• Wednesday, Jun 03, 2020
  • Last Update : 12:09 pm

Locked down while the cyclone hits

  • Published at 05:26 pm May 21st, 2020
cyclone amphan reuters
Lives and livelihoods in jeopardy / REUTERS

Our thoughts and prayers go out to those in coastal areas

Cyclone Amphan could not have come at a more difficult time when the country’s population is battling the coronavirus and at the same time about to try to observe the Eid-ul-Fitr celebrations. 

Having been, in some way, involved with the Bangladesh cyclones of 1970 and 1991 and the Orissa, now Odisha (India), cyclones of 1971 and 1999, I have felt some frustration that I cannot be involved in some helpful way this time. All I can do is hope for the best and pray that all will be well.

At the time of writing in the early hours of May 21, very few deaths have been reported in both India and Bangladesh. When one remembers that at least 500,000 deaths occurred in 1970 and 200,000 in 1991, Bangladesh has come a long way in keeping loss of life to a bare minimum. 

The early warning systems and the evacuation plans have been remarkably improved, assisted in recent years by the enormous mobile phone network. 

For 2,400,000 people and many thousands of cattle to be moved to cyclone shelters and safety is a remarkable achievement. A lot of credit must also go to the amazing coastal community radio stations for non-stop work.

Even though the loss of life is likely to be extremely low, the destruction of property and businesses and damage to agricultural fields and crops will be enormous and this will require speedy government assistance over and above the coronavirus related assistance already arranged by the government. 

What is a great fear, as far as I am concerned, is that more hurriedly arranged relief assistance will open up the way for more plundering of relief supplies by elected local officials as has been seen in the relief supplies and cash being made available by the government to the poorest because of coronavirus. 

We read of the “suspension” of these officials pending official enquiries. I do not understand why they have not been arrested. Why oh why not? Official enquiries can drag on for a long time and often the “suspended” officials are able to bribe themselves out of trouble. 

They must not be allowed to escape prosecution. By stealing relief supplies from the poor and hungry, I regard them as being involved in “attempted murder.”

Over these Ramadan weeks I have received a few text messages from hotels advertising their “takeaway” iftar and dinner menus. Some are very expensive -- up to Tk6,500 for two persons. 

As far as I understand, Muslims believe that good deeds are rewarded more handsomely during Ramadan than at any other time of the year, and consequently, many donate a larger portion -- or even all -- of their yearly zakat during this month. Instead of spending Tk6,500 for two persons, 60 families could be assisted. A number of my Bangladeshi friends have been thinking along these lines, particularly this year as so many millions of people -- men, women, and children -- are without work and income and are starving.

Another observation is that over the years, the mangrove buffer which used to protect the Bangladesh coastline has been destroyed to a large extent and it only properly protects Bangladesh in the Sundarbans area. 

Surely, with climate change and sea level rising, it makes sense to try to re-plant mangrove forests on the coastline of Bangladesh. After the cyclone of 1991, I remember that a Canadian government grant was given for this purpose in the Cox’s Bazar area but no progress was made. 

I understand, however, that the government and a number of NGOs are involved in mangrove restoration so that mangroves can be regarded as green coastal guardians. This should be accelerated at a fast rate. 

Julian Francis has been associated with relief and development activities of Bangladesh since the War of Liberation. In 2012, the Government of Bangladesh awarded him the ‘Friends of Liberation War Honour’ in recognition of his work among the refugees in India in 1971 and in 2018 honoured him with full Bangladesh citizenship.

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