Zarina Bibi and her husband wade through a 100-metre stretch of knee-deep water between a dry embankment and their destroyed hut. They rest a while at a foot-wide patch of mud at the base of a date tree, where a grey duck has made its home. Even the duck, a creature of water, seems tired of the water stretching on all sides.
In the last 72 hours, Zarina Bibi and her husband have crossed this stretch innumerable times, ever since Cyclone Yaas rendered them homeless. They live on the 26 sq km piece of land that makes up Mousuni island in Bengal’s Sundarbans, enclosed by the Ganges and the Jhinai on either side. Cyclone Yaas did not make landfall in these parts, but it still destroyed the entire island.
On May 26, hours before the cyclone hit, residents of Mousuni were anchoring and securing the roofs of their mud homes, having learnt their lesson from the destruction that Cyclone Amphan left behind last year. The rivers were swelling, they noticed, but residents had faith in the tall embankments that held the waters at bay. The concrete embankment on the Ganges’ side, for instance, rose 30 feet above the river’s surface.
But at 8.45 am that day, Cyclone Yaas’s landfall 200 km away was accompanied by a tidal wave. Water surged over the embankments in Mousuni and crashed inland. In almost no time, everyone and everything was swept away by saline water five feet deep.
No one in Mousuni had experienced anything like this before. Mothers held onto trees to stay above water, their children clinging onto them. Cattle were set free to swim to their destinies. The young escorted the old and infirm through chest-deep water to the relative safety of the first floor of the nearest mosque or high school. Marzina, around 20 years old, told me that for a few seconds, she swam alongside a big black cobra.
Astoundingly, not a single life was lost. But the loss of everything else was extensive.
About 90 percent of Mousuni’s 4,000 households live in kachcha houses: bamboo frames filled with mud and plastered with cow dung, and roofed in terracotta tiles. Many of them were rebuilt after Amphan using the Rs 1.23 lakh grant under the state government’s housing scheme, which afforded them barely four concrete walls over a foundation. With the lockdown, they couldn’t earn enough to build on it.
As a result, tidal water simply melted the mud and went unchecked through these houses, taking everything with it. Devoid of support, roofs collapsed on beds and boxes, burying everything of value. An estimated 3,000 homes in Mousuni were reduced to piles of mud and tiles, leaving nearly 12,000 islanders homeless.
Most of Mousuni’s residents are marginal farmers, dependent on their fertile land for cultivation especially since many migrant labourers have returned home and are living off rice and fish in these parts. Though Mousuni loses about 2.5 percent of its area every decade to river erosion, it still produces enough to be considered a self-sufficient economic ecosystem. For year-long consumption, every household here stores sufficient rice and rears enough fish in backyard ponds.
The tidal surge on May 26 soaked their stored rice in saline water, destroying it. The salinity also killed the fish in the 8,000-odd ponds across the island.
In Poilagheri, an area of 250 households, six out of 18 tubewells are now pumping out saline water. The island is reeling under a severe shortage of food and drinking water. Children have lost textbooks, adults their legal documents, mosques their holy scriptures.
On the morning of May 29, as I crossed the Jhinai to the island, I felt as if I had stepped into a tragedy of epic proportions. In a matter of hours, nature had stripped about 20,000 people of their dignity.
On the embankment, Hansbul Khan of Baghdanga village sat silently on his haunches, staring into space. His wife nearby spread sodden rice on the ground, desperately trying to dry it out in the sun. Behind her, a ravaged acacia tree somehow clutched to its roots.
Elsewhere, young men swam in flooded fields, pushing plastic tanks to collect drinking water. At a relief centre in Baghdanga Chowringhee High School, Abu Samad Khan tried to stretch the meals on offer to feed 500-odd people, most of whom had been unfed for 48 hours. Near Mousini Sadar, Mohammed Usman, 65, and his wife excavated a bed from a heap of sodden earth. Once a fixture in their home, it now looks like a relic from a lost civilisation.
As of May 31, no government help has been forthcoming. A few organisations distributed food but it was nowhere near enough. Being cut off from the mainland by a maze of rivers, it’s difficult for the state government to even distribute relief material in Mousuni. It’s now expected that residents will receive relief when the government’s “duare tran” project, or “relief at doorstep”, kicks off on June 3.
Meanwhile, the environment and water resources management wing of the World Bank has predicted at average of 2.5 cyclones a year at the Bay of Bengal’s East India coastline. Mousuni and other landmasses in the Sundarbans are widely believed to be “sinking islands”, which will need to be evacuated in a few decades. And if that happens, where will these environmental refugees go?
Zarina Bibi and her husband make another trip through a flooded field between their collapsed hut and an embankment. All day long, they tried to dig out anything of value from a pile of wood and mud which, three days ago, was their home.
A family tries to salvage the remains of their buried home near Baghdanga Bazar.
Sk. Nuruddin, 90, tries to dry important documents spanning generations while his daughter-in-law attempts to salvage rice that had been stored for year-long consumption.
The waves destroyed concrete slabs of the embankment on the Ganges. At Poilagheri, villagers move these slabs from the river’s reach to reuse them later to strengthen the embankment.
Usha Mondal of Netaji Nagar did not stop crying for 72 hours after Yaas hit. Her house withstood the waves but its interior is now a field of mud. With the monsoon coming, she worries about where her two-year-old grandson will sleep.
Young men wade through flooded fields to fetch drinking water. Since 30 percent of tubewells in Mousuni now pump out saline water, the shortage of drinking water has become a crisis.
Over 3,000 families in Mousuni have lost everything to the tidal wave. Stored rice is damaged beyond redemption, the fish have died in backyard ponds, and houses have melted. Yet again, they’ll have to build their lives back from scratch.
Md. Usman and his wife excavate their bed from a heap of sodden earth – a mixture of their mud walls and tiled roof – near Mousuni Sagar. The bed now looks like an artefact from a long-dead civilisation.
People use a hand pump that somehow remained above the floodwater level.
Amina Bibi managed to retrieve some of her textbooks and study material from the water. She spreads them out to dry, placing stained photographs over a map of Germany.
Ritu, 7, was eating breakfast when her mother snatched her out of the path of a five-foot wave and placed her on a tree. Ritu could not eat a proper meal for 72 hours after. Her mother is sad that she hadn’t been able to let her daughter finish her meal that morning.
Hansbul Khan’s wife in Baghdanga village tries to dry sodden rice in the sun.
Across the Sundarbans, the betel leaf is the only crop that brings much-needed cash to farming households. Betel leaves need protection from sun and salinity to flourish and are farmed inside a ‘burj’ – an enclosure made of cloth and straw. Fatima’s family spent only on betel leaf farming this year and now they’ve lost everything.
The remains of Shaikh Badruddin’s house at Netaji Nagar, at the centre of Mousuni.
A girl’s family pitches a temporary camp on the embankment. Cooking and washing is done in the scorching sun while the Ganges roars a few feet below.
Polythene sheet spread over a frame of logs, dug in the slope of an embankment, serves as a shelter for this family of eight.
Zarina Bibi and her neighbour explain that it’s a dog’s life in Mousuni, to adapt after the tidal wave hit. Evacuating in seconds, they were unable to bring anything with them. Three days later, they still haven’t been able to change their clothes.
Abu Samad Khan (seated) needs to feed 500 hungry islanders at least once a day at the relief centre at Baghdanga Chowringee High School. Things eased up a bit after organisations managed to transport food to the island on May 30.
Nafisa and her husband used money from the rural housing scheme to build a house with concrete walls and a roof. They moved into their home in March. The flood on May 26 tore apart the interiors. Standing in ankle-deep mud, Nafisa can’t stop crying.
Islanders, efficiently supported by village panchayats, transport safe drinking water to corners where it has become scarce after Yaas.
A little boy and his mother arrive at a relief centre with their pets.
Usha Mondal is unable to keep calm as she worries about the future of her two-year-old grandson. The income from her family-run shop in Mousuni is barely enough to live on. The rain and floods make her feel like she’s on a sinking ship.
A school provides temporary shelter to those who have been displaced.