Natural disasters such as cyclones, floods and earthquakes are plaguing the world’s poorest countries. Mary Griffin visits Bangladesh and Pakistan with Islamic Relief to find out why funding for disasters arrives too late.

Jamila can’t recall the moment her baby slipped from her grasp.

The last thing she remembers is looking down at the two-year-old’s face as she struggled to hold on to him in the raging river.

The 30-year-old was visiting her parents, five miles from home, when a cyclone hit, engulfing everything around her in a 10ft storm surge.

In her desperation to escape she boarded a boat with her brother, grandmother and two-year-old boy Shajib.

“We had no warning,” she recalls, “and when we saw the water coming we knew we had to get out.

“But as we were trying to leave, the boat we were in capsized.

“I grabbed Shajib close to me and swam as hard as I could but my hair covered my face so I couldn’t see and my legs became tangled in my clothes.”

Jamila managed to fight through waves for 500 yards, swimming with one arm while gripping her only child with the other.

“My son was crying,” she remembers, “he was holding on so tightly my arm was starting to go numb.

“Then I felt him go limp.”

The sight of the her baby, dead in her clutch, drained the last drop of energy from her limbs and she fell unconscious in the waves.

Jamila was just one of three million people caught up in Cyclone Aila, a severe tropical storm that ripped across southern Bangladesh and eastern India four years ago, breaking through embankments, tearing up trees by their roots and leaving half a million people homeless.

Four years have passed since the cyclone and today, in her village of Golkhali, perched on the edge of the Sundarbans, Jamila relives her nightmare with stony eyes as her new three-year-old son clings to her in his sleep. Regaining consciousness in the stormy waters and fighting a swell of grief, she grabbed onto a floating barrel with her brother and eventually made shore, finding a shelter among the devastation where they could spend the night.

Her grandmother’s body was never found.

“That night I cried the whole night,” she says. “I kept going outside to try and search for my baby but the water was up to my chest.

“I couldn’t move anywhere.”

The next day, when news of the capsized boat reached Jamila’s husband Amjad, he went searching for Shajib.

Jamila sits still, looking numb as she recounts her loss, but at her side, Amjad, 42, is sweating and unsettled.

The 42-year-old’s red eyes blink back tears as he recalls how he found his son’s little body floating, bloodied and bruised, and carried him home.

The couple are determined to build a new life, but can’t help being haunted by their past.

“Finding Shajib’s body has given me peace of mind,” says Jamila, “to see he is buried and to know he is resting.

“But at night I still dream that I am swimming with my son in my arms.

“I lost everything in that storm.”

When disaster strikes, the poorest and most marginalised - like Jamila - are the ones at most risk.

Despite the majority of natural disasters hitting richer nations, 85 per cent of deaths caused by natural disasters happen in poorer countries.

In 1989 when an earthquake shook San Francisco, 69 people were killed. But in 2010 an earthquake of a similar intensity in Haiti claimed 316,000 lives.

In areas that are prone to cyclones or seasonal flooding, poorer populations living in modest dwellings can see their homes swept away in an instant.

They are more likely to be dependent on agriculture and less likely to have savings or assets to sell, or any kind of Plan B when crops and livestock are wiped out.

This injustice is fuelling Birmingham-based Islamic Relief’s push for better preparation and protection before disaster strikes in places like Jamila’s homeland, Bangladesh, one of the most cyclone-prone countries in the world.

Forty miles inland from Jamila’s village is Bhopanipur. It’s lunchtime on Friday when we arrive and the call to prayer comes echoing across the water.

Our little wooden boat, crossing a gigantic lake, floats past an unlikely tree top, protruding from the water.

In the village, lush green ferns line the paths and we pick our way along frog-covered walkways but at the village edge we’re stopped in our tracks.

Bhopanipur is a water world, a real-life Atlantis, with boats tethered to the sides of footpaths where the land falls away into deep pools.

Ahead of us, the brick pathway sinks out of sight beneath the water and women hitch up their saris to wade from one side of the village to another.

It looks like a community that was caught out almost overnight and has been trying to carry on surviving ever since.

At a communal water pump a grandmother picks her way barefoot along a tree trunk, lying like a narrow walkway over the water before lowering herself, as if entering a swimming pool, and trudging to the pump with her empty jug.

In the distance a woman with water up to her neck reaches her thin arms upwards to collect kolmilota, a floating green indigenous vegetable.

Nearby an old man soaked to his waist wades towards us, searching under leaves in the green algae before showing us a handful of fat water snails he’s found this morning.

Like most of the men in the village, Shorojit Mondal, 60, used to be a subsistence farmer with two acres of land to grow rice and vegetables to feed his family, plus extra rice and jute to sell at market.

For the last 18 years, since his land was sunk from sight, he has spent his days collecting water snails to sell to fishermen as bait.

“We grew lots of vegetables,” he recalls, “but the water saturated the land and cultivation became impossible.

“For my children and my grandchildren I hope this water can be removed so that they can farm.”

Shorojit is lean and determined but old and slowing, and he knows his days of wading through water for snails are numbered.

As a farmer he could earn up to £620 a year selling rice and jute. Now he can earn around a tenth of that selling snails.

The villagers have had to adapt since a botched project by the World Bank caused Bhopanipur’s waterlogging 20 years ago.

The scheme to build 37 embankments along the river was designed to hold back saline water, flowing upriver, from the surrounding fields, but around 20 years after they were built, the problems began.

In Bhopanipur a man is up to his shoulders in water
In Bhopanipur a man is up to his shoulders in water
 

The embankments not only held back the water but also the river’s sediment which once nourished the farmland but has now built up on the riverbed, restricting the natural drainage from the fields after heavy monsoon rains.

Now the village is under water from September to June, leaving just two months’ respite for the sodden community and no chance to ever grow crops.

Across a stretch of water appears a woman in a bright red sari.

Standing elegantly on a raft made from six fat chunks of banana trunk bound together with string, her four-year-old boy clings to her clothes as she punts her way through a light green blanket of algae, like freshly fallen confetti.

Radhar Rani Chakrabati, her husband and two children, have learnt to live in a sunken society, relying on this little raft to carry them across seven-foot-deep water every time they want to leave their one-room home.

Their original house was destroyed by waterlogging but their new room is raised above a concrete platform.

Radhar points out a bamboo triangle perched on the branch of a tree about 12ft from her front door.

This is her toilet and every time her young son needs to go, she must use the banana raft just to take him there.

With no privacy, Radhar and her 15-year-old daughter always wait until nightfall.

Her husband Narayon is working on the floor, hand weaving a large grass mat.

The grass and string cost about 15 pence but the finished product can sell for more than double that.

Grass mats and snails help the people of Bhopanipur to eke out a living but Islamic Relief’s partner Uttaran is calling for bigger change to give these communities a fighting chance against rising sea levels, heavy monsoons and cyclones, pushing for a new £5 million scheme to deliberately breach the river’s embankments, creating reservoirs and allowing sediment to be deposited while leaving canals for the water to drain away again.

The NGOs are also rolling out basic measures that have the power to save lives, including flooding survival kits (a sealed plastic bag with basic essentials such as a torch, rice, honey and water purification tablets) and using the call to prayer tanoy we heard across the water as a warning system to deliver forecasts and safety advice in times of need.

The submerged state of this village in the most vulnerable region of the world’s most vulnerable country to climate change, puts its inhabitants at extra risk if and when disaster strikes.

In a cyclone or a flood there will be nowhere for Radhar, Shorojit or their families to take shelter. They are at nature’s mercy.

Moving to a new area isn’t an option in a densely populated region where everywhere you look people are crammed into the smallest living spaces imaginable, and nine per cent of public land is controlled by land grabbers.

In northern Bangladesh is Gaibanda, which is home to 2.1 million people and plagued by monsoon floods that have seen families lose their homes again and again.

But early last year a pioneering project saw 21 families dismantle their homes in the flood plain, rebuilding them seven feet higher on a raised plinth built by the community with materials from Islamic Relief.

Just three months later the plinth saved these families – plus 15 more who they sheltered – from the area’s worst floods in a quarter of a century.

The NGO has calculated this project brings £3.60 benefit for every £1 spent, with construction and maintenance costing less over five years than a single month of emergency relief if these families lost everything.

Reports into the costs and benefits of “disaster risk reduction” (pro-actively preparing communities beforehand rather than reactively rebuilding them from scratch afterwards) finds £1 can deliver anywhere from £3 to £15 of reduced post-disaster costs.

Yet, in 2010 the world spent 23 times as much on emergency relief for the 10 developing countries hit hardest by disasters as it spent on disaster prevention and preparation.

More than 1,400 miles away, in Pakistan, Adam Mallah is recalling the day he was forced from his home. Named after the fishing village he was raised in, Adam, a tall man in a white salwar kameez, stands in the shade of a devi tree as its long yellow seed pods point down at him like fingers.

“The scale of the flood was so huge it’s hard even for us now to comprehend it.

“The water was surging, rising up and moving fast.

“It was around eight to 10ft high so we knew we needed to leave, and within five minutes we were gone.”

He’s remembering the 2010 floods, the most devastating Pakistan has ever seen and the world’s worst natural disaster in recent history.

He remembers: “At first some people refused to leave. We had crops that were about to be harvested so no one could bear to leave them behind. We are human. We have feelings about our homes. It’s a very difficult decision to make.

“But when the water was knee-high and still surging we were left with no choice.

“We didn’t take anything with us. We just saved our lives and the lives of our children.”

He adds: “A few days after we left we sent three men back to check the situation but they couldn’t even reach the village.

“From a distance they could see that the water was right up to the rooftops.

“There was so much water we were hopeless that it would ever recede.”

Four hundred residents made the 30-mile journey on foot to the town of Golarchi, where they slept in the open by the side of the road for a week before all 70 households were moved into temporary tents which they lived in for four months before returning to find their belongings had all been washed away and their homes destroyed.

Four years later, 35 out of 70 households have new homes and five donkey carts supplied by Islamic Relief have effectively doubled earnings by allowing the villagers to get to market without paying crippling rental rates.

Many of the villagers now earn money from cutting down trees and selling the wood so Islamic Relief has also provided sewing machines and kits for barber shops to kick-start sustainable financial independence.

But four years on, Adam claims the community is still feeling the impact of the flood.

“We can never compare life now to life before the flood,” he says.

“Inflation and price hikes mean we can’t afford basic food items, never mind rebuilding the lives we had.
“We are managing to survive but it’s not a comparable existence to life before.

“We need sturdy, strong houses that can withstand the pressure of these floods and cyclones,” he says, “and our children need education to secure their futures.”

As well as taking lives, these crises are causing financial chaos, severely setting back countries that are striving to build a better future.

Six years after Hurricane Mitch hit Honduras, killing 6,000 people and leaving 20 per cent of the population homeless, the country’s GDP was estimated still to be six per cent lower than it would have been if the hurricane had not struck.

But donors are not getting the message.

When Mozambique asked for a paltry £1.6 million in 2002 to help prepare for possible floods, donors handed over only half that amount.

But in the floods that followed, the international community spent more than £60 million on emergency relief – plus a further £270 million on rebuilding projects after the worst was over.

That experience has spurred Mozambique to now commit more than half of its disaster budget to preparation projects.

Similarly, in Pakistan after the 2010 floods the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank said that an investment of just £16 million in disaster protection could greatly reduce losses from future catastrophes.

This advice came after the damage caused by the floods had topped nearly 400 times that amount – £6 billion.

Chagu Porthero endured inhumane living conditions and lost her daughter and father after Pakistan's worst floods
Chagu Porthero endured inhumane living conditions and lost her daughter and father after Pakistan's worst floods
 

It wasn’t until three months after Pakistan’s floods rushed in that Chagu Porthero, 36, felt the full force of the disaster.

The floods wiped out all trace of her home in Sindh province, leaving her to travel 70 miles to dry land where she, her husband and children had to live in a cramped school with 400 others.

“There was no water,” she says, “no bathroom, no toilet and we had four rooms for 400 people.

“The men went and chopped thorny branches from the trees to make a hedge so we could set up a toilet area behind that.

“The smell was so bad we stopped eating. It was humanly impossible to live there.”

After two weeks people began to fall ill as disease broke out in a wave of hepatitis A, fever and diarrhoea.

After two months, when the water receded, the weakened community made the 70-mile trek back to the site where their homes were barely traceable.

Within a week of returning, four elderly people died, including Chagu’s father.

Within a month the village had lost six children, all under five.

Chagu’s three-year-old girl Haneefan had been sick for weeks and as Chagu sat in the dust, mourning her dad, Haneefan died in her arms.

“I am still weeping for her,” she says softly, “I could only watch as she became weaker and weaker.

“I am not ever able to recover from that. How can a mother ever forget her daughter?”

Incredibly, Chagu has spent the last three years sleeping outside under a flimsy shelter of wooden stakes.

Ten weeks ago she moved into a new £300 home raised above a three-foot concrete mound, days before giving birth to her new son whose sleeping face makes her eyes light up.

But four years after the last major disaster there are villages that still haven’t received any aid, where people will be sleeping outside tonight.

The floods that took Chagu’s little girl left one fifth of Pakistan (an area larger than England) under water.

In terms of the number of people affected, Pakistan’s 2010 floods were more devastating than the 2005 Kashmir earthquake, the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami in the Phillipines, 2005’s Hurricane Katrina and 2010’s Haiti earthquake combined.

Yet aid for Pakistan came in a trickle compared to the flood of support for other countries, with those affected in Pakistan receiving nearly eight times less aid per person than Haitians affected by the earthquake.

Sentiment for the country from donors in the west is clouded by ill feelings about Pakistan’s role in the so-called War on Terror.

But the people of Pakistan are desperate for the international community to know how they have suffered since 2001, when Al-Qaeda and Taliban militants fled across the border from Afghanistan.

Haseeb Khalid, senior media officer for Islamic Relief in Pakistan, says the country has seen 48,000 deaths in the conflict since 9/11 and its communities have been terrorised by 128 suicide bombers in the last eight years.

“It is a country with no allies,” he says, “and ordinary people are having to pay the price.”

Islamic Relief is calling for donor governments to radically change the balance of spending to make disaster preparation a mainstream component of all major aid programmes.

In 2011, Lord Paddy Ashdown’s Humanitarian Emergency Response Review found that by next year climate-related disasters could affect 375 million people every year, a significant leap from 263 million four years ago.

The former Lib Dem leader concluded: “We are caught in a race between the growing size of the humanitarian challenge and our ability to cope; between humanity and catastrophe.

“And, at present, this is not a race we are winning.”

From famine to flooding

Islamic Relief was launched in Birmingham 30 years ago in response to a famine in Sudan and Ethiopia.

It now employs more than 2,000 people across 40 offices around the world.

The NGO, whose Islamic Relief Worldwide head office is in Digbeth, wants to even the balance between emergency response and disaster protection by splitting humanitarian aid 50/50 between the two.

Donations to Islamic Relief during last year’s Ramadan appeal were boosted by £5 million in match funding from the UK Government.

This money is providing better protection against natural disasters for nearly 500,000 people.