Thursday, April 16, 2009

Barisal banter: Bakerganj, Babuganj, Bagerhat, Barisal

Thanks to the NGOs PGUK, INDAB, Friendship and Caritas (some of the perks of traveling on Henk’s tail!) we were able to make several field visits around Barisal division to Sidr response areas for the worst hit communities. We wanted to know the who, why, what, how and when of the houses that were donated by the NGOs. Who was targeted, why they were considered vulnerable, what they were given, and how and when it was given to them.

With Mr. Prodip from PGUK we visited several of the most vulnerable demographic groups, especially widows, former beggars, and disabled communities. PGUK uses a ‘savings group’ approach, in which groups of (usually) women are formed with similar economic situations. They save money together and provide insurance to each other’s savings. Most of the women make less than a euro per day, and it is estimated they are unemployed half the time. Many work in slightly richer households for 3 kg of rice per day. It was interesting to see the different investments that were made with the loans. Some women invested in tools for a sustainable livelihood in weaving or poultry. Others used the money to pay off the debts of their children. Sadly, the loans were not waived after cyclone Sidr (month payment postoned).

The fact that these saving groups were in existence before the cyclone meant that PGUK was very quick to establish a list of beneficiaries. The hardcore poor were the ones who had the most poorly constructed houses that were the first to blow away with the winds of Sidr. PGUK provided material for rebuilding to about 1 out of every 10 of their savings beneficiaries. The women were in charge of transporting building materials from PGUK to their building sites. PGUK provided the ‘design’ (not specifically engineered to withstand great wind or water forces) and were in charge of hiring a carpenter (variable quality) for constructing the house.

With Mr. Kabir from INDAB we also visited vulnerable demographic groups, more specifically ‘mixed groups’ (lower caste Hindus and Muslims), ‘boatpeople’ (gypsy communities who follow the fish and are completely outcast from land society), and char people (those dwelling on the eroding riverbanks) which were all greatly affected by cyclone Sidr. INDAB worked on a community (rather than group) based system in order to stimulate cooperation and joint ventures to break vicious cycles on individual scales.

The fact that the vulnerable are documented in this way speeds up the post disaster vulnerability assessment. Working with spatially connected communities and letting them decide amongst themselves who is most vulnerable means the assessment comes from bottom up and it was heartwarming to witness the generosity and group spirit shown in these decisions. After Sidr INDAB provided the communities with money and left them to decide on which materials they would spend it. Especially noticeable in the villages was the effect of one good carpenter on the entire community; this influenced all the house constructions. However, traditional bracing methods are not compliant with storm resistance. Carpenters lacked training in ways to cheaply build sustainable housing with traditional building methods.

With Mr. Harun from Friendship we visited several of the worst affected areas where most people lost everything, and outside NGOs had to provide new housing to these communities. There were two types of turnkey housing that were provided by Friendship. The first type was constructed on a mud platform with concrete columns and wooden roof frame with tin sheet infill. This core house seemed relatively flexible as it allowed users to transform it to traditional typology. The second type was Ferro cement brick housing in the model village on Madher Char (where Friendship reinforced the embankment and built a port). Though the houses were designed to be sturdy, opportunistic contractors used poor quality cement causing structural problems. Due to inexperience, people were afraid to alter the structure.

With Mr. Francis from Caritas we visited several communities with which they had had relations before the cyclone. Caritas used the existing committees in the unions to designate their (often related) beneficiaries. The shelters were made of concrete columns on an adobe base with a wooden structural frame and bamboo sheeting infill. Carpenters especially trained by Caritas built them. The extended verandas made the houses flexible enough to transform into the traditional three room dwellings.

With a female translator, we also managed to visit a traditional house and question the women (the main users of the house as outside employment in the rural areas for women is near impossible) about the spatial uses of the house. The walls were also made of mud and the roof structure was made of a bamboo frame with some tin sheeting and the rest plastic and banana leaves. The only furniture inside were the beds. There was a non-monsoon and a monsoon kitchen on a raised platform.

We celebrated Bangla New Year 1416 at the fair with Henk!

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