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As more Bangladeshis survive cyclones, some wish they had died

by Laurie Goering | @lauriegoering | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Wednesday, 8 June 2016 07:25 GMT

A woman, displaced from her house by a huge tidal wave caused by Cyclone Aila, eats inside a temporary shelter in Shatkhira, southwestern Bangladesh, June 3, 2009. REUTERS/Andrew Biraj

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Disaster-prone Bangladesh needs to find ways to help those who have lost everything recover

After Cyclone Bhola swept through Bangladesh in 1970, killing half a million people, the storm-plagued country set to work to reduce its horrific death toll from disasters.

The government and its partners put in place better early warning systems and coastal evacuation plans. A network of 2,500 raised concrete storm shelters opened on the coast, alongside 4,000 km of protective earth embankments.

When even more powerful Cyclone Sidr smashed into the coast in 2007, 4,234 people died – less than 1 percent of the death toll from Bhola.

But the rising number of cyclone survivors has now – unexpectedly – brought other problems for Bangladesh.

As families emerge from shelters after a storm, they often find their homes destroyed, their livestock dead and their fields submerged under sea water.

Drinking water ponds are contaminated with sea salt and sewage from flooded toilets, while diseases from diarrhea to dengue and hepatitis surge.

Many families end up hungry and camped on earthen embankments, perched above trapped floodwaters, for months or even years.

Others, no longer able to farm, end up in menial jobs in cities, temporarily or permanently. Mental illness is a growing problem.

When Bangladeshi researchers spoke to survivors after Cyclone Sidr, they were stunned by some of the responses.

“I wish I had died,” one elderly woman named Anwara told them. “Those who died in Sidr were blessed by God, as they escaped from being in a living hell like us.”

In this 2009 photo, a family displaced from their home by a huge tidal wave caused by Cyclone Aila, sits in front of their temporary shelter on a river dam in Satkhira in southwestern Bangladesh. REUTERS/Andrew Biraj


As climate change brings more powerful storms and sea surges, figuring out not just how to save lives but also how to help those who survive recover from their losses and rebuild their lives will be crucial, researchers say.

“Disaster risk reduction (DRR) phase one is saving lives. DRR phase two should be saving livelihoods,” said Terry Cannon, a researcher on climate change and development issues at the Britain-based Institute of Development Studies.

In southern Bangladesh, Polder 32 - an area in Khulna district enclosed by embankments - could provide an early glimpse of what might work, and what might not, to help communities better weather the coming storms.

In the southern half of the polder, communities hit by storm surges, crumbling embankments and worsening salinity in their fields have tried to cope by giving up crop farming and raising shrimp instead. The problem is that shrimp farming requires few workers, so it doesn’t create many jobs for those in the already-poor community.

That leaves more families reliant on riskier or harder work, from pulling rickshaws in nearby towns to collecting crabs in the Sundarbans mangrove forests, where man-eating tigers and catch-stealing pirates abound, said Brooke Ackerly, a political scientist at Vanderbilt University in the United States who carried out research in the polder in 2014.

Perhaps as a result of those problems, many families in the south of Polder 32 would now prefer to migrate and live elsewhere, she said.

In the richer north of the polder, however, communities have focused instead on building and maintaining stronger embankments to keep their fields safe, and have decided collectively to shift to growing watermelon and sunflowers, crops that bring a good price at the market and require plenty of labour, she said.

Which option will provide community members with a more resilient income in bad times remains to be seen, but interviews with families in the north revealed they so far feel more secure and have not had to leave their community in large numbers to find work.

Nasiran stands on a river dam with her grandson, as she describes the devastation of cyclone Aila, in Gabura, Satkhira May 13, 2010. Tens of thousands of Bangladeshis, mostly fishermen, were left stranded on embankments damaged by a cyclone for more than a year. REUTERS/Andrew Biraj


Still, some level of “supported” migration – when families get help establishing a new life elsewhere – will be needed as more of southern Bangladesh finds itself with salt-contaminated drinking water and fields, experts warned.

“Some of these areas will become uninhabitable. What kind of transformations does that require?” Cannon asked.

Other changes that could help cyclone survivors rebound after losses might include insurance policies, perhaps paid for from the expected $100 billion a year rich countries have promised to mobilise for poor ones by 2020 to help them adjust to climate impacts and adopt clean energy, Cannon said.

Simply coordinating relief deliveries after cyclones could also have a big impact in helping people recover more quickly, said Bishawjit Mallick, a researcher at Germany’s Karlsruhe Institute of Technology who worked extensively in southern Bangladesh after Cyclone Aila in 2009.

Following that cyclone, he said, five charities came in offering rice or oil but “if they all give rice, you can’t eat it all”, he said.

Instead, the government needs to create databases of families in cyclone-prone areas, and then coordinate and manage aid groups after storms happen to ensure help gets where it is needed with minimal overlaps, he said.

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