Tracking the aftermath of a disaster is the real story which many are not interested in

Two cyclones hit the country recently. The fury of the cyclones is an old story. But the story of the disaster continues in a different form even if the cameras are not there to capture it

Patralekha Chatterjee
| Updated: June 6th, 2020

How does one communicate the face of a disaster? Is it only about capturing the calamity as it strikes – the deaths, the devastation and damages to lives and livelihoods? Is it only about the emergency response? Or is there a larger story in tracking the aftermath of a disaster, seeing the link between disaster and development?

The questions become extremely relevant not only because parts of India are recovering from two cyclones that hit the Eastern and the Western coast in quick succession but also because India, as a whole, remains extremely vulnerable to a range of disasters. This is exacerbated by social, cultural, economic, institutional and political factors. Climate change is escalating the severity and frequency of disasters such as droughts, floods and cyclones, and this, in turn, is leading to more health problems.

Take the two most recent cyclones. Cyclone Amphan ravaged West Bengal, hit Odisha and Bangladesh, taking more than 100 lives and leaving behind a trail of destruction. Cyclone Nisarga largely spared Mumbai but pummelled other parts of Maharashtra such as Raigad, killing at least 11 people.

The fury of the cyclones is yesterday’s story. But the story of the disaster continues in a different form even if cameras are not there to capture it.

Cyclone Amphan ravaged houses in villages in West Bengal

Disasters not only destroy individual lives and families; they have an enormously debilitating impact on the development of impoverished communities. Disasters disrupt the social and economic fabric of communities. These disruptions have long-term impacts, not only on livelihoods, but also on many other areas such as education and health.

Today, disaster-ravaged areas are grappling with the twin challenges of the aftermath of the calamity and COVID-19.

According to NGOs like Oxfam and Action Aid and many others which are working on the ground in Amphan-affected areas, clean drinking water, sanitation and hygiene are some of the major issues of concern. Samirul Islam of Bangla Sanskriti manch, a grassroots NGO working in Amphan-affected districts in Bengal told this writer this week that in many areas, tube wells are still submerged in water. Relief teams were distributing water pouches but supply outstrips demand. In many areas, repair work has started, but in many others, people are still walking 10 kms to collect safe water.

With waves crashing through embankments in the Sundarbans, saline water has got into freshwater ponds, denying residents a major source of drinking water. Debris of many kaccha houses have ended up in the ponds that are now stinking because the freshwater fish died when the saltwater got in. In some areas, saltwater has seeped underground as well, making the tube wells useless.

Submerged houses in Sulkuni islands in Sundarbans. Photo: Aritra Bhattacharya

Most of the toilets built in the Sundarbans under the Swachh Bharat Mission were roofed with tin sheets that have now been blown away by the cyclone. In government-run schools and colleges whose buildings are now being used as cyclone shelters, the condition of the toilets was already deplorable. Now they are unusable. Grassroots activists say this is forcing people to defecate in the open, increasing the health risk.

An Action Aid rapid assessment in the immediate aftermath of Cyclone Amphan noted that hygiene had completely collapsed in 130 relief camps housing 8,197 people in Contai I and Khejuri I blocks in Medinipur. There was no measure to check the spread of COVID 19, though many of these camps have been used as quarantine centres for weeks and continue to house suspected COVID 19 patients.

Odisha was less affected by Amphan. But, according to ground reports, many public health facilities were damaged.

From the health and hygiene perspective, immediate needs include dry rations, water purification tablets, oral rehydration liquid, containers to store drinking water, hygiene kits that have sanitary napkins, Dettol, soap, handwash, toothpaste, washing powder for clothes and a bucket with cover. Health workers in these camps have an immediate need of PPE – mask, sanitiser, gloves.

Immediate priorities include repair of existing toilets or construction of temporary toilets; and special awareness drives on hygiene and sanitation, especially with children, adolescent girls and women.

From the health and hygiene perspective, immediate needs include dry rations, hygiene kits that have sanitary napkins, Dettol, soap, handwash. Photo: WaterVagabond

Regular vaccination activities need to be resumed at once. Decomposition of debris and contamination of water sources have increased threats of mosquito bites and diarrhoea. The West Bengal government has released money to repair tube wells, embankments, school buildings, drinking water and toilet facilities. A central government team also visited the Amphan-affected areas recently. But the work needs to be speeded up significantly. There is an immediate need of mobile health check-ups and health camps and supply of medicated mosquito nets in affected villages.

The world’s largest mangrove forests that has repeatedly protected the rest of West Bengal and Bangladesh from the fury of cyclones, including during Amphan, the Sundarbans has been affected by multiple cyclones in the last decade, starting from Aila in 2009. By now it is a largely devastated area, with the estimated five million people who live there unable to even repair their homes and embankments before the next cyclone flattens everything again. The salt water that has got into the farms due to Amphan have made them totally unproductive for at least the next three years.

Disasters set back years of development. Now it will take months to just put up the electricity poles that have all been blown down by the wind. Hundreds of kilometres of embankments will have to be repaired or rebuilt; roads and bridges have to be repaired – all vital in an area where people live in an archipelago of small islands amid a maze of creeks and rivers.

A man repairs his tent damaged by frequent storms after Amphan. Photo: Aritra Bhattacharya

But it is important to point out that disasters also offer an opportunity to build back better. Let me explain through the example of Gangasagar, the island at the mouth of the Hooghly, the westernmost distributary of the Ganga. Last year, many residents of Gangasagar received Rs 1.2 lakh under the Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana (PMAY) to build brick and cement houses. Almost everyone found it useful but not enough, so they bought construction material on credit, relying on the money being earned by their relatives by working all over India to pay back. On average, each family ran up a debt of Rs 3 lakh. Even then, they could not afford to have concrete roofs, so they installed asbestos sheets. Since these are far heavier than tin sheets, they hoped they would withstand storms.

Now all their relatives have lost jobs due to the lockdown forced by COVID-19 and the asbestos roofs have been blown away by Cyclone Amphan. Residents now have roofless houses for which they still have to pay, but in which they cannot live, because they cannot afford to buy asbestos sheets again.

If the residents get money once more from PMAY or any other scheme, it is vital that they get enough to build a concrete roof. Norms set for PMAY payment in inland areas cannot just be replicated in coastal areas, because the risks are different. It is important for the authorities to understand this to build back better.

Patralekha Chatterjee is an award-winning journalist/columnist, and photographer focusing on development issues. Currently, her writing focuses on the intersection of politics and public policy on a range of inter-linked development issues for Indian and international media.

(Views are personal)