Cyclone Amphan’s anniversary of despair

As Cyclone Tautake tears through the west coast of India, exactly a year ago, on May 20, Bangladesh woke up to one of the most terrifying storms -- Cyclone Amphan. People on the southwest coast of Bangladesh are still trying to rebuild their lives after the devastation.

Rafiqul Islam Montu
| Updated: May 20th, 2021

The impact of the cyclone Amphan is still visible both in coastal West Bengal and Bangladesh. All photos: Rafiqul Islam Montu

Koyra, Bangladesh

People along the west coast of India are slowly picking up pieces of their lives scattered and shattered by Cyclone Tautake that formed in the Arabian Sea and made a landfall in Saurashtra, Gujarat, two days back on the night of May 18.

Meanwhile, on the east coast of the country, the Bay of Bengal is getting active with a forecast of another cyclonic storm — Cyclone Yaas — expected to reach the coasts of Odisha-West Bengal around May 29 evening.

It was exactly a year ago, on May 20, when Super Cyclone Amphan tore into the east coast making a landfall between Digha (West Bengal) and Hatiya Islands (Bangladesh). The impact of this cyclone is still visible both in coastal West Bengal and Bangladesh, which bore the maximum brunt of the storm’s fury.

Also Read: The west coast of India braces for Cyclone Nisarga; the east coast is still recovering from Super Cyclone Amphan

The wounds are still fresh in coastal Bangladesh where people are still picking up pieces of their lives.

Super Cyclone Amphan, which weakened to an extremely severe cyclonic storm when it made a landfall, demolished all that came in its way, especially in the Sundarbans, the world’s largest mangrove forest.

That was a year ago, and the wounds are still fresh in coastal Bangladesh where people are still picking up pieces of their lives.

Also Read: Uprooted by Cyclone Amphan, thousands of families in west coast of Bangladesh still displaced

Sabita Rani’s last memory of her home was the clock on the wall which told her it was 6 pm. It was on the evening of May 20, 2020, that her home in Hajatkhali village, in Koyra upazila, Khulna district on the south west coast of Bangladesh, was swept away in the fury of Cyclone Amphan. What happened next was a blur, she told Gaon Connection.

Sabita Rani’s family lives in this shack ever since cyclone Amphan swept away her home in Hajatkhali village, Koyra upazila, Khulna district.

Sabita’s family found shelter on an embankment along the river Kopotaksha where they have been living for a year now. 

Nothing’s left of Sabita’s home, nor her village.

Many families from Hajatkhali, Katmarchar, Uttar Bedkashi and other villages in Khulna district also live on the same embankment without access to any basic services.

Life on the embankment at Hajatkhali village in Koyra upazila, Khulna district where people have been living for a year since Cyclone Amphan destroyed their homes.

Also Read: Super Cyclone Amphan weakens to an extremely severe cyclonic storm. But, still remains strongest cyclone ever recorded in the Bay of Bengal

Picking up the pieces

Khulna, Satkhira and Bagerhat districts on the southwest coast of Bangladesh were the hardest hit by Cyclone Amphan. About 500,000 people were affected. The cyclone broke the embankments and water entered villages, submerging them for almost a year.

There are lingering signs of devastation as agricultural lands and shrimp farms are vacant. Villages lie in ruins. Many people continue to live on embankments.

The inundation of salt water into agricultural fields has rendered them uncultivable. Big traders, farmers and shrimp farm owners are now daily wage labourers. Some are boatmen, some drive vans, others earn a livelihood by ferrying goods from village to village. The debt burden is increasing.

Roads have now become waterways, and the only mode of transport. Boats are anchored at the wharf awaiting passengers at Kacharibari, ​​Koyra upazila, Khulna.

Also Read: Cyclone Amphan: Those left behind in Sundarbans have nothing to rebuild their lives with

Those who have returned to their homes are rebuilding their lives out of the rubble.

“We were fine before the cyclone. We had no shortage of anything. We were happy with what we got from our shop in the local market,” Sanjit Sarkar of Uttar Bedkashi village in Koyra upazila, Khulna district, told Gaon Connection.

Sanjit Sarkar has a burden of debt ever since Cyclone Amphan hit Uttar Bedkashi, ​​Koyra upazila, Khulna district.

“We lived on the embankment for about ten months after the cyclone. Now I am trying to renovate the house,” 32-year-old Sarkar said. He has taken a loan of 50,000 taka (one taka = 0.86 INR) and is worried how he is going to repay it without an income.

Before cyclone Amphan hit, Mizanur Rahman owned five bighas of land in Katmarchar village, Khulna, where he cultivated shrimp. Since then, the 40-year-old has accumulated a debt of 100,000 taka in order to survive. He told Gaon Connection that he could not afford to restart his shrimp cultivation and now had a huge debt to repay.

Shrimp farm owner Mizanur Rahman is left with nothing ever since a tidal wave during cyclone Amphan, washed away his shrimps at Katmarchar village, Koyra upazila, Khulna district.

Destitute and desperate

Kartik Chandra Mandal and his family of five, also lived in Hajatkhali village. The 38-year-old told Gaon Connection that unlike the thatched shed they were forced to live in now on the embankment, before the cyclone, he and his family lived in a pucca (cement and brick) house.

Mandal recalled how he had built that house with his savings and that of his father. But, that new house stands no more. It was swept away by Amphan last year on May 20.

Similar stories such as Mandal’s and Sabita Rani’s play out in other areas such as Kurikahunia, Sreepur, Sanatankathi, Pratapnagar of Asashuni upazila and Banyatala and Gabura of Shyamnagar upazila in Satkhira district. Many people have left their villages in search of livelihood and employment elsewhere.

Also Read: As Cyclone Amphan batters parts of West Bengal, villagers in Bhadrak in Odisha have a déjà vu

Once there were many houses in this area. But it has been rendered almost empty by the tidal wave of during Amphan at Kurikahunia village, Asashuni upazila, Satkhira district.

“There is no escaping the burden of devastating storms,” Sanjeev Kumar Kafley told Gaon Connection. He is the head of the country delegation, International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC), Bangladesh.

“In the context of climate change, we need to invest more. Because this type of cyclone will only increase in the future,” Kafley said. “Collectively, we need to move beyond the old ways of looking at disaster response and recovery because these crises have put people on different scales of vulnerability due to climate change,” he added.

According to Kafley, there is a need to work on the root causes of poverty reduction. “If people are financially soluble, they will be able to build their homes in a safe place, to withstand high winds and tidal surges. Social safety net coverage needs to be increased,” emphasised Kafley.

COVID-19 pandemic made it worse

Reminiscing what happened a year ago Md. Abdul Halim, a Red Crescent volunteer of Burigoalini Union in Shyamnagar upazila of Satkhira district, told Gaon Connection that volunteers had a tough time convincing people to leave their homes and move into shelters to escape Amphan’s wrath. “But, there were far too few shelters and far too many people. Matters of social distancing, hygiene etc., were going to be a challenge,” he said.

Agreeing with Halim, Bhabatosh Kumar Mandal, chairperson of Burigoalini Union Council, said. “We have prepared for many cyclones before, evacuated many people to safety, but Cyclone Amphan was a completely different experience,” he said. “We need to rethink the disaster management systems we have,” he added.

Also Read: The lockdown and Cyclone Amphan have dealt a double blow to migrant labourers

Many families in Khulna district are living on the embankment without access to any basic services.

Cyclone preparedness

According to observations by IFRC, the Cyclone Preparedness Programme, a joint initiative of the Government of Bangladesh and the Bangladesh Red Crescent Society, has done stellar work when it comes to early warning, identifying safe shelters for evacuation, ensuring various facilities (dry food, proper lighting, toilets, water, etc.) in shelters. But the pandemic hampered the effectiveness of these measures.

However, the Bangladesh government claims that despite the pandemic, there has been progress in rehabilitation programmes. “We have fully recovered from Amphan. As much assistance as possible has been provided by the government and we have dealt well with the cyclone even in the COVID-19 pandemic,” Md. Mohsin, secretary, Ministry of Disaster Management and Relief, Government of Bangladesh, told Gaon Connection.

Meanwhile, as the government says things are under control and things are coming back to normal, Sabita longs for the day she can return to her village. But, will she be able to? There is fear once again, as the Bay of Bengal churns up another cyclone.