Nearly two months after Cyclone Aila devastated East India and the coast of Bangladesh, the plight of survivors is no longer headline news. However daily flooding is making their recovery almost impossible. In North 24 Parganas, one of the worse affected areas in the state of West Bengal, Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) is providing humanitarian assistance in remote villages. Twenty three-year-old Usha Mondal points to a mud house sunk deep into the floodwaters. It lies just a few metres from the embankment where she now lives with her husband, two children and mother-in-law in a temporary hut made of flimsy bamboo and whatever else they could find. The roof of the house emerges from the murky water like the tip of an iceberg. It’s all Mondal has left after Cyclone Aila struck.
Huge needs, remote areas
“How long can we last like this?” asks Mondal. “We’ve been living in this mud with very little aid for over a month now. We received food from the government, but nothing for the last 10 days,” she says. “We used to be farmers but all the paddy fields are still under water and we can’t work now, so we’ve begun fishing,” she explains. “But this doesn’t provide us with enough food for the whole family.” Joining a queue of neighbours, Mondal lines up, ticket in hand, to receive blankets, water purification tablets, soap and plastic sheeting provided by MSF. MSF plans to meet the needs of 15,000 people in the worst affected villages of Sandheshkhali Block II. MSF health educators are showing the villagers how to use plastic sheeting to collect rainwater and how to store and purify it. “We focus on areas where the needs are the greatest and where access is difficult and requires a boat,” explains MSF project coordinator Rivkah van Barneveld. “Although the immediate cyclone response has been adequate, in some places people need more and we’ve seen situations where several families have had to live under one plastic sheet.”
Unable to resume normal life, villagers are forced to stay in crowded temporary shelters. Poor hygiene conditions and the lack of clean drinking water pose high risks of disease outbreaks. With the monsoon season approaching, conditions could deteriorate further. MSF has set up a surveillance system to monitor and control potential disease outbreaks. Health workers and medical staff are scouring villages for cases of malaria, diarrhea, measles or cholera and meeting regularly with the nurses at the local health centres. The long-term impact of the disaster is likely to be devastating. “Surviving each day is a struggle that takes all our strength. We haven’t had time to make any other plans,” says Mondal. “This is my village and I don’t want to leave, but we can’t hold on like this for ever. I have two children to feed. If things don’t get better soon, we will have to go to Kolkata in the hope of finding work there.”