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Odisha, a life among ruins

The fishing village of Puri awakes at dawn, as it does every morning. From the beach, the men prepare their nets to go to sea on the few boats spared by cyclone Fani, who made landfall on their coast on May 3, 2019. At first glance, one might think that everything has since returned to normal. 

However, the damage is still there, both material and psychological, throughout Odisha; both on the coast and in the land.

"My whole house has been destroyed, we haven't lived there since Fani's landfall," says Laxmi, 40, who is unemployed after the cyclone destroyed her street food stand.
Her beachfront home was one of the first to be hit by the terrible winds of Fani, blowing at over 250 km/h. She seeks to raise the necessary funds to rebuild "at least the roof".

Of the 42 million inhabitants of Odisha, one of the poorest regions in India where the average income is less than $5 a day, 16.5 million people have been affected by Fani. More than 850.000 homes have been partially or completely destroyed, plunging their inhabitants into even greater precariousness.

For Kumar Das, a renowned painter from Raghurajpur, and his family, life has resumed as best it could. He has reopened his workshop, but everything is different now. The second floor of their house was damaged by the cyclone, which has since become unusable. "I lost a lot of paintings, old works of my father. I would like to rebuild the roof of the house, but with a salary of 6000 rupees per month (about 80€), there is not much left after the daily expenses. Even if I save money, I won't be able to do anything for at least a year."
Because despite the financial assistance he received from the government, it only took the form of a one-off payment of 2000 rupees (about 30€), which was quickly squandered in various necessities.

Kumar Patra, 32, from the village of Rahangie, reports a similar situation more than 3 months after the cyclone. "Many of the houses here are damaged. We all took refuge in the shelter, not far from here, on the night of the cyclone, so no one was hurt. But now it's complicated."
The Odisha State quickly provided food aid to families in the village, who received 50kg of rice. In addition, Odisha State Disaster Management Authority (OSDAM) brought them waterproof tarpaulins to cover their roofs, which can still be seen through the half gutted village.
Although they are technically eligible for the same financial assistance as Das, or even up to 8,000 rupees depending on the damage suffered, they are not under any illusions.
"We haven't received anything, and I don't think we will get that money. There is a lot of corruption in the Odisha government," Patra says resignedly.

Beyond this question of corruption, one of the major problems facing this vulnerable population is the absolute lack of resilience to climate hazards.

Landless farmers or fishermen, they do not have insurance in case of damage, and their homes do not have the necessary foundations to withstand cyclonic winds, even though Odisha is the 6th most affected area in the world by cyclones.


OSDMA is aware of these structural problems and is trying to mitigate them as effectively as possible. "The future is uncertain", according to Pradeep Oas, CEO of OSDMA. "Odisha is severely affected by climate change. We expect natural disasters such as cyclones and repeated floods to become even more frequent - and to cope with them, this requires a long-term vision and a political decision in this direction. Unfortunately, we're working on it, but we're not there yet."


Possible solutions include the creation and maintenance of budgetary relief funds and the construction of resilient housing throughout the region, which would reduce the exposure of vulnerable populations to future natural disasters, and thus contribute to a significant reduction in poverty.


According to the World Bank's "Indestructible" report, published in 2017, the overexposure of the poor to natural disasters contributes to making it difficult to eradicate poverty by "keeping people in poverty or pushing them back into it.


Providing the region with resilient housing has become the focus of the Odisha Disaster Recovery Project (ODRP) since Cyclone Phailin in 2013. Its architects are working on a series of resilient villages across Odisha, which will house tens of thousands of families. Following Fani, no less than 50,000 single-family homes are planned.The construction cost of this project, estimated at 3 lakhs rps (around 4000€) per house, is entirely financed by the state. The villagers who benefit from it have nothing to pay, and the house legally belongs to them as soon as they move in.These model villages, some of which can be seen in Ganjam district, southwest of Puri, now house fishermen who were affected by the last cyclone.


Attached to their land, the new residents had difficulty deciding to move.


Jenti Behera, 35, was the first to move to the new village around Gopalpur. "We have a lot of space here, and we feel safe. It's a solid house," she says.  However, not everything is rosy. The obligation to find building and non-flood land forced ODRP to set up the village far from any employment. "We are farmers and fishermen. Here, we are too far from our old work, we had to stop. Before, I used to work in the rice fields, but I can't now. There is almost no public transport," explains Bidyadhar Behera, 37.


The effects of Fani, repeated flooding and the threat of a future disaster in an accelerating climate degradation context will continue to be felt in Odisha.

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