Cyclone Bulbul: Views from the ground
At least a dozen people died and many more were injured due to the impact of the cyclonic storm Bulbul in Bangladesh. Thousands of houses were damaged and trees uprooted during the cyclone. The powerful storm also destroyed crops and damaged embankments in the coastal districts. An initial estimate says that the storm destroyed 47,000 houses, damaged croplands, shrimp enclosures, and uprooted trees in different upazilas of Satkhira district. Uprooted trees suspended road communications in different areas while power supply has remained snapped in those areas. Most of the low-lying areas in the coastal districts went under water due to torrential downpour triggered by the storm. However, the relevant authorities have yet to get a complete picture in this regard.
Different sources confirmed that, prior to the cyclone, at least one million people living in the coastal belt had been evacuated. The cyclone crossed Khulna coast around 5am on Sunday with a heavy precipitation, flooding low-lying areas in the district.
Before the cyclone hit the coastal belt, a record number of people had been sheltered—in cyclone shelters (designated school buildings), government offices, UP buildings, offices of different NGOs, etc. It's evident that programmes undertaken in this regard in the past have come to bear fruit. Among the factors that also helped in the process are community-level awareness raising programmes, engaging thousands of volunteers including the government-recognised Cyclone Preparedness Programme (CPP) active along the coast, continuous services from community radio, and the role of the mass media. As most of the school buildings in the affected areas were used as shelters, it may take some time before things get back to normalcy. In many areas, the approach roads to the schools were inundated, the ground floors of the shelters were used for the shelter of domestic animals, and this has led to the buildings being unusable for weeks.
However, the overall preparedness ahead of cyclone Bulbul has shown the readiness of the country to deal with natural disasters, particularly cyclones. As a result, the damage was not as bad as it was anticipated to be. Meanwhile, the Sundarbans, the world's largest mangrove forest, has once again saved the life of the coastal people.
However, beyond these facts and statistics, the "story" on the ground was not an easy one. Despite all the preparations, there were still many gaps found, and many issues raised, during the response period. The volunteers and staff members deployed ahead of the cyclone by an USAID-funded project called Nobo Jatra have identified a number of areas that need improvement. These include a lack of coordination among the public entities and NGOs, unavailability of shelters, a lack of awareness-raising materials and the capacity of our volunteers. One may also point to the need for an upgradation of the disaster management committees at union and upazila levels and a clear explanation of the 10 signals. This has partly brought into question our actual disaster preparedness and the modernisation of the Cyclone Preparedness Program (CPP) considered crucial for cyclone emergency management.
During cyclonic storms, taking shelter at safe, designated buildings is the ultimate measure of preparedness. In the 13 coastal districts of the country, around 4,000 shelters have been constructed over the years while the government plans to build 752 more shelters in the coastal districts and disaster-prone areas to minimise the loss and casualties caused by natural disasters. Unfortunately, a significant number of the shelters are not usable due to the lack of proper maintenance. In every shelter along the coast, around 2,000 people were accommodated during disasters even though their capacity is 200 each. This makes it clear that the number of shelters is not sufficient.
During natural disasters, there is a common complaint raised against the coastal people that they refuse to leave their belongings and domestic animals behind when the time comes. This was also true during Bulbul response. It has been empirically shown that robbery increases during disasters, so male family members often choose to stay behind in their homes. This leads to more casualties. The best way to minimise this would be to increase the number and size of "killas" (elevated mud-built spaces for keeping the animals safe) that adjoin cyclone shelters. The accuracy of the forecasting system has also become an issue following the last two disasters. During cyclone Fani, for example, signal number 10 was shown although later the storm did not hit the danger level anticipated. This kind of inaccuracy demotivates people to seek shelter when the time comes.
In the last few years, Disaster Risk Reduction Programmes have been undertaken along the coast. Megaphones, first aid kits and search-and-rescue materials have been provided to the Upazila and Union Disaster Management Committees, schools and some community-level organisations. These materials proved to be very useful but there has not been a sufficient supply of these materials during and after Bulbul. When disasters actually happen, CPP volunteers and the Disaster Management Committees in the districts, upazilas and unions become active, but otherwise these committees do not even hold meetings on a regular basis, and most are no longer properly certified. As a result, there is a lack of coordination during disasters.
Also, the traditional signalling system is still being used despite the development of newer, more effective systems for this purpose. In addition, most people do not know what signal "four" even means. The traditional signalling system (comprised of 10 signals) was developed by the British and we are still using it. What we need is a people-oriented signalling system, which is available today. The reason it is not still used is because enough initiatives were not taken to familiarise the people with the new system. If we jump to signal 10 directly from 4, then what is the point of having all the other numbers in between?
In the past 25 years, a total of 135 million people were affected by different disasters, of whom 16,513 lost their lives. In 2007, cyclone Sidr hit the coastal belt affecting all the 32 districts and around 4,000 people died. The number of deaths dropped to 300 by the time Aila rolled around in 2009. Although cyclone Mahasen damaged a lot of crops, the number of casualties was far fewer than that of the previous disasters. Coming in 2019, Bulbul shows that the total damage from natural disasters in Bangladesh has significantly decreased over the years.
All this happened because of the initiatives undertaken by the state and NGOs. Proper policy formulation and ground-level implementation, along with a rise in overall awareness among the communities, the positive role of media and community-based organisations were all factors improving our preparedness and disaster management capacity. Hopefully, we can continue to build on this success by taking care of areas that still need improvement and continue to improve our disaster management record in the future.
Mohammed Norul Alam Raju is Director, Programme, Policy and Advocacy, Nobo Jatra Project in World Vision Bangladesh.