11/20/2007, 00.00
BANGLADESH
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Hunger looms over Bangladesh after Sidr

Five days since a devastating cyclone struck the southern part of the country, international pledges of aid reach US$ 142 million. However, the country is in need of food now. People have to wait an eternity to buy rice whose price is skyrocketing. Some eyewitnesses complain the government’s response is inadequate. In some cases the authorities were not aware of the number of people living on some islands. Some elderly are unable to take medicines after spending too much time without food. PIME officials meet local Caritas to decide actions.

Dhaka (AsiaNews) – Hunger comes in the wake of cyclone Sidr in Bangladesh. For relief workers involved in rescue operations fresh water and food top the list of needs. The prices of basic items jumped dramatically despite the government’s attempt to keep a lid even before the disaster struck. Even rice is hard to get, this according to PIME missionaries working in Sidr-affected areas. There are also growing fears that the death toll in the southern part of the country might reach 10,000.

Losses could have been greater

The authorities report that the military have reached only 70 per cent of the areas affected by the November 15 cyclone. For this reason, official figures with regard to human and economic losses remain provisional: more than 3,000 dead, almost a million families displaced; 95 of rice fields destroyed, more than 87,000 km of road partially damaged, 58 km completely destroyed, 792 schools wiped out and 4,393 seriously damaged. Economic losses are even more important since during the summer the country was affected by heavy flooding.

The size of the disaster is appalling, local experts said, but some factors have limited the number of casualties. First of all, there is the system of anti-cyclone shelters built more than ten years ago by the government. Secondly, brick houses where high-risk area residents were move have better resisted the onslaught of wind and water. Thirdly, the eye of the cyclone hit an area, the Sundarbans delta, which is densely forested with few human inhabitants. Last but not least Sidr hit at a time of low tide generating smaller waves.

Standing in line hoping for a bit of rice

Local papers are covering the disaster with a series of reports, telling the stories of people like the residents of Patharghata, a hard-hit trading town on the Bay of Bengal, standing in line, silently queuing for a bit rice, uncertain, only hope as their friend.

In Bagerhat some reporters wrote that the limited food supplies provided by the government remain inadequate.

But the most dramatic eyewitness accounts come from Dublarchar. On the island of Alor Kol, the hardest hit of the archipelago, very long queues have formed in front of tents set up to distribute food and medicine. Here some elderly people are too sick to take their medicine because they have been on an empty stomach for far too long.

Even though fish are stuck on many trees locals dare not take and cook them because they are owned by some local traders who won’t let them get the fish.

The Daily Star complains that in Dublarchar, government relief has been inadequate because the authorities did not know how many people lived on the islands, some of which were even thought to be uninhabited.

International aid

Bangladesh’s caretaker government has so far received assurance of foreign assistance of over US$ 142 million for the cyclone-affected areas. The countries pledging help are Saudi Arabia Japan, China, the United States, Japan, India, Australia, the United Kingdom and Switzerland.

The European Union has already allocated € 1.5 million (US$ 2.2 million)

The United Nations is providing relief worth US$ 7 million.

The World Food Programme (WFP) is also getting involved whilst Unicef has started handing out relief in the affected areas in this southern-most part of Bangladesh. 

The Italian Bishops’ Conference is allocating € 2 million (US$ 3 million) from funds raised through Italy’s ‘Eight per thousand’ tax benefit.

PIME

For its part, the Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions, which is present in Bangladesh with various missions, has launched its own aid campaign. From Dhaka reports indicate that the regional Caritas and other Catholic organisations have met to co-ordinate their intervention.

“We are evaluating what steps to take. Aid will naturally go to the population without any distinctions,” the missionaries said.

Sidr also struck some hostels and projects that the Institute ran in the southern part of the country.

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