COVER

WAVES OF DESTRUCTION

BANGLADESH COPES WITH DISASTER

ANDREW BILSKI May 20 1991
COVER

WAVES OF DESTRUCTION

BANGLADESH COPES WITH DISASTER

ANDREW BILSKI May 20 1991

WAVES OF DESTRUCTION

COVER

BANGLADESH COPES WITH DISASTER

Helicopters and planes plied the skies with their precious cargoes of food, bottled water and medicine for destitute refugees. Below, volunteers hastily buried decaying human bodies and animal carcasses in a life-and-death race against the outbreak of epidemics. One week after a devastating cyclone battered southeastern Bangladesh, killing at least 125,000 people and leaving 10 million homeless, an international relief effort appeared to be making headway. But some opposition leaders and storm victims criticized the eight-week-old government of Primé Minister Begum Khaleda Zia for incompetence. And, still reeling from the worst natural disaster in two decades, Bangladeshis suffered further setbacks last week when tornadoes, flash floods and gales brought more death and destruction to their calamity-prone country. Said Waliul Islam, a government official in the capital, Dhaka: “It is a tragic story of one woe treading upon another.”

Information Secretary Manzur-e-Mowla cited some of the grim statistics last week. He said that in addition to the human toll, the April 30 cyclone killed 900,000 head of livestock and destroyed or damaged one million homes. As well, Mowla said that the violent storm, which sent 20-foot waves surging over the fertile delta on the Bay of Bengal, ruined crops on 74.000 acres of land and partly damaged 300.000 other acres of cropland. In some areas, saltwater-saturated land may not support crops for as long as three years. The vital port of Chittagong, which usually handles nearly 70 per cent of all import and export traffic, lay inactive, its harbor clogged with sunken vessels and thousands of tons of containers and loading equipment. At a meeting in Dhaka with representatives of donor countries, the Bangladeshi government appeared overcome by the scope of the disaster. It nearly doubled its previous aid request, asking for $770 million in immediate relief and $850 million to help rebuild the ravaged country. So far, 26 countries have pledged a total of about $234 million worth of aid, including $2 million from Canada.

Cholera: The most pressing problem facing Bangladesh is the threat of disease from unburied corpses and tainted drinking water. The U.S.-based international relief organization CARE warned that all 10 million people in the hardest-hit area were susceptible to diarrhea. Of those, said Mohammad Musa, a CARE official in Dhaka, eight million were also at risk from cholera. Spread by contact with human waste, cholera can be cured easily with rehydration salts. But left untreated, it can kill within 10 hours. To help check the spread of disease, the Bangladeshi health ministry sent 3,000 doctors to coastal areas. And Red Cross officials said that 20,000 volunteers were helping to bury the dead.

Tornadoes: As those efforts got underway in the south of the country, fresh tragedy struck north of Dhaka. A tornado with winds reaching 100 m.p.h. swept through 20 villages in the industrial district of Gazipur on May 7, killing 50 people, injuring more than 400 others and destroying at least 2,500 houses. Flash floods caused by heavy rains struck across the northeastern region of Sylhet, marooning 100,000 people and inundating about 104 square miles of farmland. The next day, another tornado hit just IV2 km southeast of the earlier twister’s path, killing eight people and injuring about 100. Then, on Thursday night, gale winds struck seven towns in northern and eastern Bangladesh, killing at least 80 people and injuring 200 others.

Returning to Dhaka last week from a fourday tour of the southerly Chittagong and Cox’s Bazar areas, where more than 75,000 people died in the cyclone, opposition leaders urged Prime Minister Zia to form a national task force to co-ordinate disaster relief. Sheik Hasina Wazed, leader of the main opposition, the Awami League, said that she personally had to arrange for burials because of official inaction. “This government would have quit by now if it had self-respect,” she said. But Zia was fatalistic. Natural calamity, she said, “has been a part of our life, as it comes every year in one form or another.” And she claimed that her government was working to the best of its ability to cope with the country’s problems.

Those problems will likely increase in the next few weeks when the annual monsoon rains begin. Unless workers can quickly repair the cyclone-damaged dikes along the southeast coast, higher-than-normal spring tides will flood more farmland with salt water. That would prolong the country’s dependence on international aid. And, according to some relief workers, it could provoke social unrest as more destitute people flock to the cities in search of food and shelter—increasingly precious commodities in the battered nation.

ANDREW BILSKI with SHAMSUL ALAM BELAL in Dhaka

ANDREW BILSKI

SHAMSUL ALAM