Learning to live with disasters
For a poor country like Bangladesh, a natural disaster always means a huge death toll, displacement and inconceivable destruction. Of the 20th century's ten deadliest storms, seven devoured their victims at the head of the Bay of Bengal. Sidr was one of the 10 fiercest cyclones that had hit the region of Bangladesh in the 131 years between 1876 and 2007.
The coast of Bangladesh is basically a river delta, draining both the Ganges and Brahmaputra rivers, which extends into the northern Bay of Bengal. Sediment from these rivers has built up along a large and flat continental shelf, making the coastline a wide area of shallow water gently sloping into the Bay of Bengal far offshore. This makes for a highly efficient surge "brake;" hence, the surge "potential" compared to the average for any tropical cyclone is very high. Add a highly populated coastline with no significant high ground for many miles from the coast, and one of the poorest countries in the world, and we get the perfect mix for a large disaster.
Many factors influence cyclone, but three factors must be present for them to intensify: warm ocean temperatures (more than 26 degrees Celsius), low vertical wind shear (i.e., no strong change in wind speed or direction between two different altitudes), and high humidity. As warm, moist air rises, it lowers air pressure at sea level and draws surrounding air inward and upward in a rotating pattern.
As the water vapour-laden air spirals in and rises to higher altitudes, it cools and releases heat as it condenses to rain. This cycle of evaporation and condensation brings the ocean's heat energy into the vortex, powering the storm.
Two factors that contribute to more intense tropical cyclones -- ocean heat content and water vapour -- have both increased over the past several decades. This is primarily due to human activities such as burning of fossil fuels and the clearing of forests, which have significantly elevated carbon dioxide (CO2) levels in the atmosphere.
The world's oceans have absorbed about 20 times as much heat as the atmosphere over the past half-century, leading to higher temperatures not only in surface waters but also down to substantial depths, with the most severe warming occurring in the first 1,500 feet below the surface. As this warming occurs, the oceans expand and raise sea level. This expansion, combined with the inflow of water from melting land ice, has raised global sea level more than one inch over the last decade. In addition, observations of atmospheric humidity over the oceans show that water vapour content has increased four percent since 1970.
Natural disasters have quadrupled over the last two decades because of global warming, from an average of 120 a year in the early 1980s to as many as 500 today. The number of people affected by all disasters has risen from an average of 174 million a year between 1985 and 1994 to 254 million a year between 1995 and 2004. Other figures from the Oxfam report: Floods and windstorms have increased four-fold since 1980, from 60 in 1980 to 240 in 2006. A report says that more than 70 million Bangladeshis, 22 million Vietnamese, and 6 million Egyptians could be affected by global warming-related flooding.
As devastating as it was, Sidr has taken far fewer lives than 1991's Cyclone Gorky, which killed at least 138,000 people, and the1970 cyclone in Bhola, which left as many as 500,000 people dead and is considered the deadliest cyclone, and one of the worst natural disasters, in human history. Thousands of people dead, millions of acres of cropland washed down by the sweeping ocean-surge, one third of Sunderban, a world natural heritage, utterly torn down, and substantial infrastructural damages have caused combined losses of assets and agricultural output estimated at $2.31 billion, amounting to 2-3% GDP loss.
After the shattering cyclone of 1991, around 2,500 cyclone shelters and 200 flood shelters were constructed in the coastal regions, but experts opine that an additional 2000 shelters are badly needed. In Patenga, Chittagong, the coast has been heavily protected with concrete levees. In addition, forestation has been initiated in the coastal regions to create a green belt.
Bangladesh Space Research and Remote Sensing Organisation (Sparrso), a government agency under the Ministry of Defence, provides storm predictions and early warnings using feeds from Nasa and Noaa satellites. About 3,931 km long coastal embankment to protect coastal land from inundation by tidal waves and storm-surges, and drainage channels of total length of 4,774 km have so far been constructed, but lack of maintenance has rendered them almost ineffective.
A Comprehensive Cyclone Preparedness Program (CPP) is jointly planned, operated and managed by the Ministry of Disaster Management and Relief and the Bangladesh Red Crescent Society, and a volunteer force of more than 32,000 has been trained to help in warning and evacuation in the coastal areas.
A month back before the Sidr onslaught, a warning was issued for taking safety measures to face an imminent disaster. Fortunately, it did not come, but harmed us by making the people living along the coastline, specially the fishing communities, sceptical about the reliability of the forecasting system. Finally, when the cyclone headed towards shore, many people did not believe the warning because the number 10 warning (which means "great danger") had been issued on several occasions prior to this event, with no cyclone occurring.
Much of the past investment had been in shelters, which, while multi-purpose, have had male-dominated uses, while the specific needs of women were appallingly ignored. Thus, many women this time refrained from taking shelter, putting themselves at risk. While studies have shown that unless a cyclone shelter is within 1.5 km of a house it may be too far, most of our shelters are placed more than 5 km from the community, which is why many local people postponed their withdrawal to the shelter till the last minute.
There are several compelling reasons why people do not go to cyclone shelters. The majority of the inhabitants in the high-risk areas (HRAs) are the extreme poor, with bare minimum assets that they struggle until the last hour to hold on to. For the poor, a life without the meager assets is no different from death. Appallingly enough, our society has miserably failed in many decisive situations to ensure adequate safety of their property when disaster had not struck.
According to recent reports, when local people are convinced that they should evacuate, they will only do so if there is time to put their livestock in a safe place and then reach a known refuge.
Accurate forecasting is of no benefit unless the information can be conveyed to the people at risk in a timely and lucid manner. The ability of a cyclone to quickly change its direction and/or intensity makes it particularly important to disseminate updated forecasts promptly. Despite extensive mobile and radio coverage, the danger signal failed to reach them all in time. While the tackling of Sidr has shown a high measure of preparedness, there is little, however, that any government can do if people do not heed the warning.
The cyclone has passed by and we will try again to bring life back to normal. But the cyclone has left behind a legacy of pain, sorrow and memories which are never to be erased. It has left behind orphans, cries of parents, and millions benumbed by the horror of death. Mother Nature turned so destructive that we just stood as mere spectators when our near and dear ones were being swept away from us.
Our wealthy, friendly nations can only provide us relief and generous donations after every disaster, but mere sensibility to prevent the disastrous fate that befalls us as a consequence of their extravagant life and indiscriminate exploitation of nature is a far cry. Until then, we shall be always exposed to the rage of nature, our population will dip more in poverty from the existing extreme poverty line, and lie in the thin line between life and death.
It is our life and our battle for existence. We have to learn to live with natural calamities as our companions. Despite the enormous achievement of reining in the death toll, in comparison to past disasters of similar scale, there is room to further minimise casualties and property damage.
Learning is a continuous process, and we learn from every catastrophe that affects us to ensure a safer future. With Bangladesh being the most vulnerable country to potential natural cataclysms, with every chance to be another lost Pompey, no efforts within our ability should be left untaken to ensure the safety of our people and their scant property.
Dr. Zulfiquer Ahmed Amin is a physician and specialist in Public Health Specialist and Health Economics.