No. 7 is hoisted. But EPZ wasn't closed down. Their factories were operating. The workers have to cross the river to come to work. The authorities were aware of this. But they called them over phone and said, we don't care if it is signal 7 or 8, the factory is open. Everyone must come.

The media reported that many workers, on condition of anonymity, complained, "Mizan Sir (officer of the human resources department) of the VIP company phoned us and insisted that we come to the factory." This was like a repetition of the Rana Plaza incident. Due to the lack of transportation, the workers crammed into a trawler to cross the river. The trawler capsized. The moment news of the accident was heard, all factories of EPZ were shut down in no time at all. The police rushed forward to restore order at the river. They took up the task of enforcing the official regulations regarding Signal No. 7. The workers were in dire straits all over again. If there were no trawlers, how would they go home now?

The common people are never taken into cognizance in any of our arrangements. We have a pretty little guidebook called SOD (Standing Orders on Disaster). The instructions lay down what tasks are to be carried out before, after and during disaster and who are to do these tasks. It determines the duties of various persons when various signals are hoisted. No one can be forced to cross the river and come to work, with factories remaining open during signal 7. But if someone does force them to come to work, what will happen then? If everyone in the trawler died, we would simply put this down to kismet and come back home.

Had the SOD been followed, so many embankments would not have collapsed in this minor storm. Embankments collapsed at Amtali, Parshunia. Water rushed over the Kalapara embankment in Patuakhali to enter the settlements. The impact of Cyclone Remal broke embankments at 36 points in Khulna's Dakope, Paikgachha, and Koyra. Many areas were inundated with saline water. Houses collapsed. Fish enclosures were washed away.

In Dakope upazila, Sutarkhali union's Kalabagi Fakirkona, Jhulantapara and areas near Panditchandra School were flooded. The embankments at Tildanga Union's Batbunia Bazar, Kaminibasia are crumbling. Paikgachha upazila's Lashkar village, Baintala WAPDA embankment has been damaged. The tidal surge broke down the WDB embankment at various polders in Paikgachha upazila, saline water rushing into village after village. Shrimp enclosures have been flooded and the shrimps washed away.

Saline water entered settlements, flooding over embankments at various points in Goroikhali's Khudkhali of Kumarkhali, Lashkar's Baintala, Lata, Deluti, Haridhali, Lashkar Rarli, Kapilmoni and Soladana. On Monday morning the people of the area voluntarily set to the task of repairing the embankments. The embankment was weak near the old police camp area in Kaminibashia at the estuaries of the Dhaki and Shibsha rivers. First the tidal water swept over the embankment. Then the embankment broke at five points. Before the embankment broke, the people had worked throughout the night to repair it, but to no avail.

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This time when the cyclone warnings were made, the deputy commissioner of Patuakhali called for a meeting. The Water Development Board official present there, informed the meeting, "Of the 1,300km of embankment in the district, 10km are at risk. A total of 16,000 geo bags have been kept ready in case cracks appear anywhere during the disaster."

The same sermon will be heard at almost all coastal districts. No one asked why 10km of embankment remained unprotected. There was a long, dry spell with no rain. Even when the weather was conducive for repairs, why was the work not carried out? The people have the right to know. There are innumerable instances of local people repairing embankments in the country without taking any money. If there were no funds, where did the shovels, baskets and geo bags appear from after the danger signal was hoisted? A stitch in time saves nine, but no amount of stitches will help when it is too late.

How can panic-stricken people build Digital Bangladesh? The time has come to give back people's embankments to the people. It is time to repair and restore the embankments with the people, and with people's ownership.

What is to be done now?

The first task must be to remove the saline water which has entered the areas. The salinity of the sea water is highest in May. The way for this water to flow out by itself is almost closed. In most areas the sluice gates are out of order. Fresh water is necessary not only for the coming aman paddy crop, but for people's use too. If the water can't be removed, it won't be possible to reduce the salinity even with the rain water that will arrive in the days to come.

After that maintenance work must begin on the embankments. There can be no further delay if the coastal people are to be saved from the high tides of September.

The embankments which were broken in places of Cox's Bazar district's Maheshkhali, Kutibdia, Chokoria, Pekua and Teknaf upazilas during the cyclones Ampan and Yaas, still have not be repaired. There are no embankments at all in certain places. In some places just a show of repairs has been carried out by throwing some soil and sandbags along a few kilometres of damaged embankment.

Other than that, even 32 years after the devastating cyclone that struck in 1991, the coastal areas of Chokoria and Pekua remain unprotected. In many areas of these two upazilas, water enters the settlements during heightened tides. The people panic at the news of cyclones and tidal surges.

How can panic-stricken people build Digital Bangladesh? The time has come to give back people's embankments to the people. It is time to repair and restore the embankments with the people, and with people's ownership.

* Gawher Nayeem Wahra is a writer and researcher. He can be contacted at Nayeem 5508

* This column appeared in the print and online edition of Prothom Alo and has been rewritten for the English edition by Ayesha Kabir

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