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Mahfuz Sadique reveals how the inhabitants of the cyclone-ravaged coastal islands of Sandwip and Kutubdia could be changing the way people across the world deal with natural disasters

<> Nilufar’s father, Abdul Baten, 36, stands by the dirt road that runs beside their mud hut right on the embankment, his gaze on the horizon. ‘The nadi is swelling again. It is hungry. Soon, it will start eating,’ his voice has a tense undertone, but he is calm. What he, and the other inhabitants of this forgotten little Chuatoli village on Bangladesh’s coastal island of Sandwip call ‘river,’ is nothing less than the restless Indian Ocean. A gaze out to the horizon, and Baten’s words ring true: the mighty Bay is truly swelling up. ‘The west side of the island has already started eroding. Chunks of earth as large as houses are being devoured by the water,’ Baten points towards his right. There is no landmass there; just the endless sea.
Like their ancestors, Baten and the other inhabitants of Chautoli have lived by the sea for as long as they can remember. They have remained settlers of sorts, for theirs is a existence, the permanence of which depends on the whims of the sea. Sometimes they arrived as new landless settlers from the mainland to these islands along the Bengal coast that had risen out of the salty waters over the centuries, and sometimes, as slaves: both Ibn Battuta and the Chinese traveller Ma-Huen had accounted of ‘Bangali slaves in the Arakan Empire bought from the thriving slave-markets in Sandwip (Chittagong) run by the legendary Portuguese pirate Sebastian Gonzales’.
While lives lived by the sea sway with the rise and fall of the foaming waters, millions have adapted with the threat of cyclones, the saline, infertile soil and the shifting landmass. Two very different areas present a contrasting idea of the coastal life in Bangladesh. Sandwip under Chittagong district is one of the largest islands in Bangladesh with highly fertile soil, while Kutubdia under Cox’s Bazar district is relatively smaller and its soil is almost barren and fruitless. Between them, they represent the wide spectrum of life that is Bangladesh’s coastal belt. Living with cyclones, with minds of explorers, men from islands such as these were among the first from the Ganges Delta region to have set sail for uncharted waters of the high seas and settle as far off as Europe and the US, say historians. Some call them shrewd, but that is just their survival instinct. They are pioneers of sorts: be it the use of solar power as an alternative energy source in Sandwip, or the much lauded low-tech, high-impact Cyclone Preparedness Program (CPP) in place all along the coast.

As the MV Baro Awlia takes the final turn into the channel, and starts its slow progress along the south side of Sandwip to the right and the horizon to the left, the passenger trawler’s inmates are an eclectic blend; a capsule of the cross-section of life that the island has come to represent. The first-class cabins, and the front deck are mostly occupied by returnee non-resident Bangladeshis from as varied places as New York and Muscat. There are the well-off, educated urbanites coming to the island of their origin to settle land disputes, or to see family. Then there are the multitudes of small traders carrying goods varying from fruits from the mainland to Indian cloth. A pale young girl lies on the deck with her head on the mother’s lap returning from an aborted attempt to diagnose her illness at the Chittagong Medical College Hospital. Suddenly there is a commotion, and the yells from the deck eventually clear the matter: the ghat is in sight. With everyone starting for the two exits, there is a mad rush. As I step out through one of the exits, the sight takes me by surprise. What dock? My feet search for something solid, and eventually find the floor of a boat tied alongside the steamer. We are being offloaded in mid-sea. Yes, land is in sight from the boat, but the sheer thought of shifting from a steamer to a boat in mid-sea is no less horrifying.

There is no scope for discussion regarding the fare at the ghat. ‘These things are all fixed down here, bhaiya,’ the scooter driver tells me. The black-smoke-fuming three-wheeler that do not ply on the streets of Dhaka anymore have found their way here. Through bumpy, beaten down semi-pucca roads, the scooter takes us to Shiber Haat, several kilometres into the island and on the other side of the island.
‘The sea was at least a kilometre out, just a year back,’ says Mohammad Shamsuddin, a field officer at the Shiber Haat of Bangladesh Nari Progati Sangha, one of the first NGOs to have started operations in the island as far back as 1986, and also my hosts at Sandwip. As Shamsuddin performs an intricate dance of sorts with his bike, ploughing through the muddy dirt path on the embankment that is supposed to stretch all along the southern and western side of the island, he points to the brown, turbulent salty waters licking at the cliff-shores barely a few yards from the us.
Standing beside the road, there was Abdul Baten with his eldest daughter, thirteen-year old Nilufar. ‘My parents used say that my great-grandfather came here from somewhere up north in the mainland. We had our own house near the Sadar. When the “big storm” took away our house, we built it again. But a few years back, the sea started eating again. And now look what’s happened. I don’t have any land of my own,’ says Baten.
‘The land where you see my small mud hut is actually a part of the embankment,’ he says. The ‘big storm’ referred to by Baten is the devastating cyclone of ’91. As I had started to understand, life in these islands and all along the coastal belt had changed, in some fundamental way, since that cyclone.
The small courtyard of the Baten family was abuzz with Nilufar’s younger siblings — Irin, 10, Russel, 6, and Saiful, 2. They all hide behind the mother, Moriom, at the sight of a stranger. A mother of four, Moriom, has a tender glow on her face as she is expecting another child. She and her mother-in-law are spreading out peanuts on a mat to dry, which they will eventually sell in the local market. ‘How can I describe our life? Unsure; yes, uncertainty is the mainstay of our life,’ explains Moriom. ‘Look at my family. We are worse than beggars. This island is our only place. We cannot leave it. But where will we live when the sea eventually gobbles up this embankment too?’ she asks me. As I would find later, further west, along the road that brought me to their house, slowly but surely, her worst fears were coming true.
‘Sandwip was such a prosperous land when we were children. After all this land was blessed by the Baro Awlia,’ reminisces Mariom’s octogenarian mother-in-law. She was referring to the popular history that many centuries ago a Muslim pilgrimage while sailing past the then small landmass made a stopover for Asr prayers. Having been enthralled with the beauty of the island, an elderly pious man — referred to as ‘Baro Awlia’ — blessed the land. And that is when the small landmass became the vast island that Sandwip once was. According to some estimates, Sandwip was at one point as large as 600 square-miles.
Whether anyone remembers those days is not sure, but today’s Sandwip is shrinking fast. In fact, it’s nothing unnatural. Just as Sandwip had risen from the sea once, it will sink. For just a few kilometres across into the sea, a new land is rising. Though it sinks with the high and low of the tide, the islanders expect the landmass to become a full-fledged island within a few years. ‘With the length of the land that we can see from here, it might be as large as Sandwip itself,’ says Baten hopefully as he tries to show me a faint outline somewhere in the Bay.
Further down the embankment, I come face to face with the true nature of the wrath of the sea. Suddenly, midway, the dirt road and the embankment disappear. Mohammad Jasim and his family live, to put it literally, on the edge. In fact, as I take a few steps to the edge of the eroding landmass, Jasim pulls me back. ‘You never know what will haven. Large chunks of soil are sometimes washed away,’ Jasim explains. As he goes on to explain, he and his family collect fish fries from the coast and sell them at the local market. In fact, that is what most landless families do in Sandwip. These fries are eventually sold to hatcheries in Khulna, Bagerhaat and other southern districts.
‘Well, considering that we have no property to live off, it is the only source of earning that the sea gives us,’ explains Jasim. ‘But I have to move in day or two. The land where my house stands will be taken by the sea within a few days. I have found a place on the southern side of the embankment where it’s safer. In fact, come next week, the place you are standing will not be here. This sea has so many faces, it is beautiful to you but it is my undoing.’ He seems unperturbed at his imminent predicament. As Moriom had put it earlier, uncertainty is the only certainty in the lives of these islanders.
This uncertainty, paired with the seafaring traditions of the people by the sea, are main reasons why these islanders, and those from areas along the coastal belt, such as Noakhali, or even Chittagong, went in search of better land long ago. And some families in Sandwip even carry this tradition in their lineage. In Sandwip, family titles such as Sherang, Sukani, Tendol, Mondol, Laskar all have their roots with titles of workers and sailors of seafaring vessels. ‘A very famous family is that of Kala Miah Sukani. He is said to one of the first of their community to have settled in the US. Today, few members of that family live at Sandwip, and their entire extended family has moved there,’ explains Mazharul Islam, manager of BNPS.
As I went further inland, the next day, it became clearer that every family had at least one or two family members living abroad. This trend increased even further after the cyclone of ’91. With the lack of work, and a sustainable livelihood, many men migrated to find work in the Middle-East. Here, prosperity seems to come from external influences. ‘I came back last year after working in Jeddah for twelve years,’ Mohammad Monir Hossain of Noapara tells me. ‘My younger brother lives in Italy. And I hope go their soon,’ he explains.
As it came out, most families tend to feel that sending out the men to foreign land is the best way of ensuring prosperity. And if they could they would settle abroad. ‘What can we expect here? For generations, we have lived with the sea. But I guess this generation is tired of that. We want a stable life,’ Mohammad Billal of Choukatoli comments.
The change is visible. And even more so as I move further inland. Kazi Muhibullah, a retired school teacher, is a content man. Two of his sons are working abroad — one in Saudi Arabia and the other in Oman. The money that they have been sending has possible for his two-story concrete building right beside the main market of Chuokatoli. And it has brought another change that stands out as a jewel for an energy-starved country like Bangladesh. On the porch of Muhibullah’s freshly painted house, atop a pole is the newly bought 85-watt solar panel from Grameen Shakti. For a handsome Tk 35,000, Muhibullah’s house has electricity for light and television. Due to many years of government negligence, and dillydallying from part the Rural Electrification Board, Sandwip was long deprived from electricity. Then in 2001 came Grameen Shakti, and soon other organisations followed suit. ‘Presently we sell no less than 100 units of solar panels annually from my centre of Grameen Shakti,’ proudly proclaims Mohammad Zahirul Islam, a manager at the Shiber Haat branch of the company.
Throughout Sandwip’s relatively better off localities a quite revolution of sorts has been taking place. Keeping true to their instincts as explorers, and pioneers, Sandwip has taken on the solar adventure. ‘It is cheap, and at least I feel good that it is helping the environment,’ says a gleeful Muhibullah, who is one of the more educated, and conscious, members of his community. His proactive approach has earned him an added designation. He is also the head of the local team of the Red Crescent Society’s Cyclone Preparedness Program. He has been its head since the cyclone of ’70. Like many others who are voluntarily involved with the CPP, Muhibullah is one of the mainstays in the cycle preparedness efforts that become urgent year upon year.
The stories in Kutubdia, however, paint a more violent image of the sea, but the resilience of its people are a match for its ferocity.
‘I was holding her so tight to my bosom. Only Allah knows what happened,’ she says, eyes neither tearful, nor her voice emotional. ‘My fingers felt numb, and when I looked down, she was not there anymore. My little baby girl was gone – washed away by the sea,’ Shahela Khatun, 38, recounts the events of that fateful April night of 1991 when ‘the land became a sea, and the sea became a wave’, as another resident had one described it to a photographer. While clinging to a babul tree, she had lost her 3-month-old Yasmin, along with a son, Jasimuddin, and two more daughters, Sultana and Jannat.
Sitting on the uthan (porch) of her mud hut, you wouldn’t know death was once here. With three toddlers, Shahela feeds her 3-year-old Nahar. Though her life, and that of all her neighbours’ at Kutubdia’s Azom Colony, seems to have changed little over the decade, this community has been through a whirlpool of upheavals.
‘They came to my house to warn me of the coming storm, but this happened every year. I didn’t pay much heed to their words then,’ says Marium’s neighbour, Maimuna Akhtar, 42, who had lost a son and a daughter in ’91. ‘Now I do what they tell me.’
Across the Kutubdia Channel, by the shores of the mainland, as S. M. Zaker Hossain, 46, almost yells into his megaphone, and his partner Mohammed Iskander, 37, winds his handheld siren, the sleepy village of Mognama, still not fully awake from its early morning slumber, springs into a magical momentum. Grandfathers, clutching the hand of 6-year-olds tighter than usual pace towards Hossain; young men look up from the adjoining salt fields; and some housewives loosely holding their toddlers, wrapping their saris over their heads as a veil, hurriedly come to the bamboo picket fences, suddenly the entire village is on alert.
‘What is the signal,’ an old man asks Hossain, inquiring of the numerical standard of danger signals denoting storm intensity; 10 being the dreaded highest number. ‘It’s a drill,’ tells Hossain. As those who had gathered around him start to leave, not a bit agitated with the false alarm, the Unit-2 team leader of Mognama’s Cyclone Preparedness Program (CPP) takes off his Red Crescent vest, gets down from his bicycle, and with pride beaming from his sunburned face, comments, ‘How things have changed!’
‘Things have truly changed,’ says 58-year old Abdul Malek, another veteran Red Crescent volunteer under the CPP, ‘since I started out way back in 1972. After the cyclone of ’70, the Red Crescent came to our village. When they called for volunteers for the three-day training, I and my neighbor, Abdur Rashid here, joined up. Whereas, back then, people paid little attention when we told them about warnings, after the cyclone of ’91, they started listening.’
The people of Mognama, along the Bay of Bengal, are no strangers to tropical cyclones and storm surges. Villagers like them, and those in Kutubdia, and 5 million others, inhabitants of mainland locales, and islands dotting the coastline, fall within the High Risk Area (HRA), which spans a staggering 8,900 square kilometres in 13 districts of Bangladesh. The HRA is classified as the zone most vulnerable to cyclones.
The Bangladesh coastline has experienced a total of 66 major cyclonic storms from 1797 to 2001, and numerous smaller, yet equally fatal ones. Coastal configurations, and bathymetry of the Bay of Bengal, along with the fact that the Inter-Tropical Convergence Zone (ITCZ), which is situated near the equator, and where winds from the two hemispheres meet, shifts with the apparent movement of the sun across the Bay, makes it a breeding ground of cataclysmic cyclones.
These cyclones can typically whip up inland wind speeds well above 200 kmph, as was the case in 29th April, 1991, when gusts of 225 kmph and tidal surges topping 7.5 meters lashed the villagers of Mognama and other such coastal communities, killing nearly 140,000 people. With little to protect them, the last bastion between life and death for these villagers remains any early warning system. This in turn enables them to take refuge in the nearly 2,000 cyclone shelters, mostly constructed after the ’91 disaster, all across the HRA. And this lifeline of early warning comes from none other than Bangladesh’s homegrown, low-tech and simple, yet effective system known as the CPP.
‘The CPP, initiated in the late sixties with substantial help from the Swedish Red Cross Society, geared into full operation after the cyclone of ’70, and is now managed jointly by the Government of Bangladesh and Bangladesh Red Crescent Society. It is one of the most successful cyclone preparedness programs in the world’, claims Mohammad Nasir Ullah, Director of CPP. And now he has formidable international footing to say so. At the Second World Conference on Disaster Reduction in Kobe, Japan in 2005, the program was flaunted by world experts as a classic example of an effective warning and dissemination tool. Eva Von Oelreich, head of the disaster preparedness and response department of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies dubbed it ‘as a global model for an early warning system.’
The CPP operates Asia’s largest radio network: 35 High Frequency (HF) transceiver radios with a main base station located at the Dhaka headquarter; a field station system of 97 Very High Frequency (VHF) transceivers to receive and transmit messages; and finally transistor radios used at village level to receive meteorological information and cyclone warning signal bulletins transmitted by Radio Bangladesh in special weather bulletins on regular basis during the time of cyclones or depressions.
But the true foot soldiers of this extensive network are the 33,324 volunteers of CPP, divided into 2,777 units of ten men and two women, across the coastal belt. These well-trained volunteers are equipped with appropriate warning equipments, such as megaphones, sirens, public address equipment, signal lights and signal flags. The volunteers are also provided with appropriate gear such as rain coat, gum boots, hard hats, life jackets and torch lights. ‘We can warn nearly 8 million people, and fully assist 4 million to the cyclone shelters,’ says the director of CPP.
‘The entire program has a significant training and public awareness component,’ Nasir Ullah points out. ‘On recruitment our volunteers are given preliminary training by the CPP officers. A three-day basic training is then given to the volunteers, batch by batch, on different aspects such as dissemination, evacuation, sheltering, rescue, first aid and relief operation,’ he explains. The training of volunteers is complemented by an extensive public awareness program that includes cyclone drills and demonstration, staging of dramas/ folk songs, distribution of posters, leaflets and booklets, film/ video shows and radio and TV programs.
As Shahela of Kutubdia stirs the rice in the pot on the earthen stove, she knows what to do when the next storm comes. ‘I am alert whenever I hear the sirens and the megaphones. I will not lose any more of my sons and daughters to the sea,’ she says, as she looks up at the sea. ‘Never again.’

Published: SLATE, The New Age/ August, 2006

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