After Cyclone Yaas had made its landfall in West Bengal and the northern region of Odisha, it created a severe lash in the Southern part of Bangladesh. Even though the epicenter of Cyclone was far away from Bangladesh, tidal water has damaged several embankments of the Water Development Board. Besides, embankments in Dakop and Paikgachha upazilas have experienced damage.
As of now, the cyclone is reported to have affected 27 upazilas in nine districts such as Satkhira, Khulna, Bagerhat, Pirojpur, Patuakhali, Barguna, Bhola, Noakhali and Laxmipur. Besides, it damaged 250 houses and 900 cattle in Bhola, inundated 20-21 villages in Bagerhat affecting 2,700 people. In Pirojpur the gigantic effect of the Yaas washed away some 10-12 fish firms.
Accompanied by full moon, the cyclone has swelled the water level in Kapotakkho, Shakbaria, Pashur, Chunkundi, Dhaki, Shibsa, Kazibachha, Jhapjhapia and Manga rivers of Koyra and Dakop upazilas adjacent to the Sundarbans by 3 to 4 feet.
Now the question which we should have asked ourselves is why a category three cyclone gusting over 100 mph in the regions of India has caused significant damage to the embankments of Bangladesh.
Negligence in maintaining embankments
This is because the sheer irresponsibility of not repairing the banks in time depicts the scenario of the whole embankment projects in the country. It shows we are not doing our duties properly. If things go the same way, we will experience more damage to embankments in the near future. This damage was conspicuous. Everyone saw it coming.
Our preparedness basically starts according to the cyclone signals but it is a wrong step. The signaling system that we have applies for the sea ports. But when it is for the masses, we have to keep the tide and ebb, lunar eclipse, lunar calendar etc. in consideration.
Because of the full moon, sea level would swell even if the cyclone doesn't occur. High tide gets stronger when there is a full moon. If a cyclone is imminent it is a simple calculation that water level would increase given the state of the moon.
On 24 May, people ran hastily hearing a guard's whistle to protect the embankment. They tried to create another embankment on top of the existing one.
We need to understand that we have to engage the people who belong there while creating the embankments. People there have grown up fighting with erosion. They have their indigenous solution to these problems. The people belong to these embankments. Random contractors do not know what makes it resilient.
The problem of salinity
Salinity increases in the estuaries during the mid of May. Already we have lost the embankments. Not only saline intrusion is going to damage the harvests, it has manifold detriments.
Already cholera germ has been found in the southern regions of Bangladesh. There is no projection right now how many people will die due to cholera.
Diarrhea was already existent in West Bengal. This will aggravate more as cholera germ survives 50 times longer in saline water.
Anyhow we have to dewater the intruded saline water.
When it rains we can reserve it for future use. This can be a substitute for saline water.
As the existing ORS in the market is saline based, we have to change its intake. Consumption of rice based ORS needs to be promoted.
The saline water that has been intruded already, has to be drained. Or else people will die. On top of that, you cannot save the harvest.
Government's honest intention is needed
The embankments need to be saved before the next high tide of the new moon. If the government is capable of erecting a mighty bridge like Padma, creating proper embankments cannot be a limitation.
The pumps that BADC (Bangladesh Agricultural Development Corporation) can be mobilised for this task. We are not short in resources. We have a resourceful army which ranks no 1 in UN Peacekeeping. If the government genuinely wishes to save the people it is too easy for them. It is even possible to start from tomorrow.
We have our indigenous solution on how to strengthen our banks. In Charfashion and Char Alekzender these embankments have been created after the cyclone in 1991. They are still there. We can replicate this homegrown concept of ours for further embankment projects.
Government can monitor the embankment projects, provide technical and financial support to the people. But the formula has to be the people who belong there. People who create those banks will be in charge of its further management.
Gawher Nayeem Wahra is the Member Secretary of Foundation for Disaster Forum and Former Adjunct Faculty, Institute of Disaster Management and Vulnerability Studies at University of Dhaka.
This is a transcription of a phone interview with the author.