Natural disasters are synonymous with Bangladesh, with floods, cyclones, tornados, epidemics and river bank erosion often occurring simultaneously - and with increasing ferocity.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate change (IPCC) has warned that climate change is likely to increase the frequency and intensity of cyclones in the area, as well as alter the depth and spatial extent of flooding in the Ganges-Brahmaputra-Meghna basins.
Over a 100-year period, 508 cyclones have hit the Bay of Bengal region, of which 17 percent made landfall.
A severe cyclone occurs almost once every three years. Fifty-three percent of the cyclones that claimed more than 5,000 lives took place in Bangladesh.
Given its vulnerability, Bangladesh has made significant inroads in improving its disaster preparedness, mostly since a devastating cyclone in 1991, which claimed nearly 140,000 lives.
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“Disasters are never welcome, but when they come, we make sure the losses are kept at the minimum and life returns to normal within the shortest possible time,” Khondakar Anwarul Islam, director of the Department of Relief and Rehabilitation, told IRIN.
“Today, we are well prepared and better equipped, especially after Cyclone Sidr,” he said, referring to the last cyclone in November 2007, which killed more than 3,400 people and left 55,000 people injured in 11 coastal districts.
“About 42,000 volunteers of Bangladesh Red Crescent Society’s Cyclone Preparedness Programme [CPP] were mobilised in the coastal belt five days before the cyclone made landfall on 15 November 2007,” Abdur Rob, chairman of the Bangladesh Red Crescent Society (BDRCS) explained.
“The death toll would have been much higher had the CPP volunteers not been active in evacuating vulnerable people to cyclone shelters and other safe places.”
As part of their mandate, volunteers disseminate warning signals, alert the population, evacuate them to safe places, rescue marooned people after the cyclone, provide first aid to the injured, and provide a preliminary damage assessment within 12 hours of the disaster.
Each CPP team is provided with a transistor radio, megaphone, siren, signal light and first aid kit.
In addition, teams are provided with bicycles to reach remote areas quickly, along with signal flags to hoist on poles at cyclone shelters and other points to communicate warning signals to people in the area.
“Five of our volunteers died while helping people go to cyclone shelters and safe places when Sidr hit,” Mostofa Kamal, the BDRCS deputy secretary-general, said.
Photo: David Swanson/IRIN
|Flood waters like this are a routine occurence in Bangladesh|
Once a cyclone appears in the Bay of Bengal, the Storm Warning Centre of the Bangladesh Meteorological Department (BMD) begins issuing special weather bulletins.
“We started providing early warnings five days before and also hoisted the highest danger signal almost 27 hours before Sidr hit,” Samarendra Karmakar, director of BMD, noted.
But huge challenges remain - 16 million people live in 13,500 sqkm of high risk cyclone-prone coastal areas in 147 sub-districts of 19 coastal districts, according to the CPP.
A typical cyclone shelter can only house 800 people. To accommodate the 16 million people living in high-risk areas, Bangladesh would need a minimum of 20,000 cyclone shelters.
Of the 2,400 cyclone shelters in existence, 700 have since been deemed unsuitable for use due to poor maintenance.
When Cyclone Sidr struck, the government was able to provide shelter for around 1.5 million people in 2,168 cyclone shelters.
Photo: David Swanson/IRIN
|Cyclone shelters like this one play a key first line of defence for the country|
Preparedness in progress
After the 1991 cyclone, disaster management activities were upgraded through a three-year, US$5 million technical assistance project of the UN Development Programme (UNDP).
The Comprehensive Disaster Management Programme (CDMP) with technical assistance from UNDP, integrates disaster and development as well as improving coordination in response to disasters at all levels.
The Ministry of Water Resources created the Water Resources Planning Organisation (WARPO), a key organisation in dealing with the nation’s water resources planning and management.
One of the significant achievements of WARPO is the formulation and adoption of the Coastal Zone Policy (CZP), designed to maintain coastal dykes as a first line of defence against storm surges, while encouraging the forestation of dykes.
“While studies to update the requirements are being prepared, the government should begin a programme of constructing at least 2,000 additional shelters in the high-risk zones and upgrading at least 1,000 existing shelters,” stated an April 2008 report by the government.
“Given the capacity for implementation and possible financial outlays, it would be reasonable to construct about 100 new shelters and upgrade 200 annually over the next five years,” the report stated.