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Saturday, 27 June 2009


How often are we given the opportunity to help? I don't think it comes about that often at all, and I personally think that being a good person is about siezing these opportunities, creating new ones or preparing yourself so that when the opportunity arises you are well prepared. I just feel so lucky and so blessed that I was given such an opportunity to contribute to the relief efforts in South West Bangladesh following the devastation and suffering caused by cyclone Aila.

First, the Pond Sand Filter idea was suggested by a friend of a friend of a friend, and then many many people chipped in, some quite considerably, to make it possible, and I was able to be the humble middle man and see the thing being constructed, and work for 2 hours on construction myself (which I have to say is extremely tough work for a soft-handed western vegan in tropical heat and humidity using what could liberally be described as pre-mechanised construction techniques), to meet the owner of the pond and some of the people that would be using the facility, the local NGO that would oversee the rest of the construction and make sure that it was being used by the people free of charge and that maintainance was being taken care of. That was fantastic and made me feel so privilaged to have been a part of this process.

Secondly, I just fronted some money and worked with PROTIK Trust to provide some urgent water supply to a population to whome the word 'thirsty' is somewhat of an understatement. 78 quid for a 1,000 litre tank, and 12 quid a day for 3 trips from the OXFAM treatment plant (a small french made chemical and UV filter pump in Shamnagur) to the women waiting for water at the side of the road with their steel jars to take back to their family to drink and cook. The Pond Sand Filter will take at least 40 days to come online, at which point it will be desperately needed, but I wasn't that cool with watching all these women looking strangely animal with dehydration when it was in my power to do something about it - yet alone the kids that were left back in the makeshift accomodation. The families do not only need water, they also need food and shelter - but water really is the first priority. A family can go weeks without food no problem except fainting and a few other symptoms like bruises when sleeping, stomach cramps, headaches, fatigue sleeplessness and susceptability to ilness - but without water you cannot go without pain, migrane, madness, delusion, extreme fatigue, and lots of other nasties. Water is life, without it we have nothing. So water was really the priority, there were many other grievances and needs but these were eclipsed by the thirst dehydration and diarrhea.

So that was 3,000 litres a day being made possible with another contribution from a family member, a kick-ass local NGO, a tuctuc driver, a container manufacturere and seller, women being prepared to walk long distances with water and jars, the jar manufacturers, the tuc tuc manufacturer, OXFAM for paying for the water treatment, the NGO worker agreeing to let us use the OXFAM water, the engineer that designed the water treatment facility, the French company that built it and it's workers... These things are so interconnected and I cannot really take much credit for supplying water per se, all I did was take the opportunity and fill the gap when it was presented to me. It isn't really even my money in the first place - it's the State's in a student loan, my Granny's when she left me something in her will, my parents when they've given me bits and bobs and i've saved up, the state's when I worked as a carer and the State's and corporate research money when I was employed as a clerk at the Disability Support Office among a few other things... I was just hanging on to it...

One more little success story - I co-opted the local government with the help of Shahidulla Osmani Bhai(Brother) to pay for the repair of an older Pond Sand Filter that was damaged in the cyclone if I pumped out the contaminated water from the pond that it drew water from. This Pond Sand Filter catered for the local government clinic that mainly treated the diarrhea patients from drinking contaminated water. The clinic has been over-full with sometimes 3 people on a single bed hooked up to a drip, which would have disposed of a considerable chunk of their income. The Doctor seemed like a nice guy and was obviously swamped. He was really sad that the government wasn't doing anything with the pond. Well now the pond is pumped and the filter is being repaired - but it will take 30 days to go through the slow sand filter and it will take a few weeks for the pond to fill up again with the well timed monsoon (if the pumping was not done in the next couple of months then the pond would have been useless for another year) rains. So I was under no illusions that it would give immediate help to the diarrhea patients, but I am certain that it will be needed in 30 days time and the water situation isn't going away soon so I expect there to be plenty of diarrhea patients at the end of July when the facility starts working again. It will then help the families and the town and the market to save a bit of income and drink a bit more so they have better health and clarity and strength to go about their day. Many people use this facility and it is much bigger than the Pond Sand Filter that will cater for 800-1000 people built with the money from friends and family. So it was nice to see the government being nudged into grudging action!! (especially as one of the most poigniant criticisms of aid and 'aid dependance' is that it absolves the government of the responsability of looking after their citizens and it means that they get sloppy and out of practice, meaning that the NGO does all the work and when it disappeares of when funding dries up in a financial crises for example, the whole society goes through a lot of suffering that it wouldn't have otherwise). 90 quid... that's all it took, thousands of people's lives improved for 90 quid, the local government paying the rest (70 quidish but maybe more depending on the extent of the damage to the Pond Sand Filter).

So I feel immensly grateful that these opportunities presented themselves to me - I wasn't sure that the Pond Sand Filter was going to be a success never having been to Bangladesh before, I wasn't sure I would get to the Aila cyclone affected region, I wasn't sure that I would be able to find anyone that I could trust and work with, I wasn't sure I'd be able to raise any money, I wasn't sure that I would have any time to help at the end with a full work experience scedule - but a bit of faith and it seemed to work; the help was needed more than I thought it was, people were more grateful than I thought they would be, implementation was easier, NGOs were more intelligent and co-operative, it was just a walk in the park - and quite a nice one at that! (Certainly a lot better than fiddling while Rome is burning, especially when you are the kind of person that always looks at the flames).

I wouldn't say from this that development or aid work is easy, or that helping people is free from challanges - just that I feel really really lucky that I was able to get things going in a week, that the environment was right and that things went well this time, and that many other people connected to the work were considerate, wise, intelligent, flexible, giving, selfless, and playing their part effectively.

So a big big thank you to all those that made the 3 small scale projects possible (that I know have a big big impact to many people's lives), those that worked to earn the money that was given, those that gave it, those that implemented the project, those that thought of things, those that cared and those that did. Big big thank you, I will be grateful (as I am sure the 'beneficiaries' will be as well) in some part of me until I die to all those involved in making it possible.

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