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Reining in the rains
The sea is eating into the Sunderbans at an alarming rate

Elsewhere, they call it autumn and revel in the onset of winter. For the villagers of Lakshmipur in the Kakdwip block of the Sundarbans in West Bengal, October and November are synonymous to death and destruction.

Heavy rains, cyclones, high tides and floods submerge the Sunderbans. The cycle has been going on for as long as people can remember. “We feel absolutely helpless during these months. We are so used to these calamities that only the death of a close relative or a friend brings tears to our eyes,” says Dibakar Baidya, a villager.

But Baidya hopes that this year it will be different — with the coming together of villagers, non-governmental organisations and the government. “We were not prepared for disasters in the past, but now we are confident of being able to face Nature’s fury,” he asserts.

A combination of the latest technologies such as the Internet, mobile communications and geographic information systems (GIS), innovative use of local resources and a motivated force of villagers is most likely to set an example for the inhabitants of the Sundarbans. This summer, a pilot project took off in four villages — Shibpur, Beguakhali, Mahismari and Lakshmipur in the Sagar and Kakdwip blocks of the Sundarbans — consisting of a population of around 12,000.

The project, the community based disaster risk management (CBDRM), led by the Ramakrishna Mission, Narendrapur, is supported by international aid organisations.

Topographically, the Sundarbans is a low-lying area. It gets an average annual rainfall of 1920mm. According to the Sundarbans Development Board, Sundarbans has been hit by at least one major disaster every 3-4 years in the last 50 years and the trend is likely to continue.

Under the project, volunteers at the Meteorological Department of West Bengal have been trained to interpret early warning data via the Internet. They, in turn, inform the task force members in the villages. The villagers have been trained to evacuate their homes and reach safer areas.

An international organisation supporting the project, Welthungerhilfe of Germany, is establishing a GIS (a computer-based system that captures, stores and analyses the data for a particular area in the form of maps and other information) for ready reference with the help of scientific institutions and others.

For example, if there is a record of the history and pattern of flooding over the last few years, the GIS could help pinpoint areas that did not come under water. “With this information in hand we can build flood shelters and also store relief materials there,” says Andrio Naskar, project co-ordinator, Ramakrishna Mission, Narendrapur.

Since the villagers are the main beneficiaries of the programme, they have been kept in the forefront of all the activities, from preparing survival kits such as floating devices to building model houses using disaster preparedness technology. Earlier, villagers would wait to be evacuated by the government, and then await relief and rehabilitation measures.

“It’s time we said no to relief and yes to preparation to face disasters. They will keep coming, and we should face them,” says Debasish Mitra, assistant director, civil defence department, West Bengal government. Mitra’s department has trained volunteers in rescue and relief measures and conducted mock drills.

“We can react in a matter of minutes as we know what things to pick up and leave our houses in case of a flood or a cyclone,” asserts Rinku Gayen of Mahishamari village.

Villagers have learnt how to make life-saving jackets out of commonly available materials such as water bottles and thermocol. “These can be found locally and, moreover, are as effective as any modern equipment that the government would provide in a post-disaster scenario,” says Mitra.

With help from non-governmental organisations, the villagers have voluntarily built approach roads, repaired river bunds and planted mangroves to check the erosion from the Hooghly that has virtually swallowed half of Lakshmipur in the last 10 years. “By doing these we hope to stop the erosion in the villages under our supervision,” says Naskar. The total river bund length in the Sunderbans is of 3,500 km.

During the floods, sea water gets into other water bodies making the water undrinkable. To solve this problem, model ponds for drinking water have been constructed on higher ground to be used during the floods. “The entry of saline water during the floods was a major problem. The villagers have been asked to use these ponds only during a disaster,” says Naskar.

“A recent survey by us found that more than 83 per cent of the residents of these villagers are now aware of the steps they should take in a disaster,” says Debabrata Giri, assistant coordinator of CBDRM Project. If the residents of other parts of Sundarbans could replicate what these four villages have done, loss of life and property could be minimised in these treacherous months.

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