Managing Cyclones in Bangladesh: A success story but no room for being complacent

Cyclone resilient houses in Kalapara, Patuakhali. Photo: Gawher Nayeem Wahra

Despite remarkable progress in reducing cyclone related deaths and injuries, damages related to cyclones continue to put life and livelihoods of coastal communities at peril

Bangladesh’s 700 km coastline is one of the world’s most active areas for the development of tropical cyclones. The unique geophysical characteristics of the Bangladesh coast, coupled with socioeconomic characteristics of coastal residents contribute to the high vulnerability of the residents to cyclones.

However, over the past 30 years, Bangladesh has made remarkable progress in reducing cyclone related deaths and injuries. Having said that, damages related to cyclones continue to put life and livelihoods of coastal communities at peril. During the most recent Cyclone Amphan in May 2020, coastal embankments in several areas collapsed even before the cyclone made landfall and remained waterlogged even six months after the storm, suggesting there is little room to be content.

In this article we highlight some of the existing successes of recent years, but also outline areas for improvement that need to be addressed to build a more robust cyclone management system.

The relatively lower number of casualties during cyclone ‘Sidr’ in 2007 compared to the Great Bhola Cyclone of 1970 and the cyclone of 1991 have been widely used to narrate Bangladesh’s success in cyclone preparedness. The Bhola cyclone claimed an estimated 300,000-500,000 lives while the 1991 cyclone claimed 138,000 lives. Sidr on the other hand at 260km/h caused 4,234 deaths, a near 100-fold reduction compared to the Bhola cyclone.

While the reduction is undoubtedly related to the country’s massive advancement in the early warning system, engagement of trained volunteers (CPP), increased number of shelters, and enhanced institutional capacity, several additional factors that contribute to this dramatic reduction are often overlooked.

The height of storm surge as opposed to the wind speed is a more important determinant of casualties during a cyclone. Professor Bimal Kanti Paul from Kansas State University reported that while Sidr’s maximum wind speed matched that of the 1991 cyclone, it made landfall at the half-way point between low and high tide which reduced the height of the storm surge.

“The height of storm surge as opposed to the wind speed is a more important determinant of casualties during a cyclone”

In fact, none of the recent cyclones made landfall during a high tide as did those in 1970 and 1991. Also, the 1991 cyclone struck at 2 am whereas Sidr made landfall at 9 pm, highlighting the complication of people needing to look for shelters in the dead of night. Furthermore, Sidr hit the southwestern coast where the Sundarbans mangrove forest shielded the region and bore the brunt. Disregarding these additional factors may provide an inaccurate measure of robustness.

While Bangladesh has increased the number of cyclone shelters, currently at 5665 from 400 in 1991, it is still inadequate for nearly 35 million coastal people. On the other hand, poor management during a cyclone discourages many, especially women, from going to crammed shelters.

Previously a shelter review committee under the leadership of the late Professor Jamilur Reza Coudhury reported that only 2-sq ft space is available per person in the shelters. Often people need to walk 2-3 kilometers on muddy roads to reach a shelter during adverse weather with their belongings.

People are not allowed in with their livestock or other assets, so they often chose to remain in their homes risking their lives. It is therefore essential to listen to the priorities of those who will take shelter to ensure better management and utilization of these shelters.

“Coastal community radios can be effective as they can provide more grounded information and relay them in the local accent”

It is also crucial that alternatives to cyclone shelter centric disaster management are considered. Building cyclone resilient houses could be such an alternative. Using the funding needed to construct one cyclone shelter could result in the construction of 35-40 cyclone-resistant houses which can accommodate many more people during a disaster without the need to travel to a shelter in dangerous conditions.

ActionAid and BRAC have already successfully piloted such a programme. Another alternative is increasing the number of raised earthen platforms known otherwise as Kella or Mujib Kella which can house people and livestock during the cyclones.

Investing in such alternatives with provisions for local communities to construct and manage these structures themselves will also create opportunities for work in the coastal areas. While the Government has taken initiative to build new Mujib Kellas, it is also important to maintain Kellas so that they do not become vulnerable during cyclones owing to landslides.

Disseminating early warnings clearly and effectively to communities can further strengthen the existing system. To this end, coastal community radios can be effective as they can provide more grounded information and relay them in the local accent. Increasing transmission capacity of existing community radios from a mere 250 Watts to 10 KiloWatts similar to commercial radios could be explored, which may save lives of fishermen out at sea.

Existing cyclone warning signals provided by the Bangladesh Meteorological Department are applicable for maritime ports. However, they tend to be complex and difficult to understand, thereby leading to mistrust among local people as they cannot always relate these signals to their own locality. Thus, simplified warning signals for communities should be considered.

To enhance the effectiveness of cyclone risk reduction programmes there is no alternative to empowering local communities and local government entities who are typically the first responders. Risk reduction programmes that contribute to strengthening and creating livelihood opportunities can also lead to building resilient communities.

For example, putting local governments and local communities in charge of maintaining coastal embankments could be a useful way to empower them. The Water Development Board set such a precedent after the 1991 cyclone in Char Fashion, Bhola and Char Alexander, Laxmipur where they collaborated with local government, NGOs and local landless people to construct and maintain embankments. Landless communities were put in charge of maintaining the embankments by providing them land on the embankment. Those embankments remain in service with no maintenance costs from the Government.

Finally, we need to recognise that building resilient coastal communities requires maintaining the natural and cultural heritage of the coastal areas which connect coastal communities with their surrounding natural environment and enables them to thrive. This also means that development activities in coastal areas would have to be done in harmony with the natural environment.

M Feisal Rahman is a postdoctoral researcher with the Living Deltas Research Hub in the Department of Geography at Durham University. 

Gawher Nayeem Wahra is a writer and researcher, and the member secretary of the Disaster Forum, Bangladesh.

Source: Dhaka Tribune

Date: 02 June 21