Cyclone in Bangladesh

By Mostafa Kamal Majumdar
Published: Saturday 15 December 2007

cyclone Sidr hit Bangladesh on the night of November 15, killing thousands of people and severely damaging paddy crops just before harvest, and the Sundarbans. Though the official death toll till November 20 was about 4,000, unofficial estimates say the figure could cross 10,000.

The worst cyclone in terms of intensity ever to strike Bangladesh ruined the late monsoon aman paddy, the second major cereal crop in the country, just before its harvest in November and December. Farmers had planted the paddy saplings late after floods in August and September damaged earlier crops. As per government estimates the cyclone damaged crops on 364,218.5 hectares.

The Sunderbans, the largest mangrove forest in the world forming a natural barrier against sea storms, bore the brunt of the winds travelling at a maximum speed of 240 km an hour. They absorbed part of its fury before it hit human habitation.

According to preliminary estimates, the cyclone flattened about a quarter of the trees in the Sunderbans. "I have visited the Sunderbans twice after the cyclone. In my 29-year career, never before did I see the Sundarbans damaged like this," Chief Conservator of Forests A K M Shamsuddin told reporters. He said assessing the damage would take time "because our men could not reach all the remote places".

The loss of animals, however, might be minimum because the storm hit during the low tide and the surge was less than 10-foot high, say weather experts.

The cyclone followed two waves of big floods in August and September. Three climatic calamities hitting Bangladesh within three-and-a-half months again proved the vulnerability of the country to climate change. Scientists predict that global warming will increase the frequency and destructiveness of such natural disasters, but weather experts in Bangladesh can't say with confidence how climate change will affect tropical cyclones. There might have been some effects but even the last conference on tropical cyclones held in Costa Rica four months ago was not specific on this, they say.

Disaster plan saves lives
Samarendra Karmakar, director, Bangladesh Meteorological Department, says it was the country's worst cyclone in terms of intensity. Cyclones in 1970 and 1991 had claimed 230,000 and 138,000 lives respectively, but the damage this time was much less, thanks to better preparedness. About 1.5 million of the 3.2 million people falling in the track of the cyclone were evacuated.

Through 36 years of trial and error the Cyclone Preparedness Programme has developed into one of the best disaster plans in the world. Soon after the meteorological department issued a cyclone warning, about 42,000 programme volunteers alerted the people living in danger zones, advising them to move to cyclone shelters--over 2,000 of them have been built since the early 70s.

In the 90s about five million people were estimated to be living in high-risk areas along the western, central and southeastern coasts of Bangladesh. Of these, four million live in 'very high-risk' areas.

However, only 10 per cent of the actual population in the high-risk areas could be accommodated in safe places (excluding sub-district headquarters buildings and cyclone shelters built outside these areas).

It is time the Cyclone Preparedness Programme is strengthened. Some of the shelters built in the 70s and the 80s are now located far inland away from the surge-prone areas because the coastline has advanced south due to silt deposition. Field surveys conducted earlier indicated that the majority of the population in the high-risk areas are low-income agricultural workers, of whom 70 per cent are landless.

According to government estimates, the cyclone has affected four million people in 141 of the total 460 sub-districts and damaged over 300,000 houses. The worst affected are Barguna, Bagerhat, Patuakhali, Pirojpur and Barisal districts.

The immediate challenge is to provide drinking water in the coastal areas. Water bodies used to harvest rainwater for use throughout the year there have been filled with saline water while hand-pumps have either gone under water or been rendered useless.

The worst affected need dry food because they have neither utensils nor fuel to cook. The armed forces are carrying out the rescue and rehabilitation activities in far-flung areas where access roads have either been damaged or blocked by debris.

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