“It would have been better for me to die in that cyclone” he says quietly.
This is not the answer most of us working in development would expect, or even hope for. Bangladesh has made incredible strides in reducing casualties from cyclones over the last several decades.
Why on Earth would someone say they would have preferred to die?
I met Abdul Somed Molla in the summer of 2014 on a small coastal island called Mazer Char. He was an old man with an orange tinted beard.
When I found him, he was sitting quietly on the bank of the river, the clouds looming in the distance. I asked him what was wrong, and he told me there was a cyclone signal 3. Nothing major, but of course, at that time you couldn’t tell -- the cyclone could always worsen.
Abdul was anxious, because the signal reminded him of how years before a cyclone had destroyed his life. That was the one in which he wished he had died.
Before cyclone Sidr hit, in 2007, Abdul was, relatively speaking, a rich man. He owned a small piece of land and thirteen cows. They provided him about a hundred liters of milk each day, which he could then sell for a liveable income.
And as that happens, we need to make our disaster risk reduction systems more robust. We need to make sure that after a cyclone occurs, people can keep on living, keep on making a daily wage, supporting their families. It’s not just about surviving, it’s about thriving
Abdul survived the cyclone, by climbing onto a tree, but sadly his cows did not. And when he return home, there was nothing left to be called a house.
In his own words, he explained:
“If, during that time, God had taken my life, I wouldn’t have to worry now. It would have been better for me to die in that cyclone. Everyone here feels that way. Instead of being washed out, God should have just taken our lives.
“What should we eat now? I have no money, no paddy, no rice, no cattle; nothing to sell, nothing to eat. I would have been better off dead.”
After Sidr, Abdul started catching shrimp from the river, doing anything he could for even a meagre income.
Since catching shrimp fry is banned by the government, he often finds himself in trouble authorities. He also does labour work when he can.
Abdul’s life is nothing like it once was. He won the battle, but lost the war. He may have survived the cyclone, but lost everything else.
I don’t think he should have died in the cyclone. In fact, no one should have. We all know how well Bangladesh has done in reducing the death toll when it comes to cyclones, through early warning systems and cyclone shelters, but now we need to move one step forward. We need to protect people’s livelihoods, not just lives.
Otherwise, there will be more people like Abdul, sitting on a rock, fretting about the destruction the next cyclone may bring.
Attributing natural disasters to climate change is a developing field. We cannot yet tell whether or not a cyclone is influenced by climate change, because cyclones have always occurred in this region. But scientists are fairly certain, as the oceans warm up, climate change play some role. Whether in making cyclones more frequent, more intense, or both.
And as that happens, we need to make our disaster risk reduction systems more robust. We need to make sure that after a cyclone occurs, people can keep on living, keep on making a daily wage, supporting their families. It’s not just about surviving, it’s about thriving.
Last time I visited Mazer Char, I could not find Abdul. I asked around for him, but nobody knew where he went. I looked at his empty house, and tried to imagine what if he had not lost much of his land to the river, and his cows to Sidr. Would he have had to leave his home then? I am not sure, but at least he would have had the choice.
Istiakh Ahmed is the coordinator, “Livelihood Resilience” program at International Centre for Climate Change and Development, and currently working on Gibika, a research-to-action project, through which this story was found.