Cyclone prediction and preparedness by coastal communities in Bangladesh
Fishing trawlers moored at Chittagong Fishery Ghat. Photo: Focus Bangla
Exploring the linkages between indigenous knowledge systems and modern weather forecasting
In today’s time receiving weather information is as simple as turning on the news channel or listening to the radio or even using the weather applications in smartphones. Advancement in scientific knowledge and the availability of remote sensing data, and cutting edge technologies enabled us to observe, generate and predict weather patterns or other natural calamities well ahead of the occurrence, more precisely than ever before.
But do all the communities especially the fishermen communities living on the coast have access to such modern devices and technology to apply in their day-to-day life?
The relation between coastal fishermen communities and the changing weather is significant, as a minimal and sudden change in the weather makes the communities vulnerable and pose threat for deep-sea fishing activities. In terms of tropical storms, studies reveal that many of these communities do not have the fullest access to devices that make them aware of the changing situation or the intensity of the storm.
Multiple studies also indicate that even if the communities have access to such devices they do not understand the warning signals well, and in some cases refuse the signals considering them be ‘false alarm.’ However, they tend to rely much on their ancestral believes, and nature induced weather forecasting practices in such adverse situations.
A recent study conducted in the surrounding areas of Lake Victoria highlighted that the fishermen communities did not have any access to receive early warnings before a storm, but they predicted the storm by observing the appearance of the rainbow (Venton, 2018), a knowledge that they have inherited.
In the early civilizations, seafarers observed the natural entities closely and predicted the weather before going for a voyage. They even worshipped natural entities, celestial objects as deities and offered sacrifices; mentioned in Greek, Egyptian, Mayan, Inka, Indian, and Norse mythology.
These legacies and practices have been passed from generation to generation in form of rituals, folklore, myths and are still practised in some communities around the world. But with the passage of time and the advancement of modern science, many of such nature-based ancient knowledge and practices are on being replaced.
Sailors and fishermen are now encouraged to observe the signs of nature, in addition to noting scientific data, to predict the weather more accurately.
“In terms of tropical storms, studies reveal that many of these communities do not have the fullest access to devices that make them aware of the changing situation or the intensity of the storm”
The practice of forecasting weather based on observing natural entities is also common among the fishermen communities of Bangladesh. Owing to the geographical location along with a conical southern region directly exposed to the Bay of Bengal, many severe cyclones make landfall on the coast of Bangladesh and the local fishermen communities and seafarers are among the first victims of such natural events.
Based on available data and statistical analysis it is estimated that from the year 1978 to 2016, 131 cyclones formed in the Bay of Bengal and 33 made landfall, with an average of 1.15 cyclones hitting Bangladesh every year (Chowdhury, 2018). These cyclones have devastating impacts on the overall livelihood of the coastal population, especially the fishermen and seafarer’s communities as their livelihood depends much on deep-sea fishing activities.
Moreover, it also signifies the importance of generating effective and advance cyclone warnings, so that the communities can take necessary preparedness measures to mitigate or to evacuate in such disastrous times. In this regard, the government of Bangladesh has taken many major initiatives to reduce the risk of cyclone vulnerability in the coastal region and has set an example to the world with actions like Cyclone Preparedness Program (CPP), Coastal Embankment Project, construction of more than 2500 cyclone shelters, improving the early warning system, afforestation measures in the coastal belt and many more.
Besides, the Bangladesh Metrological Department (BMD) has also developed CWS (Cyclone Warning System) and generates awareness signals depending on the position and intensity of the approaching storm through radio, television and other mass media platforms.
However, studies conducted among the coastal fishermen communities in the South and South-Western region of Bangladesh reveals that such alarms are not well received and accepted by many of the communities as they lack to understand the warnings, lack to access necessary devices (radio, television), and consider the signals to be ‘false alarms’ (Howell, 2003; Ubydul Haque et al, 2011; Mahed-Ul-Islam Choudhury et al 2021).
The communities also state that, the alarms do not incorporate the intensity and preparedness information. For example- they receive the cyclone warning information only 2 days or less before the impact, with limited time to take necessary preparation. Then again the change of cyclone warning signals (corresponding to the intensity of the cyclone) is also very rapid; in the morning it is classified as signal 3 or 4 and during noon it is reclassified as a signal 7 rating (Islam et al., 2013).
‘False alarm’ is also another reason for communities to mistrust the warning signals. For instance, BMD issued an awareness signal at least a month ahead before the occurrence of the catastrophic cyclone ‘Sidr’ in 2007. However, the storm did not appear then and this false alarm led many coastal communities to ignore the awareness signals later during the actual occurrence (Mahed-Ul-Islam Choudhury et al 2021).
“BMD issued an awareness signal at least a month ahead before the occurrence of the catastrophic cyclone ‘Sidr’ in 2007. However, the storm did not appear then and this false alarm led many coastal communities to ignore the awareness signals later during the actual occurrence”
In such circumstances, nature-based cyclone prediction measures and traditional knowledge becomes an important asset for unprivileged coastal communities beside the modern CWS, as studies report that many of these communities predict storms and bad weather well ahead by only observing natural entities, and techniques which they adopt from their day to day experience and ancestral knowledge.
Some of these observation relates to increase of seawater temperature, change of colour of seawater, increase of wind flow from the East or South-Eastern direction (locally known as Eshan kon or pubal batash), movement of seabirds and ducks towards the shore, Churi (Eupleurogrammus muticus) and Loittia fish (Harpadon nehereus) moving and jumping quickly in the sea, movement of insects towards the higher ground (Hasan, 2008; Mahed-Ul-Islam Choudhury et al, 2021). These interventions are well accepted among the locals and based on such observations the fishermen and seafarers, consult with their elders and undertake precautionary measures.
However, the importance of such nature induced, traditional storm prediction practices are often overlooked and the practices are termed as ‘unscientific’, no matter how valuable they are to the poor, unprivileged communities residing on the coast. Hence, for the comprehensive development and enhancing the resilience of these vulnerable communities; such nature-based prediction measures should be recognized and be aligned with the existing scientific understanding, and methods of prediction the storms.
In this regard, the government, non-government organizations, research institution, local government bodies, scientific communities can play a vital role to evaluate such practices and create a bridge between scientific-technical knowledge and nature base learning to generate effective storm prediction framework which will be more effective, viable and realistic for the communities.
Savio Rousseau Rozario is currently working at the International Centre for Climate Change and Development (ICCCAD) as a Junior Research Officer. He holds a great interest in disaster risk reduction and management practices in terms of climate change impact. He can be reached at email@example.com.
Mahmuda Akter is currently working as a Research Officer at the International Centre for Climate Change and Development (ICCCAD), her research interest lies in Climate Change Adaptation, Capacity Building, Migration, Disaster Management, and Urban Development. She can be reached out at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Date: July 11th, 2021