30 May 2009

Bangladesh cyclone diarrhoea fear

Doctors in Bangladesh say they fear an acute outbreak of diarrhoea after Cyclone Aila hit the country and the Indian state of West Bengal on Monday.

They say that many in the storm-hit areas now face acute clean water shortages as floodwater becomes stagnant and polluted. At least 200 people died in the storm in India and Bangladesh, with officials warning the final toll could be higher. Nearly half a million people are homeless following the storm. Relief officials say many more corpses are still to be recovered from the slowly receding flood waters.

'Acute shortage'

A large-scale military and civilian relief operation is under way in Bangladesh and West Bengal, with stranded communities in both countries complaining that aid has been slow to arrive. "There's an acute shortage of drinking water and as a result diarrhoea has broken out," Lutsur Rahman Khan, medical chief of Bangladesh's Khulna district, told the AFP news agency. "The situation is bad and it's a race against time to prevent a full-scale epidemic from breaking out." He said that several levees had been washed away by the cyclone, particularly in areas adjoining the Indian border, which meant that some areas are repeat-flooded every time there is a high tide. Matters had been made worse because salty water could not be treated with purification tablets while water-treatment facilities brought in by the army were also unable to purify sea water, he said. The contamination of surface water by the tidal surges has also prompted fears that crops over the next year will be damaged in areas of subsistence agriculture. The impact of the storm is worst in the Sundarbans delta - which straddles both Bangladesh and West Bengal - and is famous for its mangrove forests and rare Royal Bengal tigers. The damage to the mangrove forest has been considerable and environmentalists fear that many tigers may have been washed away by the tidal surges.

Water was 'gushing at immense speed'

Oxfam researcher Sandhya Suri was in the Gabura area of south-west Bangladesh when Cyclone Aila struck earlier this week. Here, her eyewitness account shows the devastating human cost of the disaster.

As we approached Gabura we could see a major break in the embankment. It collapsed before the high tide even arrived. The cyclone caused even more destruction, with a tidal surge of between seven and nine feet. There were multiple breaks. Now the entire Gabura union is under water. At the main embankment, water is gushing at an immense speed, increasing its intensity with the tide. Hundreds of people are hungry and thirsty. Local shopkeepers are not opening up for fear of looting. Lenin, the chairman of Gabura Union told us that children had not even seen a biscuit since yesterday. Many are trying to leave, others hang on, resolute on guarding their belongings. For this reason, there are few people in the cyclone shelters. The whole area is water-logged. There are dead domestic animals floating in the water.

We were taken by boat to near the shelter where 13 corpses were laid out: eight children, the rest women. A man was still searching for his six-month-old child's body, washed from his lap during the cyclone. They were still searching for many other dead bodies. As high tide approached we saw many more people with their belongings on boats leaving the place, stating that the water level will go up by another two feet at least and there is no way they can stay here. Another corpse of a man was discovered. His body, along with the 13 mentioned before, was brought across the river to Bangshipur for a funeral. The army is now in the area and some water is coming in for people to drink. An Oxfam team will soon be arriving to assess what more can be done to bring crucial help to the community.