Bangladesh: from cyclones to multi-hazard

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By Denis McClean

DHAKA, 13 December, 2019 - A new record for evacuations was set in Bangladesh a month ago when the government Cyclone Preparedness Programme (CPP) evacuated 2.1 million people before Cyclone Bulbul made landfall on the Sundarbans coast.

The storm highlights why the CPP is planning to expand its geographical coverage and to grow from 55,000 volunteers to 200,000 over the next five years as it also prepares to go beyond cyclones to tackle other natural hazards including earthquakes.

Cyclone Bulbul resulted in 19 deaths. Large economic losses are likely to be reported in an on-going post-disaster assessment. The damage was mitigated by the preservation of the world’s largest mangrove forest in the Sundarbans, an important nature-based defense against tidal surges.

Ahmadul Haque, the head of CPP, a joint programme with Bangladesh Red Crescent, visited the affected area and recalls meeting one woman who asked him why they had to evacuate when the storm was not so strong.

“I had to say to her that if we had not organized the evacuation, instead of 19 people dying, the death toll could have been 19,000,” he said.

Bangladesh has a long tragic history when it comes to cyclones. Officially, the death toll from the November 1970 cyclone was one million. In 1991, 138,000 lost their lives and cyclone Sidr claimed 10,000 or more lives in 2007.

Despite rising seas and coastal erosion, mortality has been coming down thanks in great part to the efforts of the CPP volunteers, 26 of whom lost their lives during cyclone operations in 1991 and 2007.

The prestige of the programme is such that 80 volunteers were honored by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasan, on this year’s International Day for Disaster Reduction, October 13.

Mr. Haque is now responsible for the greatest expansion of one of the world’s most successful early warning systems which is set to become a multi-hazard programme, focused on a range of natural hazards including earthquakes and floods.

“We will also have a strong focus on urban risk as we are seeing that there is a great need for that. The volunteers are highly motivated and take pride in their service on behalf of their own communities. It is important that they are active and keep up their skills,” he said.

The ambition is to expand from covering 13 coastal and riverine districts to 19 and to grow from 55,000 volunteers to 100,000 volunteers by 2020 and reach 200,000 over the next five years.

Their duties include disseminating cyclone warning signals to the community and evacuating those at particular risk including persons living with disabilities, older persons, pregnant women and young children.

They are trained to provide community outreach and deepen understanding of disaster risk. They also provide basic first aid and give support to humanitarian assistance.