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Bangladesh: preparing for cyclones

Bangladesh is one of the world's most disaster-prone countries, and is particularly susceptible to cyclones and floods. With a population of more than 157 million, about 80 per cent of which live in rural areas, Bangladesh is also one of the most densely populated countries in the world.

This combination means the impact of any natural disaster can be devastating and exceed people’s ability to cope.

The Bangladesh Red Crescent, supported by the British Red Cross, is working with 26 communities to help them prepare for and respond to multiple hazards.

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[Sound of engine-powered boat on water]

[Ali Asgar] Cyclones usually come with a high tidal surge. Even in Sidr, some areas the tide was around a maximum up to three metres. It came say four to five kilometres inland. The majority of the people who live here are poor and their livelihood source is fishing. If their boat is destroyed or their fishing net is destroyed, then they will have huge debts and at the same time they’ll have to recover their lives.

[Sounds of road traffic]

[Male Speaker] [Speaking in Bangladeshi with English subtitles] During a low weather depression we raise one flag. When the danger increases, we raise a second flag. Three flags means the highest level of danger.

[Ali Asgar] The cyclone preparedness programme is a joint programme of the Bangladeshi Red Crescent Society and the government and they are mainly responsible for the early warning for the cyclones in the costal areas. They have 42,000 volunteers around the coast.

The first thing is that a community committee is formed and this committee is represented by one-third women.

[Rosy Akhter speaking in Bangladeshi with English subtitles] We call a meeting for all the women, every month. We discuss the signalling system and what action we should take. During Cyclone Sidr, a woman badly injured her leg. We used our first aid training to bandage it with a sari.

[Ali Asgar] They also arrange a dry run rehearsal to evacuate people and also in that process they practice their first aid learning. They have the sirens so it can be heard by everybody in the community. Even some volunteers they take risks to go to the isolated islands to evacuate people by boat and by other means.

[Ekram Elahi Chowdhury speaking in English with English subtitles] This is how we get information from the meteorological department. They continuously receive bulletins from these two departments and then send this information to the general and sub-district offices.

By the VHF radio, they communicate to the community level, communicating to the shelter level.

[Abdul Hakim Sharkar speaking in Bangladeshi with English subtitles] When the tide came during Cyclone Sidr, people didn’t stay in their homes, they came to the shelter. There were more than 1,000 people in the shelter and on the veranda.

[Ali Asgar] The hazard map is prepared by the community people. They gather together and draw a map of their area and identify the most vulnerable areas and also they identify their resources like the location of the tool wells, location of the second shelters, location of other permanent structures where people can take shelter.

[Abdul Hakim Sharker speaking in English with subtitles in English] In 1991, 138,000 people were killed by the cyclone. Most of the victims were actually women and children. If their husbands had not given them the order, they were not allowed to go to cyclone shelter, in that time.

[Ali Asgar] Now we are working in different levels through the religious leaders, through the community leaders, to ensure that the life saving is the first priority in any kind of situation.

[Mohammed Alomgir Hussain speaking in Bangladeshi with English subtitles] It is our duty to persuade the women to come out to the shelters. During the sermon in the Mosque we explain why they should save their lives.

[Chand Bou speaking in Bangladeshi with English subtitles] When I heard the siren I became very scared. I had one son who was still out at sea. My son has got two young children and I thought ‘I wont be able to save them.’ So I brought them to the cyclone shelter.

[Abdul Hakim Sharker speaking in English with English subtitles] Bangladesh Red Cross Society staff and their volunteers are actually leading people to warn them about the disaster. Now the situation is improving day by day.

Reducing vulnerability

The goal of the four-year programme (2012 - 2016) is to address the issues which communities themselves have identified as keeping them poor, malnourished and highly vulnerable to potential disasters, especially cyclones. These include: 

  • poor housing facilities
  • debt and fragile livelihoods
  • small or no cyclone shelters
  • poor access to health services
  • inconsistent access to nutritious food
  • poor access to water and sanitation facilities.

The project will benefit around 60,000 people in Barguna and Patuakhali districts, among them, highly vulnerable people, including women, children, older people and those with disabilities.

Preparing for cyclones

When Cyclone Sidr hit Bangladesh in November 2007, more than 3,300 people lost their lives. Before the cyclone hit, 5,000 community volunteers trained by the Bangladesh Red Crescent worked through the night to alert and evacuate people. Without their tireless efforts, thousands more would have died.

The British Red Cross has been working with the Bangladesh Red Crescent to reduce communities’ vulnerability to disasters for more than 30 years. Between 2006-2011, we helped communities better prepare for, respond to and recover from the impact of cyclones in nine coastal districts.

In 2009, when Cyclone Aila struck, fewer lives were lost and many families felt they were better prepared. However, in some communities the cyclone still wreaked devastation and the British Red Cross helped around 1,000 families recover.

Community participation

Community participation is key to the success of our programmes. For example, we use local volunteers to communicate with their communities about how to respond to a cyclone.

We’ve also helped set up 85 community committees and trained them to prepare for disasters, including mapping out the hazards, analysing risks and planning for cyclones.

One of the biggest challenges is encouraging women to participate. Workshops about the Bangladesh Red Crescent for religious leaders, asking them to endorse women’s participation, gave positive results. Increasing numbers of women are volunteering with the Bangladesh Red Crescent and becoming more vocal within their community.

Building resilience

Although many families have successfully recovered from previous cyclones, others continue to struggle. In communities with poor access to water and poor hygiene and sanitation practices disease and mortality rates are high and more than half the population is malnourished.

Each cyclone comes at enormous cost to those whose means of existence are as fragile as the houses they live in, with little or nothing in reserve to restart their lives. The constant threat of disaster affects the community dynamics necessary to grow out of poverty. 

Our current project will help build community resilience by giving them hope for a better future. It will equip them with better resources to predict, respond to and recover from the effect of the multiple risks they face in their daily lives.

The people we are working with in Bangladesh

Suchitra joined a Bangladesh Red Crescent women’s forum in 2007. Having survived Cyclone Sidr, it’s clear why she has such passion for her volunteer work.

Women are particularly at risk of losing their lives in cyclones, but Sokanur and her friends are now better prepared.

Read about how Farjana's terrible memories of past storms have compelled her to volunteer for us and help empower women to prepare for disasters.

Read about what motivates sisters Hashi and Koli to prepare for disasters and volunteer with us to help spread the word to others.

Nazma’s experiences as a volunteer helping women prepare for disasters have earned her respect as well as heartache in her community.

Noorjahan’s husband and three sisters were tragically killed by a cyclone when she was just 14. Now she volunteers to help others.

Rawshan is a community mobiliser at our disaster preparedness project in Bangladesh, making sure people know what to do in an emergency.

Shukoda was in her twenties when the 1970 cyclone ravaged Bangladesh and now works to mobilise the community in the event of an emergency.

Read about the challenges Rani faces in preparing communities for disasters and changing cultural attitudes towards women.


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