Cyclone Amphan: Building back with resilient infrastructure and community engagement

Transitional shelters have proven to be cost-effective over time if implemented correctly

By Yezdani Rahman
Published: Friday 05 March 2021
Cyclone Amphan: Building back better for a more secure future. Photo: SEEDS

Strengthening resilience to climate-related hazards is an urgent target of Goal 13 of the United Nations-mandated Sustainable Development Goals (SDG).

Stocking emergency supplies or preparing a family evacuation plan can substantially minimise loss and damages from natural hazards. However, the level of preparedness among households is often low even in disaster-prone areas.

Studies have shown that human suffering and other damage do not end with the event itself. Therefore, there is a need to focus on the complicated process of recovery and reconstruction in the months and years following a disaster.

Amid the pandemic

Cyclone Amphan, which caused massive destruction in West Bengal and adjacent areas, intensified rapidly on May 17, 2020 to become a ‘super cyclonic storm’ of category 5. It, however, weakened to category 3 before making a landfall on May 20.

The devastating cyclone came at a time when people were struggling with surging cases of the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19). Lockdowns and travel restrictions during the COVID-19 pandemic complicated the response and evacuation process during the disaster.

The challenge was to protect the vulnerable people within the emergency shelters from Cyclone Amphan as well as COVID-19. Most of them were craving for their basic rights of food, shelter and clothing.

Implementation of shelter and toilet rebuilding programme is an immediate need to let them survive.

The process of building resilience requires systematic methods which can be implemented through community interactions to understand the context of their living conditions. Awareness campaigns to understand the purpose of each individual and sensible living facility like eco-friendly shelters and toilets can facilitate the return to normalcy.

Long-term solutions from temporary shelters

Transitional shelters, built for survivors of natural disasters, are unable to hold up against intensifying calamities and the advanced construction technologies are yet to penetrate the population living in acute poverty in West Bengal.

Over the years, use of concrete materials and better technologies in transitional shelters, has made these dwellings stronger against cyclones. The concept, however, is taking time to get widely accepted.

The adaptation of ‘transitional shelters’ can provide an important insight into cyclone preparedness and resilience and can help develop a community-based approach for disaster management.

Transitional shelter, being an incremental process rather than a multi-phased approach, needs acceptance. Such rapid, post-disaster shelters are made from materials that can be upgraded or re-used in more permanent structures, or can be relocated from temporary sites to permanent locations.

Transitional shelters have proven to be cost-effective over time if implemented correctly and provide good opportunities for scaling-up by using common, local and regional materials. With building transitional shelters comes in meaningful engagement with affected communities /individuals. This ensures design and implementation is context-appropriate and the needs of marginalised and vulnerable groups are considered.

However, knowledge of good, safe building practices is inculcated so that houses incorporate disaster risk reduction measures. Pressure should not be taken off permanent housing reconstruction effort. The integration of other sectors or issues such as livelihoods, Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) and transport, is important for the success of the transition.

There are several ways to boost infrastructure resilience. Hazards can be addressed partially through the widespread deployment of green infrastructure, while preventing the development of grey infrastructure.

Energy resilience can be enhanced through the development of distributed renewable power such as rooftop solar installations. The primary need is avoiding water pollution.

The practice of setting up toilets right beside ponds can be replaced with ecological sanitation toilets. Manure collected from these units can also help the local community in irrigation.

Community engagement for effective recovery 

Delivering shelter-recovery programmes is complex and often subject to significant competing interests and obstacles. The needs of women, girls, men and boys and that of different households can vary significantly.

A one-size-fits-all shelter design has limited flexibility to meet these needs. Governments and non-governmental organisations should greatly strengthen their approaches to community engagement in shelter projects, with the aim to improve community ownership of projects and individual ownership of shelters.

Future programmes should aim to empower people to take charge of their own shelter recovery, including giving them meaningful control and choices over shelter design and construction, hence leading to improved outcomes overall.

To do so, developing a communal understanding of the different risks disaster-affected people face and ensuring they have the knowledge to make choices about these risks is required. This will require strong community engagement and technical support capacity.

Any future climate adaptation strategy needs to account for material needs of the most vulnerable communities, prioritising the building of a social safety net that will enable them to resume their livelihoods and continue to live with dignity.

Moreover, among the various stakeholders that build and carry community resilience are government, grassroots organisations and volunteer networks. These stakeholders are those who understand the local community and show up in solidarity at the hour of need, as disasters around the world have shown time and again. 

Yezdani Rahman is the chief of programmes, Sustainable Environment and Ecological Development Society (SEEDS). 

Views expressed are the author’s own and don’t necessarily reflect those of Down To Earth.

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