Sidr survivors begin to rebuild their lives

By Cate Heinrich
When Cyclone Sidr hit the southern coast of Bangladesh, it damaged or destroyed more than 1.4 million homes, leaving countless people homeless.

Nine months after Cyclone Sidr destroyed the lives and homes of more than eight million people living in southern Bangladesh, finally smiles are beginning to return to some of their faces.

In some of the villages in the Barguna and Patuakhali districts hit hardest by the storm, Oxfam is supporting BRAC, a Bangladeshi aid group—as it helps to rebuild houses for 400 families. Almost half of them are now complete.

One of those with a smile is Sarina, who lives with her husband, Jahangir, and their two young sons in the village of Padma. Sidr washed away almost everything they owned and damaged the boat and fishing net Jahangir used to support the family.

But with BRAC's help, Sarina's family is now comfortably settled into a new house designed to be more resilient in future storms. Its features—part of the build-back-better concept Oxfam has supported—include concrete pillars and metal clamps that make the building stronger in the face of storms and monsoon floods.

"Now I am very happy because BRAC gave us this house," says Sarina. "It is much better than our old house and there is more space with the inside roof (attic).The bricks surrounding the verandah are important; they stop the ground being damaged during the monsoon rains."

Houses like Sarina's cost about $700 each—for material and labor—and take just 18 days to construct, including time spent building the brick foundation.

Before the cyclone Sarina's family owned three cows They lost two in the storm and decided to use the remaining one to buy a piece of land inside an embankment. Their old house was outside the embankment, and after Sidr there was no land on which to build a shelter. The plot they bought cost about $220.

"We selected beneficiaries who had no money or income to build on their own," says Md. Shahjahan, BRAC's program coordinator for disaster management. "Mainly women-headed households were chosen and families who have a limited income and do not own any agricultural land or assets. The poorest of the poor are the people who really need this shelter assistance."

A need for housing

It was during a visit to Barguna and Patuakhali in March 2008 that Kenny Rae, Oxfam America's humanitarian response specialist, realized how great the need was for housing in the area. Little progress had been made toward addressing the situation in an area that bore the brunt of the cyclone and the tidal surge that accompanied it.

"Based on this we decided to provide support to a BRAC-implemented shelter program and agreed on a house designed by BRAC University," said Rae. "It was in line with traditional design, but has cyclone resistant elements including reinforced concrete corner pillars and a brick masonry foundation wall."

On a field visit six months later, Rae saw the fruits of that initiative: the smiles of families finally housed in sturdy homes.

"The acceptance of the new houses by the families was universally positive," said Rae.

But that good news is tempered by a harsh reality: Many families living on the government owned land—or khas—in front of the now-destroyed embankment have no formal title to that land and have received little support beyond limited relief supplies. People must own their plots of land before permanent shelters can be built on them.

As aid groups advocate for permission to build on the khas land, the government is currently reconsidering its policy on whether these landless families can receive shelter support.

Donor governments and aid organizations plan to contribute to the building of approximately 82,000 shelters for families affected by cyclone Sidr this year. About 5,000 of these have been built so far. However, 256,000 families remain living in temporary shelters built from plastic sheets or whatever materials they could salvage.

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