The cyclone is coming!


By Maude Froberg in Dhalchar, Bangladesh

I’m on my way to Dhalchar, one of many small islands created by silt within rivers. These islands are home to many landless people in this populous country, where around 160 million people jostle on a surface that is a third of the size of Sweden.

We moor at the green island. It smells of mud, the edges of the water fall steeply, exposing hollow layers of sediment, where the waves have eaten their way into the land. Here, there’s no harbour or pier, no cars or roads either. Only an elongated plateau of porous silt rising above the river, which may suddenly sink and disappear in the flow of the water's current.

Together with my colleagues from the Bangladesh Red Crescent Society, I trail the broad path across the island. We pass meadows where cattle are grazing, deep ponds where fishermen are throwing nets over amber-coloured water. The silence is soft, not even the chatter of the ducks is enough to break it.

Vulnerability speaks its own language. Here, access to clean drinking water and sanitation is limited. There are schools, but the people are missing a doctor and a medical clinic. If taken ill or in need of help to deliver a baby, the journey by boat to the mainland can take up to 24 hours.

In all crucial aspects of life, the people on Dhalchar have no one else to rely on but themselves. The same applies when it comes to cyclone preparedness. Here, as in many other parts of Bangladesh, a warning system has been put in place that saves hundreds of lives each year. It’s supported by volunteers from the Bangladesh Red Crescent Society, who are trained to assist their fellow citizens in case of a cyclone.

One of these emergency response volunteers is Jahangir. When a cyclone approaches, he and the other volunteers in the delta, receive an early warning via radio from the operation room of the Bangladesh Red Crescent Society in Dhaka. Then, the volunteers take off to the villages on bikes or motorbikes to spread the warning, using megaphones and hand-driven sirens. The warning signals can be heard up to two kilometres away. Signal flags are also hoisted. Three red-and-black flags indicate that people must take cover immediately. The teams also prepare evacuation routes and first aid-stations, along with setting up stretchers and coats for injured.

Together with the other volunteers, Jahangir is training on a regular basis. Among other things, they carry out vulnerability assessments and draw up preparedness plans. In short, who is in most need of help and what is required? In addition, he assists in the maintenance of the warning system: batteries in the megaphones have to be changed, knowledge in first aid maintained, the non-food items in the warehouses pre-positioned and the bikes kept in good condition.

“In the super cyclone of 1991, we had no bikes or motorbikes,” he recalls. Then, we ran from house to house to warn people.” Around 139,000 people died in that disaster, but thanks to the system of 'early warning, early action', many survived. Then, as well as now, the inhabitants of Dhalchar take cover in the huge cyclone shelter of grey concrete. It’s erected some ten metres above the ground and built as a letter V, with the tip pointing towards the sea, head on to an incoming cyclone.

Jahangir and I go up the stairs. The concrete is battered, and large damp stains are spreading over the floor. Yet the building has stood the test of time since the 1980s. When we reach the second floor, it’s almost like being on a ferry. The view over the green island is magnificent. Jahangir takes off his yellow protective hat and gazes out over the fields in the afternoon sun.

“To me, it’s natural to help my country,” he says. ”I’ve assisted people in several cyclones and saved the lives of those trying to reach the cyclone shelter in the rising water.” When people come here to escape, the cyclone shelter can get crowded. So, the emergency response volunteers split up and move around to explain the rules, hand out blankets and assist where necessary.

For women, social-cultural rules also come into play. Can they leave the home without their husbands? Where are they going to sleep? What happens to the livestock? Am I supposed to just leave it all? Today, women are volunteers too. Their task is to accommodate women and girls in the cyclone shelter, to make sure their needs are looked after and, if necessary, to assist with first aid.

Saleka is one such volunteer assisting the Bangladesh Red Crescent Society to ensure that women’s voices are heard. Today, she has brought along her eight-year-old daughter Mala to watch when the emergency response teams of volunteers are conducting a drill. In front of hundreds of people, the whole scenario of 'early warning, early action' is acted out: the warning system, the evacuation to the cyclone shelter, and the rescue of injured. A story which can save lives, even for those who cannot read and write.

After the drill, Saleka invites me for dinner. She stirs the pot over the fire at the back of her small house which has a living room, a bedroom and kitchen. The outer wall are made of corrugated steel, which are easy to move. That is a lesson learnt the hard way by the people on these perpetually changing islands that sink and rise with the currents.

Saleka serves me. “We try to get by with the little we have,” she explains. She shakes her head when I ask if she has prepared by burying food and kitchen utensils underground, as a measure of prevention. “We never have enough food so we can store it,” she says.

And there lies the challenge, neatly identified by Saleka. Despite increased knowledge in how to save lives, vulnerability still exists, because it exists before, during and after a disaster.