For 40 million people on Bangladesh’s coast, cyclones are an ever-present danger, but they claim fewer lives than in the past.
Building resilience through a comprehensive approach is helping vulnerable nations on the frontlines of climate change.
A new report indicates that disaster preparedness could pay off in tackling other challenges, such as pandemics.
As Cyclone Amphan churned in the Bay of Bengal, some 2.4 million people were moved to safety in Bangladesh.
Bangladesh accomplished this mass evacuation in May 2020 amid the COVID-19 pandemic. An additional 10,500 shelters beyond the 4,171 already in existence were needed to avoid conditions that would spread the virus.
“Such a large mobilization of people under any circumstances would be daunting or even unthinkable for many countries. In Bangladesh, the effort speaks to the country’s resilience in the face of disaster,” says Ignacio Urrutia, a Senior Disaster Risk Management Specialist at the World Bank.
Fifty years ago, before cyclone shelters, community based early warning systems and storm tracking by satellite, Bangladesh lost an estimated 300,000 people in the powerful 1970 Cyclone Bhola. In 2007’s Cyclone Sidr, a cyclone of similar intensity, the number of fatalities was 3.500. In 2018, Cyclone Fani claimed fewer than 10 lives. About 20 people died in Amphan in 2020. And while even a single loss of life is tragic, Bangladesh offers a notable example of how improvements in forecasting, early warning systems, emergency preparedness and response can make a dramatic difference in saving lives (see Fig 1 below).
Over the last two decades, Bangladesh has been investing in coastal resilience, building multi-purpose disaster shelters, and shoring up a network of embankments protecting farmland and millions of people from the sea.
*“Bangladesh has become an example of how an integrated approach of protective coastal infrastructure, along with social mobilization and community-based early warning systems, is helping to build resilience,” *says Swarna Kazi, a Senior Disaster Risk Management Specialist who leads projects under the World Bank’s Bangladesh Climate Resilience and Disaster Risk Program.
But, says Kazi, saving lives and livelihoods remains a challenge. “Some 40 million people are living right on the frontlines in the battle against climate change.”
“In that coastal area, you have cyclones, storm surges, tidal flooding, all of which are expected to worsen due to climate change, but also millions of vulnerable people living in that space. So, how can we better protect them?”
Financing disaster risk-management
Around the world, from the South Pacific to the Caribbean, many countries are looking for ways to protect people and property from increasingly powerful storms and rising seas.
Public financing for projects to manage disaster risk rose to $6.6 billion in 2017-2018, reflecting a growing need to invest in early warning and rapid response systems to protect against extreme weather events, according to the Global Landscape of Climate Finance 2019.
The World Bank has steadily increased support for disaster risk management over the past seven years – from $3.5 billion in 2012 to $4.6 billion in 2019. The Bank’s help has included a range of financial instruments for countries frequently threatened by natural hazards such as cyclones or hurricanes, as well as projects to strengthen infrastructure.
In Vanuatu, through quick access to post-disaster funds
For example, when the Pacific island nation of Vanuatu was hit by Category 5 Cyclone Harold in April, it was able to quickly access $10 million in emergency funds through a Disaster Risk Management Development Policy Grant with a Catastrophe-Deferred Drawdown Option, approved in January. The funds allowed Vanuatu to address the disaster while also dealing with the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. The transaction was processed within 24 hours, *“demonstrating the capability of this instrument to provide immediate liquidity in the aftermath of a disaster, and, in this case, a compounding disaster,” *says Artessa Saldivar-Sali, a civil engineer and disaster risk management specialist who leads the project.
In Samoa, by building resilience into the road network
The Samoa Climate Resilient Transport Project is improving the safety and reliability a section of the West Coast Road — a major artery that is, at points, only *“steps from the sea” *— along with other high priority roads and bridges that are vulnerable to severe weather events and climate change, says Sean Michaels, a World Bank Senior Infrastructure Specialist who leads the project. The project is guided by a “vulnerability assessment” of the challenges facing Samoa in the near, medium, and long terms, and will also help the government factor climate resilience into planning, regulations, asset management, and emergency response. Similar projects are underway in Tonga, Tuvalu, Vanuatu and Kiribati and planned for other Pacific island countries under the Pacific Climate Resilient Transport Program, led by Michaels.
“These projects are about planning systematically building resilience through a combination of hard infrastructure investments, such as raising roads, improving drainage, constructing seawalls, and slope stabilization, and soft strategic planning tools and capacity building measures. All the countries that take part in the program realize this and take this comprehensive approach to address that challenge.”
In Bangladesh, with a ‘chain of actions’ to increase resilience
The World Bank’s $1.5 billion Disaster Risk and Climate Resilience Program in Bangladesh is building resilience on multiple fronts: through the construction and rehabilitation of more than 100 cyclone shelters; the $400 million rehabilitation of coastal embankments that protect 10 of the coastline’s 139 “polders” — land and freshwater areas where people live; investing $89 million in hydromet modernization and strengthening of capacity for weather, water and climate services; and improving disaster preparedness and response in cities.
The program is also strengthening weather and extreme event forecasting and has established, for the first time, agrometeorological services which provide customized agromet and early warning advisories to all 64 districts of the country for 6 major crops. It provides critical hydromet and climate information in a variety of formats and through multiple channels, including developing community-based networks - a large network of volunteers that “go to the last mile” – in order to get essential information to people.
“This effort is about improving the whole chain of actions needed to increase resilience,” says Urrutia.
This includes ensuring people can evacuate, which entails having the roads, support mechanisms, and transportation necessary to get people to the shelters; and ensuring people are taken care of once they are there.
Lessons for addressing COVID
Such comprehensive plans to deal with disasters can help confront other kinds of threats, according to a new report published by the World Bank and the Global Facility for Disaster Reduction and Recovery (GFDRR). The report, Learning from Multi-Hazard Early Warning Systems to Respond to Pandemics , finds that experiences gained from early warning systems for extreme weather events can also be applied to pandemics such as COVID-19 for better understanding risks.
“A common lesson that we’ve learned from early warning for weather events is that understanding the vulnerability of individuals and specific populations is necessary for also being able to explain potential impacts of the event,” says Julie Dana, who leads GFDRR.
“Disaster risk management practices such as combining remote sensing data with on-the-ground observations, using community networks to convey information, and developing a range of probabilistic forecasts - from reasonable worst case to optimistic – are being used to convey warnings about the impact of the current pandemic. Governments and communities are learning a lot right now about what works and what is challenging in early warning. We are eager to help connect people with those lessons, and share information about emerging practices.”