International donors pledged hundreds of millions of dollars Wednesday to rebuild Bangladesh’s cyclone-ravaged coast, but help wasn’t coming fast enough for thousands of homeless survivors who fought over meager rice handouts.
The government said it had promises of $390 million in international aid, much of it a $250 million pledge from the World Bank. But relief officials were struggling to get desperately needed rice, drinking water and tents to people in remote villages wrecked by the storm.
In Tafalbari, a dusty collection of crushed tin huts and flooded fields, fistfights erupted in a crowd of villagers who had spent fruitless hours waiting for food outside a relief center.
Several thousand people surrounded the small aid station set up by a local humanitarian group. Workers had to shut the gates against the tide, admitting just a few people at a time.
“I didn’t have enough food before the storm hit. We have hardly eaten at all since the storm,” said one frustrated villager, Juddistir Chandar Das, 45, who lost the home he shared with his wife and three children.
In the nearby village of Purba Saralia, relief officials used clubs to fend off a crush of hungry people pleading for rice.
“I’ve been waiting since dawn. I have nothing to eat and my children are hungry,” said Kabir Howlader, 25, one of thousands who gathered at a fire station that had been converted into a relief center.
Officials: Not enough food
Officials at the center said the government had provided only enough rice to feed 1,200 registered residents, but there were far more than that outside the gates.
Abdul Bashar, 62, was not on the government list and would likely not get any rice. “I have nothing to eat; I will have to beg to Allah,” he said.
With most wells of safe drinking water ruined by the cyclone, the need for clean drinking water was becoming critical to ward off deadly waterborne diseases.
“We are concerned about diarrhea,” said Renata Dessallien, the top U.N. official in Bangladesh. “There is no question this will be a problem.”
Health workers were distributing water purification tablets to people as they handed out bottled water, said Mohammad Abdul Baset, a government health official in the town of Barisal.
The storm, which tore along Bangladesh’s southwestern coast Nov. 15, destroyed 458,804 houses and damaged 665,529 more, affecting some 4 million, the government said.
Major donation to provide food, medical care
For those awaiting help, the World Bank’s announcement of a huge aid package couldn’t be more urgent.
“Of course Bangladesh is still in the rescue and relief phase, but as it moves into recovery over the next few days, our commitment is a signal to government of the scale of what we can offer if needed,” said Xian Zhu, the World Bank’s director in Bangladesh.
The $250 million will support immediate needs like food, medical care and small loans to fishermen and farmers. But it is also meant for longer-term projects such as building emergency shelters and improving infrastructure, the statement said.
Earlier in the day, the European Union announced $9.6 million in aid. The American Red Cross said it would provide $1.2 million to help get clean water to people and build emergency shelters.
“The problem is that aid workers need hours to reach these remote areas. Poor communications are also hampering our work,” said Anwarul Huq, a spokesman for the Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee, the country’s largest nonprofit development organization.
Death toll stands at 3,167
In many places, aid workers had to clear fallen trees and debris to get to survivors, Huq said, adding that rescue work also was hampered by a shortage of boats.
The official death toll stood at 3,167, said Lt. Col. Main Ullah Chowdhury, a spokesman for the army, which is coordinating relief and rescue work. The Disaster Management Ministry said 1,724 more people were missing and 28,188 people had been injured.
Local media reports said more than 4,000 people might have been killed. The Bangladesh Red Crescent Society has suggested the final figure could be around 10,000.