Bangladesh storm warning system pays off

Financial Times

28 November 2007

As Cyclone Sidr swept across the Bay of Bengal towards the coast of Bangladesh, 38-year-old shopowner Boni Amin Talukder paced through the remote village of Galachipaurging local people to seek refuge in concrete shelters.

The cyclone, which crashed ashore two weeks ago, left more than 3,000 dead, with hundreds of thousands homeless and another 1,000 still missing, according to the country’s Disaster Management Bureau.

It could have been much worse – nearly139,000 died after a cyclone of similar strength hit the country in 1991. One reason for the lower toll is that Cyclone Sidr hit the Sundarbans, a giant swath of mangrove forest in the southwest, instead of the densely populated east coast as in previous years.

But aid agencies say there is another important reason: the simple, low-tech cyclone warning system used by Mr Talukder and thousands of other volunteers. In Galachipa, for example, no one died in spite of the village’s proximity to a tidal river that splashed a 6-foot surge onto homes made of flimsy planks and metal sheets.

Mr Talukder, a tall man wearing a beige dress shirt and blue lungi wrap around his waist, says matter-of-factly that he took on the job because it helps save lives and property.

Officials agree. Salvano Briceno, director of the UN International Strategy for Disaster Reduction, says: “Without this system, the losses would have been as bad as the cyclone in 1991.” Oxfam, the UK charity, estimates that 100,000 people were saved by the warning system.

The Cyclone Preparedness Programme, run by the Bangladesh Red Crescent Society and backed by the government and the International Federation of Red Cross and Crescent, was set up after Bangladesh‘s deadliest cyclone in 1970 , which claimed about 470,000 lives.

The cyclone control room in Dhaka receives reports from Bangladesh‘s meterological department, tracks storms, and transmits bulletins to districts via radio. It appears decidedly low-key with just four desks, maps pinned to the wall, and some radio equipment in one corner.

The programme has 159 full-time employees, but work on the ground is carried out by more than 42,000 volunteers. Men and women in villages are equipped with megaphones, hand sirens, flashlights and transistor radios to receive cyclone warnings and weather information.

They wear a uniform of white smocks, which Shahid Ullah, deputy director of the CPP, says lend volunteers an air of authority. Life jackets were added to the kit when 22 volunteers were swept away during the 1991 cyclone.

Volunteers receive three days of training in disseminating warning signals, rescue techniques and first aid. Team leaders in districts have an additional five days of training. They are in charge of hoisting flags that signal a coming storm and in the most severe cases, the call to evacuate. Mosques are also enlisted to blast alerts through their microphone systems.

However, the CPP, which has an annual budget of just 20m taka ($290,000), says education is the key to saving lives. In spite of the legacy of cyclones in Bangladesh it is still “very difficult to educate people about these things,” says Shahid Ullah. Literacy rates in Bangladesh are relatively low and people in remote corners of the country may lack televisions and electricity.

The CPP spreads the word through cyclone drills and demonstrations, distributing leaflets and posters, and screening films and videos. Before the cyclone season begins, radio and television commercials are aired. If a cyclone hits, people are urged to take temporary refuge in government-built cyclone shelters – simple concrete structures on raised foundations.

Yet weaknesses remain. Nasir Ullah, the CPP director, says the preparedness programme should be expanded to Bangladesh‘s southeast, where there is little coverage. More cyclone shelters are needed, too.

Some villagers ignored the warnings about Sidr because of a recent tsunami alert that turned out to be a false alarm. The last major cyclone to hit the regions affected by Cyclone Sidr occurred in 1970 – beyond the memory of many.

Others say that even if they wanted to evacuate, cyclone shelters are too few and too far away. One village in Bagarat, a southern district badly affected by Sidr, has only six shelters that can hold 3,000 of a local population of more than 27,000, says Anwar Ossim, a local government head.

Salam Khan, a slight, barefoot day-labourer, mournfully describes losing his home, livestock and all his possessions. The 50-year-old worries about how his family of three young children will survive and asks when aid will arrive.

Mr Khan says he heard the cyclone warning but could not reach a shelter. He stayed in his home until a tree crashed down next to it. By then flood waters had risen about five feet and gusts of 150mph twirled an uprooted tree like a toy.

Mr Khan survived by fleeing to a neighbour’s more sturdy home. By then, he says, “all we could do was pray.”

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