When Bangladeshi subsistence farmer Nur Banu heard a cyclone was bearing down on her village and she needed to evacuate, the 70-year-old had only one thing on her mind.
“Not without my cow… Without it, I wouldn’t have any source of income,” she told IRIN later outside her home in Alakdia, a largely agricultural community of 700 people 25km north of the southern port city of Chittagong.
Such concern is common among poorer people in cyclone-prone coastal areas, where traditionally most people keep a cow, goat, sheep or poultry in their homesteads.
Most of those living in high risk cyclone areas are low income agricultural workers of whom 70 percent are “landless” and relatively asset-poor, say experts.
According to the World Bank, more than half all rural communities in Bangladesh depend on livestock and agriculture as their primary source of livelihood.
“Livestock plays a major role in these people’s lives. Any sudden loss of these assets can have a devastating impact,” Anisuzzamin Chowdhury, a senior programme officer with the Japanese International Cooperation Agency (JICA) in Dhaka (which since 1993 has constructed 117 cyclone shelters along the coast) told IRIN.
“Many people would rather risk their lives and stay with their animals than go to the nearest cyclone shelter. They know the recovery will be difficult without them.”
Yet despite this, livestock has never fully figured into the government’s construction of cyclone shelters, most of which were built after Cyclone Bhola in 1970, which claimed over half a million lives.
Although cyclone deaths have dropped significantly with their construction, economic damage, including livestock losses, continue to take a toll.
In 1991, over one million cattle were lost in a tidal surge and flooding that followed super cyclone Marian, while in 2007, another one million livestock perished in Cyclone Sidr, a significantly less powerful storm.
"In recent years, Bangladesh has made strong efforts to reduce the number of deaths from cyclones," said Farid Hasan Ahmed, a senior programme officer with the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC) in Dhaka. "However, on the issue of protecting livestock there is still a significant gap."
According to the Bangladesh government, there are some 3,700 cyclone shelters in coastal areas. However, only a small fraction have incorporated any type of livestock component in their construction.
“Less than 2 percent of all cyclone shelters have any kind of livestock component,” said Munibur Rahman, a senior engineer and project director with the government’s Local Government Engineering Department (LGED), the main body charged with building cyclone shelters in Bangladesh.
Earlier this year, SDC completed construction of 12 multi-purpose community-based cyclone shelters in Bagerhat District, taking on board many of the concerns of Nur Banu’s community.
Each shelter can accommodate 1,000-1,300 people and 450-500 cattle, and includes separate rooms for men, women and sick people, as well as toilet facilities, a rainwater tank, solar panels, generator and loudspeaker.
The 12 shelters can accommodate some 17,000 people and about 6,000 cattle.
But while the notion of livestock protection is widely accepted, moving forward on the issue has proved a challenge.
The priority must first be saving lives, experts insist, particularly given that (based on current population growth) the government will probably need to construct another 6,800 cyclone shelters by 2025.
“We don’t have the resources to build enough shelters for people, much less animals,” said Aminul Islam, a senior adviser for sustainable development with the UN Development Programme, calling for a more integrated approach.
Long under consideration by the government has been the construction of a 3-4 metre elevated parcel of earth or `killa’, near each cyclone shelter, where livestock could be sequestered before residents take refuge inside.
Funding constraints and land acquisition have made such a proposition difficult to pursue, though LGED’s Rahman said the government was currently constructing 230 cyclone shelters (to be completed by June 2014) 150 of which will include a separate floor for livestock.
According to Bangladesh’s Ministry of Disaster Management and Relief, cyclones strike low-lying coastal regions almost every year, in early summer (March-May) or during the late rainy season (October-December).
Of the country’s 64 districts, 40 are prone to natural disasters, including cyclones, floods, landslides, tornadoes and drought.