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Lessons from Koyra

The very first thing that strikes you about Koyra, a sub-district of Khulna division, is the stench. Koyra is among the worst-affected regions that survived the onslaught of Cyclone Aila. Aila raged across the south-western coastal belt of Bangladesh on 25 May, propelling a 13 feet high tidal surge that destroyed the river embankments and flooded the nearby villages. The flood water is expected to keep the entire region water-logged for months as the embankment repair is expected to be slowed down by the monsoon rains, which will also cause the water-level to rise further.

This was the first-time that I had visited flood-affected areas outside of Dhaka. In the ten hours that we spent on the field, we didn’t eat at all. We made do with intermittent small sips of water to keep ourselves from getting dehydrated. I felt guilty of all the privileges I take for granted– the roof over our heads, drinking water and food among others– that had become uncertain for the people and  children we visited. Our photographer, Shafiqul Alam of Map Photo Agency survived the entire day on jamrul, a local fruit that he bought from the makeshift markets that have been set up by the Aila survivors. Jamrul, like jackfruit and bananas, is another locally available fruit that may die if the saline water continues to pollute the surface.

As we made our way to the unions that are the working areas of our EC funded Poverty and Working Children (PWC) project, we were overpowered by the acrid smell of crops, vegetation and livestock rotting in the saline water. The heat was sweltering and it was amplified by the water when we got on the small boat that ferried us across the flood water that had logged and destroyed the brick roads.

Sitting under a umbrella that barely provided cover for me and Shampa Di, the project coordinator from our implementing partner NGO, Prodipon, I struggled to hold on to the umbrella and bag, all the while clutching at the edges of the small boat that rocked over inundated crop-fields, hatcheries and roads. The remains of homes, livelihoods and normal life dotted the landscape in the forms of destroyed houses, dead livestock and people in boats moving in search of food and security.

We came across people who had lost everything but the clothes on their back, children whose school materials had been washed away and lactating mothers who couldn’t feed their babies adequate breast milk as they were not getting enough solid food for themselves.

The PWC children have had to abandon their regular games as their schools had either been destroyed, flooded or were being used as shelters. The flood hadn’t spared their playgrounds either. They spend their days waiting for relief workers to arrive so that they can at least remain engaged in the collection process– a ritual unto itself, complete with registration, name calling, slip collection etc. I’m glad that we were not part of the process. Though I am glad for relief workers as they had brought us back to Koyra town at the end of our work day. We were unable to rent a trawler and belatedly realized the risks of travelling on a small boat, on the mighty Kopotakkho river during the evening tide.

The Koyra visit was, in many ways, an eye-opener for me. I had stepped out of the comforts of my own world and realized the struggles in the lives of the children we work with. The kind of insight you get from field visits, particularly to disaster-affected areas,you can never get from reading research papers or data. I just hope that when I go back and start designing communication and advocacy plans for DFID funded SHIREE that will also work with the Koyra households, I can use what I have learned about them thus far to help make a positive difference in the lives of these children.

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