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    Volume 9 Issue 18| April 30, 2010|

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The Calm Before the Storm

Back full circle in the season of cyclones, how prepared are we to face the next calamity?

Kajalie Shehreen Islam

Lost in the devastation wrought by Cyclone Sidr. Photo: Star file

On April 29, 1991, one of the worst cyclones in the country's history hit southeastern Bangladesh. It left over 138,000 people dead, thousands homeless, missing, or barely alive and completely destroyed. Sixteen years later, in November 2007, Cyclone Sidr left over 3,000 people dead. That was followed by Aila in May of last year -- after a close call with Nargis in 2008 -- leaving around 200 people dead and the survivors still struggling to carry on.

Monira of Southkhali in Bagerhat still remembers Cyclone Sidr as a frightening experience. "One minute things were fine, and the next, we were submerged in water. We didn't know where to look, what to do, who to save and how. People lost their parents, spouses, children. I lost a son . . ."

Swept away in a giant wave during the cyclone, Monira had taken charge of one of her sons and her husband the other. At the end of it all, three of them survived, with the son in the care of her husband being taken by the tide.


Following the cyclone, May 3, 1991.

Between 1980 and 2008, Bangladesh has faced 219 natural disasters, taking 191,343 lives, averaging highest on the world mortality risk index at 6,598 people per year, according to United Nations International Strategy for Disaster Reduction (UNISDR). While the number of deaths from natural disasters as well as the damage to livestock has decreased, the economic losses have been huge, amounting to USD 16 billion, of which Sidr alone caused losses of USD 2 billion as well as a 2.8 percent loss to our annual GDP. The total number of lives affected over the years is estimated to be around 30 million. The number of deaths, however, has seen a steady decline.

"The reduced death toll is a sign of preparedness," says Mokhlesur Rahman, Secretary, Ministry of Food and Disaster Management. "This is largely due to the early warning system which has been developed, as well as the 42,000 cyclone preparedness volunteers (CPVs) on the coastal belt. We have tried to involve the local community. Early warnings help people to prepare, evacuate and take shelter in times of natural disaster."

While the early warning system has been effective, it is not without fault. According to an expert in a non-governmental organisation (NGO), preferring anonymity, in the case of Aila, it failed. "We were not prepared for Aila. A four to five hour warning is not enough," says the expert, also claiming that the death toll was actually around 1,000, as opposed to the official statistic of 200.

Bani Amin of Padmapukur Union of Shyamnagar upazila in Satkhira heard the warning on the radio at home. "We saw the water swelling and were trying to think of how to save ourselves when we started receiving news of people's homes being submerged, their livestock being washed away. The wind was not very strong, but the waves were huge," says Amin. "We did our best to disseminate the warning."

"If Aila happened at night instead of during the day, you wouldn't have been able to write about us at all," says Amjad Hossain, Chairman of Padmapukur Union of Shyamnagar upazila in Satkhira. "Everything was destroyed, people's property, possessions, everything. If it had happened at night and people had not received warnings and taken shelter, they would all have been wiped out as well," continues the Chairman in whose concrete house many people took shelter on the first day. "Even then, the warning was not adequate for the degree of destruction which followed."


While the death toll from natural disasters has decreased due to the increased level of preparedness as well as safeguard instruments such as cyclone shelters and killa (shelters for livestock), 4.6 million people remain exposed to the risk of cyclones, according to Kaiser Rejve, Humanitarian Programme Coordinator, Oxfam. The early warning dissemination is definitely a success, says Rejve, which, unlike in 1991, made large-scale evacuation of people possible in 2007 and 2009. The top-to-bottom administrative mechanism, from disaster management committees at the local government level to the establishment of a separate Ministry of Food and Disaster Management has increased the capacity for dealing with disasters. But, says Rejve, there remains much room for improvement.

Though successful, the early warning system set in the British era is confusing, says Rejve, with a 1-4 range for river ports and 1-10 for people. "The warnings were originally for ships, not people, and is confusing. The government is trying to revise it in order to make it more people-friendly by setting a 1-4 range as is common in the rest of South Asia. We should also make use of digital communication. For example, there may be a way to send warnings through automated voice messages on cellular phones."

The number of cyclone shelters has increased from 500 in 1991 to over 2,000 currently, but still cover only 20 percent of people exposed to cyclone risk, leaving the majority vulnerable, says Rejve. "In addition, 60 percent of the existing shelters are unusable due to lack of maintenance. More than 80 percent of them do not have toilet facilities, those that do, have them on the ground floors, which are affected in times of such disasters. Separate areas are also needed for women, such as places for delivery for expecting mothers. Gender and other needs must be addressed in order to attract people to the shelters in times of crisis."

The effects of climate change have also made infrastructure built in the 1960s partially ineffective for the current environmental challenges that Bangladesh is facing and is anticipated to face in the future. "The rising sea level, the hardening of riverbeds causes the water to rise over or break through the existing embankments, calling for the renovation of existing ones and revised designs for those to be built in future," says Rejve.

"After the calamities, repairs of embankments are delayed due to unexplained reasons and they lack maintenance in general, providing a false sense of security," says Dr. Babar Kabir, Director, BRAC Disaster, Environment and Climate Change Programme (DECC).

"In addition, 20 percent of those exposed to cyclone risk live outside of the embankments, which render them unsafe in the event of a tidal surge," says Kaiser Rejve.

Infrastructure development also includes development of sources of safe drinking water such as tubewells, raised to meet tidal surges, points out Rejve. Also important is the protection of public ponds from private leasing for shrimp culture. The government has taken measures to stop this but they require proper implementation. After every cyclone, 70 percent of the sanitation system -- which is poor in our country in general -- collapses. Damaged sanitary latrines cause environmental pollution. These also need to be built to meet the impact of the disasters.

Food and Disaster Management Secretary Mokhlesur Rahman admits that there are only 2,500 cyclone shelters where, in the remotest areas, at least 5,000 are required. "But 800 are currently under construction and we are trying to secure funding for another 816," says Rahman. The government also has plans for redesigning and building stronger embankments to counter the impact of tidal waves during cyclones of greater intensity anticipated to take place in the future. "But these are long-term plans requiring huge resources which we must first acquire," says Rahman.

"There must be dedicated resources for disaster management," says Kaiser Rejve. "Power needs to be decentralised, delegating more power at the local level. In cases where rapid action is needed, an Incident Command System is required, which has been introduced for earthquakes but not cyclones." An Incident Command System is a system of dedicated personnel, policies, procedures, facilities and equipment responsible for emergency response operations.


The increased frequency and intensity of natural disasters are only some of the more visibly alarming effects of climate change. One way to mitigate the consequences is the protection of the Sundarbans and other forests along the coastal belt, which are a vital safeguard against such calamities, says Kaiser Rejve.

Due to the effects of climate change, future disasters will not be like traditional cyclones, says Dr. Babar Kabir of BRAC. "We must be prepared for the intensity, severity and nature of disasters in the future. There is going to be a lot of submergence."

This will require dealing with not only death and damage to property, but also devastation to the agriculture and internal migration. For this, BRAC has been working on adaptive agriculture towards ensuring food security by producing high-yielding rice, introducing a new cropping system, crab fattening for export and promoting varieties of salt-tolerant tilapia fish. "Safe drinking water is also a major issue," says Dr. Kabir, "and the government as well as different organisations have to work towards this. We are also trying to improve housing and ensure livelihoods by making people more resilient, providing them with skills which they can apply in the event of having to migrate due to natural disasters, a phenomenon which has been occurring."

According to Secretary Mokhlesur Rahman, while the death toll from natural disasters is being reduced, there is little to be done about damage to property and possessions. "Loss of livelihoods, such as through the destruction of livestock, is a huge loss," he says, "these cannot be reduced but they can be restored and our mission is to do so as quickly as possible by rehabilitating farmers through providing loans, waiving interest, etc."

Bani Amin, who looks after his parents, two younger sisters, a wife and son, used to earn a steady income from shrimp cultivation in a four or five bigha gher (an enclosed expanse of water) that he owned before it was destroyed during Cyclone Aila. Today, he works as a day labourer when he can find work and feels fit enough to do it.


While Bangladesh has come a long way in terms of disaster preparedness and management since 1991, the road ahead is anything but smooth. Not only does the country have to deal with the formidable effects of climate change, which will possibly contribute to more frequent and more devastating calamities, but it will also have to protect and ensure the livelihoods of a growing population ravaged by these disasters. In a region where natural disasters are common, the key is to be prepared to act even before they occur -- and not simply react after the event.

While they make news headlines the first few days or even weeks after the catastrophes, the effects of the tragedies continue in every affected home years after the stories are lost to history. For many, the challenge is to endure and survive, despite the hurt of their loved ones being washed away with everything they had ever called their own -- their homes, possessions, hopes and dreams.

Today, Monira of Southkhali -- who lost everything, including her three-and-a-half-year-old son in Cyclone Sidr -- and her husband, own a small shop; their daughter in Class 10 and their son a Class 5 madrassah student. "After the disaster, we got relief from the government. Later, we collected things ourselves as well as aid from others and slowly rebuilt our lives. Today, by the mercy of God, we are well," says Monira.

Bangladeshis are, after all, known the world over for their resilience.

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