This time we feel broken

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Lives of climate-vulnerable people in the days of Covid-19 and Amphan

The coastal region in the south of Bangladesh is exposed to a wide range of climate extremes. This is mainly due to its geographical location at the Bay of Bengal. The daily life and livelihoods of the coastal people are regularly disrupted by extreme climate and slow onset events.

People of these highly vulnerable areas have continuously been fighting against conditions that have been worsening with climate change. But they never gave up. Almost every year they have been facing cyclones, storm surges, tidal floods, riverbank erosion, or salinity intrusion. Climatic disaster has become an integral part of their lives.

But this time, in 2020, the Covid-19 pandemic has come on top of climate plagues: People, who have learned to cope with the adverse impact of climate change as much as they could, are now facing an unprecedented pandemic, that has made livelihoods of hard-working man and women even harder. A low point during this tragedy was reached on May 20, when super cyclone Amphan hit the coastal belt of Bangladesh. It is hard to imagine the impacts of such a catastrophe amid the pandemic when daily life and the economy were completely locked down.

To assess the situation, a team from the Climate Change Program of Christian Commission for Development in Bangladesh (CCDB) was sent to Vamia village as one of the most Amphan-affected villages, located at Shyamnagar, Satkhira district, adjacent to the Sundarbans, the world's largest mangrove forest. The team was tasked to investigate the double impact of Covid-19 and cyclone Amphan at the local level. The investigation aimed, to understand how people have been coping with this twin crisis, and how they could be supported to recover and build back better.

Most of the affected villagers of the area depend on the river and forest resources for their livelihoods. Some others work as day labourers. When the government declared a general holiday at the end of March and imposed travel restrictions due to Covid-19, livelihoods of these people faced threats. The CCDB study team had identified that the locals were extremely worried about being infected by the virus. At the same time, they were deeply concerned about food security. Children had stopped going to school, normal daily life activities were entirely disrupted and no one could go out unless in case of an emergency. They couldn’t even get any health support, because travel was banned and there was no doctor available in the village.

During this dramatic situation, people had to face Super cyclone Amphan, which hit the coast with a wind speed of 150km per hour and devastated 26 districts across the country. A total length of 150km of embankments was just washed away. The embankment protecting the Vamia village along the Chuna River collapsed, too. Many houses were completely demolished, others partly damaged. Fish and crab farms were wiped out. Agricultural lands were severely damaged. Furthermore, saline water contaminated people’s freshwater sources.

“Often, when disasters have struck in the past, we felt too weak to start a new vegetable farm. But every time we finally stood up. This time, however, we feel broken,” a farmer told the CCDB team. And in the time of the pandemic, when Cyclone Amphan happened, local people had no other choice than to disregard many social distancing and hygienic rules when they had to take shelter, at the risk of being  infected by Covid-19. Locals evacuated their homes and took shelter to save their lives from the immediate cyclone threat.

The sufferings of the Vamia village is just one example of how millions of climate-vulnerable people have been suffering from the terrible double whammy of Covid-19 and Cyclone Amphan, and of which choices they had to make for their survival.

This struggle has been challenging. Fishermen couldn’t get the desired price for their fish. Crab collectors couldn’t sell crab due to the shut-down of farms. Farmers struggled to get market because of ongoing restrictions. Honey collectors had to sell their stock at a low price. Day labourers remained without work in the lockdown situation. However, life can’t be stopped, even in this burdening double crisis. Since then, villagers have tried hard to slowly recover, based on their coping strategies and resources.

While people explored different survival and recovery options, the spending of savings and taking loans have been the predominant strategies to ensure survival in the Vamia village, according to our team’s assessment. At the initial stage of Covid-19, people who had personal savings tried to meet the daily needs by spending these savings. However, most of the villagers had to take loans from NGOs as well as local money lenders. In the latter case, interest rates were very high. Financial aid and food assistance provided by the Government and NGOs, aided in reducing the sufferings in the pandemic days for some but not all people.

When super-cyclone Amphan devastated the village in the midst of the pandemic, the coping capacity of the people was overburdened. The community people tried to protect the embankment by risking their lives – but finally, they couldn’t prevent the embankment’s collapse. As a consequence, the livelihoods of most people were destroyed. At that stage, relief assistance provided by the government and NGOs became the major means of survival. Apart from assistance, people sold their remaining resources and took loans again. As a result, they are now even more indebted, which makes them more vulnerable. Some families are changing their sources of livelihoods. Others have tried to regain their occupations through new loans. For this short term, the Government’s “Work for Food” programs have been playing a vital role for day labourers to survive the crisis. Altogether, those people who have alternative income sources which are less vulnerable to climate change have been in a comparatively better condition.

Amphan forced many affected families into starvation, who had already reduced their food consumption due to Covid-19. People were scrambling for food, water and for assistance from each other. Consuming less food with inadequate nutrition, starving, drinking less water, or using saline water for domestic purposes have been and continue to be the worst coping mechanisms, leading to food and water insecurity, as well as to diseases and worsening health status of vulnerable people. However, some freshwater sources have been cleaned from saline water, with the assistance of NGOs and community participation. Also, vegetable gardening has been restarted by some of the community people.

Women have played a vital role in household management during the crisis. They used their savings to ensure their families’ survival, generated income from growing vegetables, rearing cattle and ducks, small businesses like tailoring, handicraft making, tutoring and working at crab farms. Such alternative income sources for women have been vital for families to survive during the Covid-19 lockdown and even after Amphan.

It turned out that women who run small and micro-business like tailoring have been less affected by the twin crisis. Nevertheless, gender inequalities continue: Though the workload of the women has been increased in terms of cleaning, maintaining hygiene, taking care of children, managing meals for family members, women are reportedly the primary reducer of daily food consumption to adjust with this peril. Many of the school- going children were becoming addicted to the internet, mobile phone, or even smoking, which are adversely affecting their mental and physical health. Furthermore, our team also found cases where children became engaged in income-generating activities on demand of their families.

While these coping strategies may decrease the pain for a while, they can’t end the suffering in the long haul. On the contrary, they may even deepen vulnerability. Integrated, sustainable and effective recovery approaches are almost absent at the community level. Most of the existing adaptation practices which were initiated in different NGOs projects were overburdened by the twin Covid-19 and Super cyclone Amphan crisis. Measuring the real impact of adaptation activities, without doubt, is extremely important to identify the best adaptation options, given that the climate risks will further rise in future, and that the next disaster will strike.

Most local people believe that comprehensive management of embankments, including local community participation, can reduce disaster risks significantly. The government and NGOs should incorporate climate change adaptation in their development plans and act accordingly. Projects should always assess and seek to reduce the risks of future climate extreme events in the project design and implementation. This is essential to strive for long-term sustainability. If this is not going to happen, the next disaster, like Amphan, will wash away all the investments done so far.

The combination of a pandemic like Covid-19 and climate impact can pose the risk to dampen the development aspirations expressed in the Bangladesh Delta Plan. Avoiding such risk and build back better should be the top priorities of all our recovery efforts – from the local to the regional, national, and international levels.

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