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Update from the Sunderbans - Post Cyclone Aila

6 June 2009

The good news is that Government and Army assistance is finally kicking in, eleven days after the cyclone ! Our team is exhausted but still focussing efforts on distributing drinking water (about 10,000 litres a day) with our boats. A new priority is pumping out saline water from the village water-harvesting ponds, so that these can fill again with rain water. Our Field Officer, Anil Mistry, purchased three pump sets today, and work has started immediately.

WPSI's Kolkata-based Director, Shakti Banerjee, and Anil are also liaising with government relief efforts to ensure that assistance reaches the most needy communities. One or other of them has met with the Chief Minister, the Sundarbans Development Board, Irrigation Department, BDO, senior police officials and the district authorities. The Minister in charge of Sundarban Development Affairs has ordered Flood Centres to be established every 5 km, and Anil and Gopal were requested to carry out a survey for this effort. Of course there is also lots of politics involved - the fiery leader of the opposition, Mamta Bannerjee, refused to attend an all-party meeting on the issue today. Shakti took another team of volunteers from a samity into the interior on 2 June. They have set up a camp at Amtali to prepare and distribute khichri daily for 10,000 people.

Most of the people who live around the Sundarbans are now homeless, with their fields destroyed by the saline water. They are camped on the embankments, thirsty, hungry and wet, and the stench is intolerable. Many of the children now have diarrhea, and our team of health volunteers is busy distributing basic medicines. Forty of them did a crash medical course two days ago - not ideal, but all that could be done under the circumstances. Of considerable concern is the fact that water levels are expected to rise this evening, for the next 24 hours, due to the Purnima (spring) tide. We will know by Monday whether the hasty work carried out on 6 of the 9 badly damaged embankments around Bali Island will hold or not.

A number of organisations and individuals have been generously sending in food, medical and other supplies, and we are now using the donations we received to run three large boats - they are being used for 18 to 20 hours a day - to distribute drinking water and the supplies, and for the purchase of pumps. Most of the logistics and distribution of the supplies are being coordinated by Shakti, Asit (of ACT) and Anil. Raj, also from ACT, is coordinating a garment bank, so that clothes can be distributed.

WPSI's Board Member, Bikram Grewal, will be returning to the Sundarbans next weekend to assess the work and give us a further update.

10 June 2009

We have converted our Tiger Conservation Centre on Bali Island into a field hospital, and two doctors are now stationed there, working tirelessly day and night. Dr S. Palit (a child Specialist) and Dr Chatterjee (a surgical specialist) were sent to Bali by the Samarpan Foundation, and their accommodation is being provided by Help Tourism. The doctors have generously agreed to stay there until 17 June and have already won the hearts of the people !

The seasonal high tide of Purnima, which started last Sunday, was fortunately weaker than expected and the hastily repaired embankments withstood the tide. Our boat, 'Baghini', along with two hired boats, continues to supply drinking water and supplies to the thousands of people still stranded on the embankments. But with government aid finally reaching the interiors of the Sundarbans, things are at last looking up.

On Tuesday, 8 June, a consignment of 400 kg of rice, 50 kg of dal, flat rice(chire), jaggery, bleaching powder, some clothes and lots of medicine, were sent to Bali by the generous Samarpan Foundation. We are expecting another large consignment of supplies from Mr D. P. Jana (ex Member Secretary, Sundarban Development Board) who will be visiting the Sundarbans this week, along with a group of corporates. WPSI's Field Officer, Anil Mistry, is coordinating their program and as per his suggestions this additional aid will be distributed beyond Bali where it is needed more urgently.

Also on Tuesday, there was an impressive incident involving the staff of the Sundarban Tiger Reserve (STR). At 11:30 in the evening, our Director, Col Shakti Banerjee, received a mobile call from Chhotomollakhali that a tiger has strayed into the village. There was complete panic. Shakti Banerjee immediately contacted Mr Subrat Mukherjee, the Field Director of STR. Forest staff reached the village within 30 minutes, armed with torches, tranquiliser guns and other equipment.... But the 'tiger' turned out to be a dog wading through the water ! We would like to highly commend the STR staff for responding so quickly and efficiently, and also for the fact that instead of berating the villagers, they gave them nothing but courage and strength. It looks as though they are now geared to tackle any such situation.




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