With a coastline of more than 580 kilometres, Bangladesh is exposed to all sorts of water-induced disasters – floods, tropical cyclones (on average 16 times a decade), tornadoes and tidal ‘bores’, the latter a rare phenomenon in which a massive tide rapidly moves up a river course. While Bangladeshis have, over the decades, learned to live with all sorts of natural calamities, the ‘experts’ today remain hard at work experimenting with the best possible ‘solutions’ to such situations. The catch is that they do so without fully considering the actual needs of the people. While the country’s cyclone shelters have received wide attention – and for good reason – now is the time to go beyond this approach.
A mature cyclone releases the energy equivalent to many Hiroshima-level bombs. Cyclones typically arise before and after the monsoon (in Bangladesh, April to May and October to November) over the Indian Ocean, and then travel up to the Bay of Bengal. Because Bangladesh is situated at the end of the funnel-shaped bay, with most of its deltaic plains less than 10 metres above sea level, it is highly vulnerable to cyclones. To make matters worse, about 10 million Bangladeshis live in areas almost the same height as the surrounding water – less than a metre above sea level. While cyclones hit Bangladesh with relative infrequency, the low-lying land and the country’s weak infrastructure mean that they bring widespread devastation when they do occur. Even though just five percent of cyclones form in the Bay of Bengal, they result in more than three quarters of the world’s loss of life and property.
In the span of a year and a half, two major cyclones struck Bangladesh – ‘Sidr’ on 15 November 2007, and ‘Aila’ on 29 May 2009. The former caused 3000 deaths, only to be followed by Aila, which devastated many areas that were yet to recover from Sidr. After Aila, anywhere from half a million to two million people were forced to leave their homes for temporary shelters, as huge tidal waves came crashing in with winds gusting at 100 kilometres per hour. But not everyone moved to safety in time. It is estimated that at least 200 people died, 1120 went missing, and some 200,000 people were forced to deal with stagnant water. Even a year and a half later, many local communities did not have sufficient drinking water, while many were unable to find burial places for those who have passed away.
When discussing natural disasters, there is an unfortunate tendency to ‘rate’ them in accordance with the number of dead found afterwards. But doing so specifically ignores the long-term impact of the calamity, which can, in certain situations, be worse than the original storm. Wind and wave action have immediate consequences, but erosion and saltwater incursion can handicap an economy for months, if not years. This is exactly what has been seen in the aftermath of Aila. Unfortunately, Bangladesh’s official approach to cyclones has long been dominated by building shelters, to the detriment of a more holistic approach.
Since the country’s establishment in 1971, Bangladesh’s cyclone-preparedness programmes have been designed solely to ‘collect’ local people and take them to safe, tenement-type buildings owned by a governmental agency or NGO. The central focus was to ensure that as few people as possible died due to the cyclone. In other words, all of the country’s preparedness activities have been directed towards locking up those who lived in cyclone-prone areas, and then keeping them in such a state until the administration was satisfied that the danger had passed. A more appropriate name would perhaps have been ‘cyclone-shelter preparedness programme’.
Despite the fact that nearly all of the money from these programmes was used to build cyclone shelters, there are some obvious ways in which the shelters could have been better built. Typically, 800 to 1200 people were squeezed into these buildings, leaving roughly two square feet for each person. With people, at times, being evacuated more than 36 hours before a cyclone hits, that means remaining in inhumane conditions for a very long time – albeit, of course, for reasons of safety. Additional space or other allowances was not made for pregnant women or the elderly.
Yet there have been seemingly incontrovertible gains. Compared to the major cyclones of 1963 and 1970, for instance, which led to the deaths of some half-million people, the aftermaths of Aila and Sidr saw 179 and 3000 deaths, respectively – this despite the fact that Sidr was a far stronger storm than was the 1970 cyclone. So what happened? Is there a direct correlation between the building boom of cyclone shelters and lower casualties? Today, campaigners for cyclone shelters say that fatalities have been reduced as a direct result of such programmes. Yet, while there has been significant success, others explain these gains differently. For instance, the World Health Organisation has attributed decreases in mortality to “better coordination and timeliness of interventions such as: coordination… needs assessment and proper surveillance… and normative works such as developing standards and plans.”
Echoing this, one Bangladeshi disaster ‘expert’ pointed to the high death toll caused by Cyclone Nargis, which hit Burma in May 2008, in comparison to the effects of the equally strong Sidr. It certainly is possible that Bangladesh’s vulnerability to cyclones over the decades has declined as a result of the government having built more cyclone shelters than its counterpart in Burma, but other experts have pointed to a far more ephemeral yet critical difference between the Burma and Bangladesh responses: governance. “At the heart of this difference in the death toll is not cyclone preparedness or infrastructure, but governance,” wrote journalist Mahtab Haider in May 2008. “In fact, even better put, that difference in the death toll is a fruit of fifteen years of an albeit faltering democracy in Bangladesh.”
Democracy is no doubt imperative, but that hardly explains matters. Hurricane Katrina in the US in 2005 and the super-cyclone in Orrissa in 1999 are examples of the limitations of this explanation. In reality, the secret of lower deaths during Sidr and Aila was a stroke of luck. Unlike the disastrous cyclones of the past, the landfalls of Sidr and Aila did not coincide with high tide. As Professor Jamilur Reza Choudhury, renowned educationist and team leader of the famous ‘Multi-Purpose Cyclone Shelters’, commissioned by the Planning Commission of Bangladesh along with UNDP and World Bank, told this writer, “If Sidr would had hit the coastline just three hours sooner or five hours later, at the time of the high tide, the devastation would almost certainly have been as horrendous as in the past.” The present Vice-Chancellor of BRAC University, environmentalist Professor Ainun Nishat agrees: “We should have courage to admit the truth and should not try to create a false sense of accomplishment which will take us nowhere.”
There are other problems with over-reliance on cyclone shelters. Without proper maintenance, for instance, these structures have been shown to become extremely unsafe. On Hatiya, an island at the mouth of the Meghna River in the Bay of Bengal, 105 cyclone shelters were set up after the 1991 cyclone. Over two decades later, a lack of proper care has led to structural problems that call into question their stability during a major storm. In addition, most of the toilets and tube wells have become unusable, a major problem in case of an actual emergency. Further, some locals have begun using the centres as warehouses, while others are being used as police barracks – again, a major problem in the event of a storm.
In the past four decades, its reliance on storm shelters notwithstanding, the Dhaka government has failed to assign responsibility for taking care of the cyclone shelters. In January 2010, Dr M Aslam Alam, the secretary for food and disaster management, said, “There are many shelters which are neither owned by any agency nor under the jurisdiction of any specific authorities for repair and maintenance.” Given the fact that disaster management is not a one-off affair and restricted to emergency evacuation and relief distribution, a country such as Bangladesh clearly needs to have a comprehensive strategy in place. Had this been done in the past, confusion over maintenance and repair of shelters could have been mitigated in the first place.
This can be sorted out if the government shifts the focus of disaster-preparedness on building cyclone shelters to building individual houses that are cyclone-proof. The proposed type of cyclone-proof individual house would only cost USD 2800. Around 50 cyclone-resistant houses could be built with the money needed for a cyclone shelter accommodating a mere 800 people. Each of these houses could offer emergency shelter to six families (42 persons), with 50 such houses offering a safe haven to at least 2100 people. Importantly, individual ownership of each house would lead families and, potentially, communities, to do the required upkeep and maintenance.
One community-based initiative for cyclone preparedness, the nearly 43,000-volunteer-strong Cyclone Preparedness Programme (CPP), has proved that a grassroots-oriented organisation, dedicated to protecting the population and building the capacity of the community, is perhaps the most effective solution. Since its inception in 1972, CPP has done this by raising community awareness about cyclone preparedness, disseminating cyclone warnings, moving people to safer places, storing food and valuables underground, and focusing on vulnerable communities in the coastal belt. Regular ‘mock drills’ involving villagers and youth, with basic first-aid training, has helped turn the CPP groups into the backbone of the cyclone preparedness initiatives in Bangladesh. But this is no longer among the priorities of the government.
Some important pointers on mitigation have also come from nature’s own defences. After the devastation of the 1991 cyclone, a buffer zone was created all along the coastline by planting mangrove and other trees, particularly focused on vulnerable and highly populated areas. However, even this straightforward solution is under threat in certain places, with Bangladesh’s ship-breaking industry clearing out large parts of this buffer zone, while pollution from ship-breaking yards has had an even wider effect. Despite criticism, the judiciary of the country has failed to take any action on this issue.
Recently, the government redesigned the country’s cyclone warning systems. In response to public demand for reducing the numbers of warnings, the government is using eight signals instead of ten. But information about the new system has not been properly disseminated, and this can lead to confusion. Moreover, the cyclone warning system still gives the direction of the possible cyclone in relation to sea ports. While this is of use to ships and the port managements, the people at large cannot interpret this satisfactorily, reducing the utility of the system.
Laws and Acts
In response to the commitment made to the United Nations International Strategy for Disaster Reduction (UNISDR), Bangladesh had drafted the long-awaited Disaster Act. The draft proposed increased powers to civil servants who are in the field at the time of a disaster. They are also given indemnities for their actions at the time of a disaster. Moreover, according to the section 22 of the draft act, any mere ‘feeling’ of disrespect to a civil servant will be subject to prosecution and punishment. For a country that prides itself on the strides that it has taken with regards to disaster management, this leaves a long way to go.
The Dhaka government should feel good about, but not comfortable with, its cyclone-preparedness programme. While its shelter programme can generally be considered a unique success, the only way forward is to build on what has worked well and deal with what has not. To go beyond the sole reliance on large shelters, it needs to deal with critical issues such as maintenance of those shelters, revitalising the community-based cyclone preparedness programme and its volunteers, instituting better management (including not giving too much advance warning), taking into account the special needs of the children and adolescents, sick and differently-abled people. Perhaps most critically, it needs to think more in terms of community management, and to begin, finally, to move away from stand-alone shelters and to develop paradigms that can include family structures.
~Gawher Nayeem Wahra works in humanitarian aid and child rights, and teaches at Institute of Disaster Management and Vulnerability Studies, Dhaka University.