It’s not an easy task to evacuate half a million people from coastal areas and taking them elsewhere from their homes within two days before the arrival of a deadly cyclone.
Bangladesh, however, has successfully been able to do that before cyclone Mora hit the coast on May 30. It was a venerable feat and kudos goes to all – the government, the NGO’s, the volunteers involved in disaster management and above all, the people of the coastal areas – who had the courage and the foresight to leave their homes and belongings for the sake of their lives.
Had Mora come to Bangladesh 20 years ago, the death toll from a cyclone, which made a landfall at the coastal part of Bangladesh with winds up to 117 kilometres per hour would not have been as low as seven.
Cyclone ‘Aila’ made a landfall in 2009 in the same areas with winds up to 120 kilometres per hour and the death toll at that time was 339. In terms of reducing death due to natural disaster, Bangladesh has surely made a remarkable progress.
A systematic preparation
The preparation for tackling a large scale disaster can be refined and made better if appropriate forecast about the looming disaster is received significantly earlier. Time is the most precious currency in this context.
Bangladesh Meteorological Department (BMD), from the previous reputation of making weather forecasts on ‘piecemeal basis’ has transformed into an organisation with near-accurate forecasts. In this highly connected world with machines having enormous data processing capacity, making weather forecasts is not the job a single entity of a single country; rather it’s a combined operation of several entities in a region.
Had Mora come to Bangladesh 20 years ago, the death toll from a cyclone, which made a landfall at the coastal part of Bangladesh with winds up to 117 kilometres per hour would not have been as low as seven
These networks of weather forecasting entities are connected with other networks of global entities, so basically getting weather forecast is a worldwide operation now.
Before Mora hit Bangladesh, it was formed following heavy rains in Sri Lanka which resulted in floods and landslides that killed at least 180 people. This was the worst flooding Sri Lanka witnessed in 14 years, affecting the lives of over 500,000 people. Over 100 people remain missing.
When that cyclone started moving North-East, meteorologists in Bangladesh, Myanmar and India calculated the data and envisaged its possible path and the intensity with which it might hit the coast.
Based on the analysis, it was found that the cyclone would hit Bangladesh’s coastline on the morning of May 30.
“When we received that information, we started taking large scale preparation for evacuating people,” said Golam Mostafa, additional secretary of the Disaster Management Ministry of Bangladesh who acted as the focal person for the large scale preparation for Mora.
Cyclone shelter centres have been opened in all coastal upazilas of the district. Leaves of all officials, employees, doctors and nurses have been cancelled and kept standby.
“Announcement through loud speakers about the cyclone awareness began in the coastal upazilas including Sandwip, Banskhali, Anowara, Sitakunda and Mirsari,” said Mostafa.
Seven community radio stations in the coastal region of the country were continuously broadcasting weather updates and tips to prepare for the storm. A total of 30 broadcasters and volunteers in the radio stations are working on these weather updates.
More than 50,000 Cyclone Preparedness Program volunteers were mobilised to support evacuation and early warning efforts. This action – which was essential in saving lives – was buttressed by the American Red Cross’s investment in the country’s short-wave radio and community warning system.
Meanwhile, the day before the cyclone made landfall, the Bangladesh Red Crescent distributed cash grants to more than 2,500 households to help them prepare for or respond to the storm. The grants of Tk5,000 (approximately USD 67) were distributed through the Red Cross Red Crescent’s ‘Forecast-based-financing’ mechanism.
“Because of our ministry as well as of several NGO disaster management programs, we had been able to make the people of coastal areas aware of the importance of leaving evacuating before a looming disaster. In the past, people were reluctant to leave their belongings behind, but now they are not,” he said.
Mostafa said, a total of 4.68 lakh people took shelter in different cyclone and safe centres during the cyclone. “Managing such a large number of people taking refuge in the cyclone shelters was of course an achievement for all of us,” he said.
The challenges ahead
It is one thing to evacuate people and another thing to make sure that the home they have evacuated is going be re-erected. Post disaster recovery is the hardest part in disaster management as the issues of reconstructing the infrastructure as well as the lives of the affected people come to the forefront then.
While Bangladesh made significant improvement in pre and during disaster management, it still lags in post disaster management. This is because post disaster management is relatively easier for a country with stronger economy, but for Bangladesh, whose economy is burdened with a huge population, the task is not obviously easy.
Cylcone Mora has affected as many as 286,000 people in 16 coastal districts. These people have lost their homes and a significant part of their belongings. Thousands of people are still living under the open sky.
Besides, of particular concern is the plight of thousands of migrants who recently arrived in the district of Cox’s Bazar from Rakhine State in neighbouring Myanmar. Virtually all of this population is dependent on emergency humanitarian aid for their daily subsistence.
Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina said in parliament that her government has already taken efforts to rebuild damaged houses and establishments. She also said that the damaged embankments would be repaired in the same way.
“Food and cash are being distributed to affected people. The Prime Minister's Office, Ministry of Disaster Management and Relief, administration and local governments are working together to conduct relief and rehabilitation work,” she said.
Disaster management expert Shagar Hasnat, who has been volunteering in the coastal regions with several organisations, said that the government, at the policy-making level, is making the right moves to tackle the post disaster recovery. “But at the field level, things are not as smooth as some statistics. There are lots of issues involved.”
“The size of cyclones and their impacts matter less in post disaster management. There are academic studies which show that survivors of Cyclone Aila in Bangladesh face a longer recovery period than those of Cyclone Sidr, a much larger storm with significantly higher disaster effects.”
It is one thing to evacuate people and another thing to make sure that the home they have evacuated is going be re-erected
Despite the government claims that many have since returned to their homes, in reality, tens of thousands continue to live in makeshift houses along roadsides and embankments even though a week has passed. Their prospects for resuming local livelihoods – critical in the recovery process – are particularly bleak.
“At least two consecutive crop seasons will be lost due to the lack of cultivable land and fresh water. Adding to their troubles will be the monsoon rains which will take place in the next few months.”
“I believe Bangladesh still has some distance to cover in achieving post-disaster management success. I would say good governance would take us there in the quickest possible time,” said Hasnat.
- The Bay of Bengal is a focal point of cyclone generation. About 40 percent of the overall global storm surges are recorded in Bangladesh Tropical cyclones from the Bay of Bengal accompanied by storm surges are one of the major hazards in Bangladesh. They occur mainly in April/May and October/November.
- Rendering to the Coastal Zone policy (2005) of the Government of Bangladesh, 19 districts, out of a total of 64, covering a total of 147 upazilas, are in the “coastal zone”. Cyclones and storm surges are a continuous threat for the coastal population. Most of these cyclones strike land on the Bangladesh coast or the coast of Myanmar and India.
- In 1970, the Cyclone Bhola caused about 500,000 deaths in Bangladesh's coastline. On April 29, 1991, a powerful cyclone struck the coastal area of Bangladesh with wind speed of around 250 km/h. The storm killed at least 138,000 people leaving as many as 10 million homeless.
- On November 15, 2007, Cyclone Sidr hit the coastal area of the country, affecting approximately 8.5 million women, men and children and killing around 4,000 people. One and a half million homes were partially or completely destroyed, around 1.2 million livestock were killed and 2.4 million acres of crops were ruined. The overall economic losses amounted to USD 1.7 billion.
- On May 25, 2009, the cyclonic storm, Aila, hit the southwestern part (Khulna Division), killing approximately 190 people. Several hundred thousand homes were washed away when wind-driven tidal surges up to 3 metres devastated the coastal belt. Cyclone Aila hit 14 districts in the south, affecting a population of around 3.7 million people. The cultivated land damaged in the area was around 96,617 hectares and the loss in the production amounted to around 482,144 megatonnes worth Tk6,776 million (around USD 99 million).