Bangladesh: New homes for Cyclone Sidr victims

13 Aug 2010

In November 2007, Cyclone Sidr tore through the coast of Bangladesh, killing almost 4,000 people, leaving millions homeless and destroying the livestock, crops, farming equipment and fishing boats essential for people’s livelihoods.

In the days and weeks that followed Sidr’s destruction, a massive relief effort kicked into action. The Government of Bangladesh, along with UNDP and other international partners, responded swiftly with help ranging from the provision of food and safe drinking water to emergency shelter kits.

This emergency response was only the beginning, however. In the year following Sidr, UNDP built over 9,000 disaster-resilient homes, with another 6,600 under construction. With the financial support of approximately $US 3.8 million from the United Kingdom, UNDP focused on providing shelter for the most vulnerable families in the hardest hit districts.

Designed according to local environmental and cultural needs, these new structures allow for future extensions, giving families the option of investing their own resources into expanding their homes. The shelters also include gutters for the harvesting of rainwater and a mezzanine floor – both elements that were suggested by women during the consultation stage.

However, while such plans look great on paper, getting the shelters build has been anything but simple. For example, the shelters are designed and constructed to withstand category 4 cyclones; such strength does not come easily, however, with a single shelter requiring 4,500 bricks, up to 20 bags of cement and a roof truss that weighs almost 160 kilos.

Sourcing these materials and bringing them to construction sites in remote locations has proved challenging as well. In the five districts worst affected by Sidr, transportation and communication have been tremendous obstacles.

Kulsum Begum, 43, is one of the programme’s beneficiaries, lives in Golachipa Upazila in the Potuakhali district, a region in the coastal belt that was among the hardest hit by cyclone Sidr. She and her husband – a fisherman whose livelihood was also devastated by Sidr – have six children. Like families in the programme, she is closely involved in the construction of her house, observing the progress and lending a hand where possible.

She is also very familiar with the difficulties of building in the area.

“We don’t have a road, so we are having a lot of difficulties in bringing in the goods for the construction workers. Then there are the storms and other natural disasters, which delay our construction work as well,” she says

These difficulties have been compounded by the constantly changing riverine geography, for which Bangladesh is so famous. During the dry winter season trucks, tractors and rickshaw vans can be used. Yet when the rains come, transportation is severely limited until water levels rise enough to allow small boats, often powered by hand, can be brought in.

Sourcing skilled local labour has also been hard: masons, carpenters and welders are hard to find in some of the districts where UNDP is building, which has meant a search for workers from further afield. UNDP’s partner contractors, responsible for the day-to-day realities of building these houses, import workers from the nearest urban centres, where greater expertise and experience can be found. These workers are provided with accommodation and other incentives to work in remote locations for the period of the build.

Thus, despite such challenges, construction continues on, with a little inventiveness. Where trucks and cars cannot go, boats will. Where the boats cannot travel, rickshaw vans are drafted into service. And when the rickshaws can go no further, the community itself lends a hand – or a head – to make things happen.