Relief Before Disaster: Prepared for the Worst
To live in rural southern Bangladesh is to play an endless game of Chutes and Ladders. Long days of hard work - tending rice fields, selling eggs, buying goats - of scrimping and saving, of buying medicines and paying school fees, let you climb the ladder rung by rung.
And then one natural disaster hits and you are sent down the chute. That's what happened to Almas Sikdar and his wife, Rina Begum.
"Our house was destroyed in [cyclone] Aila," says Sikdar, reflecting back to the loss in 2009. "Nothing was left. Our food, cooking pots, even our chickens were gone. I felt so much sadness not only at the loss, but at the time I had spent to build the house. I had nothing to show for my effort."
When CRS and local partner Caritas Bangladesh met with Sikdar and Begum after the cyclone, they encouraged the family to rebuild using strategies and techniques that would help end the Chutes and Ladders cycle, that would leave them in better shape after the next cyclone inevitably crossed their tiny plot of land.
The project with Caritas has given us a planning system. We can think through what will happen in future cyclones and make decisions that will help us recover. During Cyclone Mahasen (May 2013), there was so much wind with dark clouds. The clouds were so thick, they looked like smoke. We took our savings to the school (evacuation center), as well as some dry food, documents and our portable oven. We put the remainder of our food in plastic bags and stored them in the rafters. When it was over there was standing water everywhere and trees were down. Our belongings were scattered and our home was damaged, but because we had tied down the roof, we could easily collect the material and begin repairs. We could cook right away, because we carried the oven with us. I remember, before our portable oven, that we would be hungry for days as we had lost our food in the storm and even when government relief came, we had no way to cook the rice. In earlier storms we were totally dependent on relief goods. This time, because we stored the food and had our utensils stored in plastic, we had everything we needed to eat. I dream of making my house even stronger with pillars and good fences, and I will paint it beautiful colors - red, green and blue all together. Now we have savings and we want to buy goats or even a cow eventually. We want to live off of our assets some day. We didn't save money before. Now we have money when we need to make purchases right away.
It's called disaster risk reduction, and it means not only responding to families' immediate needs, but also ensuring that they rebuild in a way that helps them recover better and faster after the next emergency.
"When Caritas came here, I first talked about disaster risk reduction and how to tie my house down and prepare for cyclones," Rina Begum says. "After the training I planned my new home. This home is raised enough not to flood but not so high to blow over in a cyclone. We must have a firm foundation not to lose our home in a storm."
They were following disaster rick reduction training that says homes should be on raised mud foundations 2-3 feet high, instead of directly on the ground, giving families a dry place to sleep during gradual flooding from monsoon rains. Tin roofing must be tied down securely so the sheets will be around for rebuilding instead of becoming deadly projectiles in high winds.
Then there are the small things that can make all the difference between a chute back into poverty or just moving back a couple of spaces.
A portable mud oven, instead of one built into the foundation of the home, can be taken to an evacuation center during a storm along with cooking pans and food. "The family can cook as soon as the storm passes," says Badal Rozario, project manager with Caritas Bangladesh. "Before, families would lose their ovens, pans and stored food during a cyclone, so they went hungry for days as they waited for food relief from the government."
A community-appropriate, low-tech early warning system, also part of the project, ensures that families have time to gather these essential items and reach evacuation centers ahead of a storm. Volunteers—kitted out with raingear, a hardhat, radio and megaphone—blast evacuation messages from the back of a slow-moving cart, motorcycle or boat.
The USAID-funded project also focuses on helping families build up and securely store savings of both money and food. Families now keep their food stocks high in the rafters and in watertight plastic jars whenever possible.
This training isn't just for big disasters, but for seasonal flooding as well. And any family could suffer a shock from an injury, illness or other crisis that would send relatives scrambling to cover unexpected costs.
Caritas and CRS combine trainings on saving money and food with helping families increase their income with the resources they have. These resources include better practices of raising chickens, planting vegetables in kitchen gardens that command a higher price when there is a surplus to sell and composting to get better production in the gardens.
"With the new income we've made from better gardening taught to us by the project, we were able to get a loan to buy a solar panel," Sikdar says. We only have two payments left. It is much better for children to see to study at night."
Begum adds that a secure roof and a fan that runs off the solar panel means the family now sleeps through rainy and hot nights.
Their 12-year-old daughter Sathi Aktar especially likes the light. "Now I can study as long as I need to," she says.
Sikdar and Begun smile at their eldest daughter, knowing that studying will take her up an even higher ladder and that good disaster risk reduction will keep her from sliding down a chute.