Still recovering from its summer floods, Bangladesh faces another grim struggle after a storm that killed at least 1,700 people
Amelia Gentleman in New Delhi
Sunday November 18, 2007
Aid agencies have called for urgent international assistance to help survivors of the cyclone which has devastated parts of Bangladesh, ripping up roads, tearing down buildings and damaging as many as two million homes.The government said around 1,700 people had died, but that toll might rise as aid workers, helped by ships and military helicopters, battle to reach hundreds of villages cut off by the damage. Power and phone lines were knocked out by heavy rains, slowing down relief efforts and making the full scale of the disaster difficult to estimate.a
Villagers made their way back to their homes in the south-west of the country yesterday, visibly distressed by the destruction. Homes here, typically made from straw, bamboo, corrugated iron and flimsy timber, were unable to withstand winds of up to 100mph. Many of those buildings which did remain standing were washed away in the tidal wave that followed Cyclone Sidr.
Survivors whose shacks were destroyed sought refuge with neighbours, as volunteers began constructing more permanent shelters. 'We survived, but what we need now is help to rebuild our homes,' said Chand Miah, a resident of Maran Char, an island off the coast.
With as much of 80 per cent of the main annual rice crop ruined by the winds, aid agencies were looking beyond the rescue operation, and warned that the cyclone's longer-term consequences would be severe, further impoverishing a nation already suffering from the effects of this summer's catastrophic flooding in the north of the country.
'We will need to build long-term solutions for those who have lost their homes,' said Ali Asgar, of the Red Cross, estimating that as many as two million homes had been damaged. He said help from the international community was needed urgently. 'These people are very poor and have lost everything. Their need will be very high, and we don't believe the Bangladesh government can help all of them,' he said.
While acknowledging that the final death toll could be much higher, there was relief among many that the disaster had not killed more. In 1970 between 300,000 and half a million people died in a cyclone and Thursday's storm was as strong as a 1991 cyclone which killed around 140,000.
Because Bangladesh is known to be so vulnerable, the government and NGOs have devised cyclone preparedness programmes, building shelters, organising simulated cyclone evacuation exercises and educating villagers in the most exposed areas on how to flee. Efficient early warning systems and the widespread use of mobile phones meant that this time even people in remote regions were aware of the impending disaster.