It may have taken two years, but Mina Mondol is now living a life she could barely imagine after Cyclone Aila struck south-western Bangladesh on 25 May 2009.
“We used to eat only some rice with salt and pepper,” Mina says. “And after the cyclone it was even worse, we had nothing. But now it’s different, we can afford fish sometimes, or even meat and vegetables.”
Mina, 26, is one of thousands of people in Bangladesh who lost both their homes and means of earning a daily crust when Cyclone Aila caused a massive tsunami-like tidal surge, destroying many coastal communities.
The regional economy, previously based on agriculture, collapsed in the aftermath of the disaster because the land was waterlogged and too saline to grow crops. It will be years before fields can be cultivated again.
Since the disaster happened to some of the most poverty-stricken communities in Bangladesh, such as Shingershack in Khunla district, people such as Mina and her family faced an almost overwhelming struggle to recover.
Earning a living after a disaster
In November 2009, the Bangladesh Red Crescent did an assessment and found that many families, with nothing to fall back on after the cyclone had ripped through their communities, were still living in terrible conditions and barely scraping by.
In response, it developed a recovery programme, in partnership with the British Red Cross, to help more than 1,000 families in eleven villages in Khulna – one of the worst-affected districts.
A key aspect of the programme, which will be completed by December 2011, has been helping people establish different and sustainable ways to earn a living.
Mina says: “Both me and my husband used to be daily labourers – working in the fields – but after the cyclone there was no work for us.”
At the beginning of the recovery programme, the Red Cross teamed up with a local organisation called Prodipan, which specialises in livelihoods, and carried out an assessment looking at feasible alternatives to agriculture.
A saline solution
In Bangladesh, with a population of 158 million living in just 144,000 sq km, land is at a premium. To put this in perspective, the UK has a population of 62 million and a land mass of nearly 244,000 sq km.
Shingershack community, where Mina lives, is a place where people have been pushed to the furthest edges of their country. It is little more than narrow strips of sun-baked earth, barely attached to the mainland and protruding like old, fragile fingers into the Bay of Bengal.
Along the coast the land is little above sea level. And although people have built embankments to protect their communities from the rages of cyclones, when the worst ones hit – as Cyclone Aila proved – they provide no protection at all.
Wherever you stand in Shingershack, you are never more than a few steps from the sea. Saline water is one resource that is not in short supply and Mina and her husband are now taking full advantage of this fact.
“We have our own pond and we’ve started cultivating crabs and selling them in the market,” Mina says. “I had three days training in crab culture. Since starting our new business we are earning much better money. Now we get 4,000 taka (£32) a month, before we got a maximum of 1,300 taka (£10).”
Mina is an unusual character. At a community meeting to find out how things are going with the Red Cross recovery programme Mina is outspoken, and it is this that makes her unusual in a culture where women spend most of their time in the home and rarely speak in public. Yet at this meeting, Mina’s husband, or anyone else for that matter, can barely get a word in edgeways, leaving little doubt about the brains behind this family business.
“So far, we’ve received 20,000 taka (£164) from the Red Cross,” Mina says. “They helped us open a bank account and we will get a final instalment of 10,000 taka (£82) to support our new business.
“It’s going really well and we’ve even been able to make enough money to build a new home. With the remaining money we will buy more small crabs and food for them. The crabs only take 10 days to fatten and then they can be sold for 50 per cent profit.
“For example, I’ll spend 8,000 taka (£65) on a batch and then sell them for 12,000 taka (£98). With such a profit I spend 2,000 taka (£16) on our living costs per month and invest the rest back in the business.”
Different ways to recover
Bangladeshis are predominantly Muslim, although there are also a number of Hindu families. To begin with there was some resistance to the suggestion that cultivating crabs would make a good alternative livelihood.
This was because the Mullahs – Islamic religious leaders – who play a leading role in Bangladeshi communities frown on crabs as they are seen as aphrodisiacs.
But since Hindu families have been making good money from cultivating crabs, many Muslims are changing their minds and getting involved.
Apart from crabs, the Red Cross has helped people start other new livelihoods, such as: fish farming in small ponds; rearing chickens, ducks and geese; tailoring; and running small grocery shops. It has also helped people start vegetable gardens on small plots of land next to their homes.
Protecting the daily crust
Gaurav Prateek, project manager for the Cyclone Aila recovery programme, says: “Providing support to re-establish livelihoods after a disaster is one of the best ways to help people make a dignified recovery.
“We’ve helped people open bank accounts, provided cash grants and business training so that people can not only get back on their feet but also have a shot at making a more successful and sustainable living.
“It’s not rocket science, but the more capital a family can build up, the better chance they have of recovering from any future crises, avoiding the need to depend on aid.
“We’ve helped people develop business plans and analyse the market, looking at what input supplies are needed and where to get them from on the best terms. We’ve also encouraged people to get together in producer groups so that they can increase their buying power.”
A more profitable future
Finally at the community meeting, Mina’s husband Ramesh has his say: “Before the Red Cross training we were all poorer. Crab fattening is a very profitable business and the way we are working involves less risk. We have 11 members in our producer group and by working together we’ve managed to reduce a number of our costs.
“Mina and I have three daughters aged nine, six and 18 months. We want to send them all to school.”
Ramesh and Mina smile at each other, acknowledging their hard work and dreams for a better future for their children. It seems hopeful that no matter what crises these girls face when they are older, they will never again experience the sort of hunger they did after Cyclone Aila.
Read more about Bangladesh and people's struggle to get enough food on our blog