29 May 2009
Ash Sweeting/BRCVulnerable families from a landless fishing community that survived Cyclone Sidr in 2007 now have secure homes and better prospects thanks to a British Red Cross recovery programme.
It means this community in Kuakata, Barisal district, is better protected if a cyclone strikes again. Bangladesh is one of the world's most disaster-prone countries, susceptible to devastating cyclones and floods. Just last week, on 25 May, Tropical Cyclone Aila hit Khuluna district, which neighbours Barisal, and parts of east India, killing at least 210 people.
However, experts say thousands of lives were saved by early warning systems and programmes which help communities prepare for cyclones, like the one run by the Bangladesh Red Crescent Society.
Since Cyclone Sidr struck Bangladesh on 15 November 2007, the Red Cross programme in Kuakata has secured land and built new shelters for 925 families. Working with local authorities, we helped relocate these families, living precariously close to the sea, to more secure and permanent homes.
We also trained 1,900 men and women in different livelihood activities, from fish farming and market gardening to small business development, such as handicrafts. An enterprise support centre has been built and will continue to provide business advice to all the families now the British Red Cross programme has finished.
Fighting for land
Nick Young, British Red Cross chief executive, visited the programme this week. He said: “Picture the scene. To my left, a tall mud embankment, beyond it a short stretch of sand – and the sea. This patch of sand used to be home for nearly a thousand families, living in shacks, fishing in boats, as generations had before them. Then the cyclone smashed into the land, flattening everything in its path.
"Today, it's another story. Our recovery work, funded from our own appeal and that of the Disasters Emergency Committee, has been all about building a confident, secure community with a bunch of landless and forgotten families for whom the future held as little promise as the past.
"The first challenge was land. There’s lots of it about, even in overcrowded Bangladesh, but someone else either owned it or claimed it. Our recovery team set about identifying vacant land, fighting for the rights of the fishermen to bring up their children away from the sea, on land that can't be taken from them.
Constructing new homes
Ash Sweeting/BRC"Next came the construction of new homes. They are small huts on strong concrete bases, timber frames and corrugated iron roof and walls. Not palaces certainly, but built strong enough to withstand another cyclone, and about 100 per cent better than what they had before.
"I talked to some of the proud new owners and asked the women what was good and what could have been better. "The land is ours," they said. "And the houses are strong. We would have liked two doors and a verandah ideally – but this is fine," they replied with shy grins at husbands, who had already built the verandahs!
"Each house has a small garden, usually a banana tree or two, an external latrine, and often goats, ducks or even the odd cow. For building the houses was only the start. We also gave each household 30,000 thaka (£300), for them to develop new livelihoods or replace lost assets. Our team sat down with every single family, they gave advice and training, helping each couple plan a new life in a new way – safe and secure, for the first time ever, in the knowledge that nothing and no one can take it from them.
"To oversee and support all this, the Red Cross has helped establish a naba jagaran samiti, or new awakening committee, which is already acting as the glue binding the new community together and ensuring the interests of the individual are balanced against the needs of the group.
"There's a tiny school, with a dynamic young teacher and 40 children; a large pond under construction as a community fishing enterprise; training and business advice from the generous proprietor of a local prawn hatchery; and a raised mud access road paid for by the government but built by the villagers.
"This is real empowerment for people who have never had any power, a bundle of basic rights and assets. It is a fresh start described by one local person as ‘beyond their dreams’, for those to whom dreams had seemed a pointless luxury.”
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