TBI BLOGS: How Clothes Collected from Cities Helped Rebuild a Cyclone-Hit Village in the Sunderbans

Goonj is channelizing underutilized material of cities to rural India to address some ignored basic needs and as a resource for large scale rural development work, with dignity to the receiver.

Kalitala in Sunderbans was devastated after Cyclone Aila. Under the ‘cloth for work’ initiative by Goonj, the villagers did not only work to build a crucial road link but also planted mangrove saplings to help preserve the ecology of the area.

“We live in a disaster prone area. High tide is a regular phenomenon here. This mangrove wall is our only shield from disasters,” explains Thakur Das Burman from Kalitala village, Sunderbans, while looking at the tree-lined expanse in front of him.

Sunderbans, the largest mangrove forest and the only mangrove tiger land on the globe, is also a UNESCO world heritage site in West Bengal.

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This delta has a unique ecology that is rich in flora and fauna. It is home to more than 260 species of animals, including the Royal Bengal Tigers, crocodiles and pythons, to name a few. Mangroves also play an important role in carbon absorption; they use their upper roots to absorb carbon from the swampy soil and maintain the ecological balance in the environment.

Today, the mangroves of Sunderbans are under severe threat from encroaching corporate interests and poachers and the negligence of the local administration. Many species have gone extinct, while others are on the verge of extinction. The change in the natural environment has a direct impact on the pattern of disasters there.

The increased intensity of extreme events in the Sunderbans, potentially due to climate change, poses great challenges to the safety of the human settlements in the delta. The devastating results were seen in the Aila cyclone of 2009.

In the last 30 years, approximately 7,000 people have been displaced from their original homes and islands in Sunderbans, as a direct result of sea level rise, coastal erosion, cyclone incidence, and coastal flooding.

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Kalitala is the last village on the island of Dulduli (in the Sunderbans area of 24 North Pargana district of West Bengal) on the banks of Kalindi tidal river. Reaching this village takes hours of travel, including changing of almost seven modes of transportation – from a train to a thela (cart) to a rickshaw to boats.

Kalitala was one of thousands of villages that were completely devastated by Cyclone Aila.

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Like many other indigenous communities, the people of Kalitala had also lived in harmony with their flora and fauna for generations.

After cyclone Aila, when Goonj reached this village that had been isolated from all rescue and relief agencies for a long time, the people identified a problem they wanted to work on.

The brick road in the middle of the village that intersected and connected the last embankment on the river Kalindi was washed away by the cyclone.

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So, when the water receded after the cyclone, the construction of this road was the first thing that was undertaken under Goonj’s ‘cloth for work’ (CFW) initiative. People got together to collect the scattered bricks and started the construction of a 1.5 km motorable road on their own.

This road provides connectivity to crucial services like the public health centre, market, coaching centre, school, and sources of drinking water.

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In 2011, as a part of Goonj’s rehabilitation efforts, mangrove saplings were also planted in an area of 800 x 200 feet in the most susceptible part where Aila hit. Three years later, the saplings had blossomed into a lush green mangrove. In the coming years. these trees will not only prevent soil erosion and act as a shield to natural calamities for the village, but will also protect the habitat and help it withstand cyclones or floods to a large extent. Mangroves act as live sea walls and shields that can reduce the wave energy of a tsunami  by 75%. They are more effective than concrete wall structures against flooding/cyclones and everyday tides.

The dense root systems of mangrove forests trap sediments flowing down rivers and off the land. This helps stabilize the coastline and prevents erosion from waves and storms.

Enriching the local ecology the forest will also contribute to the local economy, apart from providing a safe sanctuary to various flora and fauna.

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Every year, hundreds of village communities across India work on their own community needs under Goonj’s flagship CFW initiative, where materials collected from the cities become a motivating force. This initiative brings together rural communities to work on their local issues. They use their local resources and wisdom to tackle their problems, hence taking ownership of them. Goonj provides comprehensive kits of clothing and other household articles to those villagers who participate in the efforts.

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