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Disaster-resilient settlement points way forward

Disaster-resilient settlement near Bay of Bengal, Bangladesh

Bangladesh has built its first disaster-resilient settlement, designed to minimize damage during natural disasters.

"The houses, built on 2m concrete stilts, are designed to withstand a tidal surge of up to six feet [2m] and winds of up to 150mph [235kph]," said Aminul Islam, assistant director at the country's UN Development Programme office, which initiated the project.

Known locally as a disaster-resilient habitat, the residences in the southern city of Shymnagar near the Bay of Bengal comprise 50 houses that can accommodate up to 300 people.

The settlement was planned to reduce damage caused by cyclones striking the bay on a more frequent basis.

"Trees closer to the village keep the topsoil together whilst taller trees in the distance act as windbreakers. Primary and secondary embankments protect the crops from an increase in sea level," said Islam.

New solution

While early warning systems, cyclone shelters and government policies helped reduce fatalities from cyclones Aila in 2009 and Sidr in 2008, it was clear another solution was needed for damage control, said Abdul Qayyum, national project director with the government's Comprehensive Disaster Management Programme.

The distance to a cyclone shelter, as well as the lack of security and sanitation, often deter disabled people, women, children and the elderly from using them, said Islam.

Sulaya Khatum, who survived cyclone Aila in 2009, took cover on her neighbour's roof. "I have an elderly mother and a young daughter. We could not make it to the cyclone shelter in time. It was too far," she said.

That cyclone caused millions of dollars worth of damage and left survivors with a negative view of disaster preparation; consequently, fewer people were willing to leave their property and use cyclone shelters, said local disaster management workers.

"I lost my house as well as eight goats, 20 ducks and 10 sacks of rice. I have been working as a day labourer ever since," said 45-year-old Khatum.

There are fewer cyclone shelters in the west of Bangladesh than the east as tropical storms have traditionally hit the east. But with changing weather patterns and the widening of cyclone tracts, western Bangladesh has become increasingly vulnerable to more frequent and destructive cyclones, said Islam.

Natural disasters have wreaked more than US$16 billion of damage in loss of property, livestock and poultry since 1971, when the country won independence from Pakistan, according to the Ministry of Food and Disaster Management.

Stronger communities

"It is becoming increasingly apparent that the future of disaster management is preparedness at the community and household level," said Islam.

Many of the 2,000 cyclone shelters in the southwest sit empty because builders did not consult residents, who then felt little stake in their upkeep or use, noted the local NGO, Bangladesh Disaster Preparedness Centre.

"We know how to build strong houses; the challenge is building stronger communities," said Khondaker Hasibul Kabir, the new disaster-resilient project's lead architect.

Funded equally by the UN and the NGO, BRAC, the disaster-resilient habitat cost about $65,000 - a fraction of the cost of a cyclone shelter.

Two additional disaster-resilient communities are planned in nearby villages. Planners expect these constructions to cost half as much as the first one.

The new residents are encouraged to take part in identifying disaster threats, mapping escape routes and helping to build the homes.

"In the process of building these habitats, the community has grown stronger, allowing for a quick and coordinated response in the event of a disaster," said Kabir.


This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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