One month ago, on November 9 2019, Category 2 Cyclone Bulbul made landfall over India. A day later, the storm entered Bangladesh through the Buri Goalini Range of the Sundarbans, in the Shyamnagar Upazila of Satkhira District.
The cyclone stayed in Bangladesh for approximately 36 hours: it was one of the longest enduring cyclones the country has faced in more than five decades.
The Sundarbans, the world’s largest mangrove forest, reduced Bulbul’s wind speed from 148 km/h to 130 km/h, protecting the scores of people who live in the area and depend on the mangroves for their livelihood.
This, and the timely evacuation of communities, helped to limit loss of life. However, Christian Aid believes much more needs to be done to support cyclone survivors in Bangladesh’s coastal areas, and to enable them to become more resilient to future storms.
The destructive impact of storm surges
Over the last few decades, climate change and sea level rise have been increasing the destructive impact of cyclones, their rainfall and the storm surges they cause. Globally the number of cyclones in the highest categories (3 to 5) has increased, the strongest of these by over 300%. There is evidence that this trend has resulted in an increase in severe cyclones in November in the Bay of Bengal . As was the case with Bulbul, they are also moving more slowly, releasing more rainfall over the locations they pass and causing more flooding . Sea level rise increases the height of the storm surge, causing more destruction and leaving salt water in the soils of farmers’ fields. This can take them years to recover from.
While Bulbul only reached strong tropical cyclone category, nevertheless, the loss and damage – particularly to livelihoods and assets – are increasing with each storm. Bulbul brought heavy rainfall that had a severe impact on agriculture and aquaculture, as well as housing. The cyclone claimed 24 lives, while battering 18,000 mud houses and displacing some 2.1 million people across Bangladesh, who were relocated to cyclone shelters. The total loss of winter vegetables is estimated at $14.8m.
Disaster preparedness saves lives
It is important to highlight that the fatality rate from Bulbul was much lower than disasters of the same magnitude in previous years and decades. This is because long-running efforts by many stakeholders – including Christian Aid and our local partners – have led to a great deal of learning and action on disaster preparedness. We have seen first-hand that disaster preparedness is working and saving lives.
There is a huge case for redoubling investments in disaster preparedness and disaster risk reduction (DRR). The current response to Bulbul has also shown up some significant room for improvement. For instance, it is vital that future responses give better attention to the inclusion of vulnerable groups and ensure that women, children, people living with disabilities and others with particular needs can safely access rescue shelters/locations.
The Sundarbans: under threat
When it comes to risk reduction measures, a shortfall still exists. As Bangladesh’s Minister of Defence stated: “It would have been worse if the cyclone came in without the resistance of Sundarbans. The damage on humans was less due to the coverage of the Sundarbans.” Mangroves have high resilience to damage caused by storms. However, the “increasing frequency of tropical cyclones has threatened the resilience capacity of mangroves. They have the capacity regenerate naturally but severe tropical cyclones trump this natural potential.” (Mongabay, 2019).
The Sundarbans are also under threat from human activities such as deforestation, commercial cultivation and the move towards more commercially profitable shrimp and crab cultivation which require saline water to be held in paddy fields. All of these are affecting the Sundarbans’ natural shield, increasing exposure to cyclones and, with it, the damage they do.
Recommendations from Christian Aid
Taking into account the livelihood pattern, timing and past history of cyclones in districts affected by Bulbul (which were also the districts worst affected by cyclones Sidr in 2007 and Aila in 2009), an integrated approach to development is vital. This approach must take into consideration ecosystem protection as well as preparedness, inclusion and livelihoods work, to build climate resilience.
Local communities should actively participate in the analysis, design and implementation of risk reduction measures that depend on mangroves. More specifically, this means intensifying mangrove restoration whilst:
i. Strengthening the base of ‘Indigenous Knowledge and Practices of Cyclone Preparedness in Coastal Bangladesh’ (a survivor-led response), through an accountability and localisation approach. Efforts would also need to emphasize short- to medium-term interventions to help mitigate the impact of cyclones and tsunamis while the mangroves regrow.
ii. Supporting the expansion of climate-resilient agriculture to increase small-scale farmers’ capacity to build their long-term resilience – including through agro-ecological farming methods (especially those focused on sustainable, mangrove-enhancing aquaculture, saline-tolerance and cyclone-resilient agroforestry), and access to climate services. Regular use of climate services in turn enhances the effectiveness of early warning systems, as users improve their ability to understand and make livelihood-enhancing decisions based on probabilistic forecasts.
- Cyclone Bulbul showed how difficult it is to raise funds for emergencies and reconstruction where few people die: the public and donors are less interested. But even without high death tolls, these huge disasters have a grave impact on local economies and on the wellbeing, livelihoods, homes and mental/psycho-social health of vulnerable and resource-dependent communities. There remains an enormous need for financial assistance that has not been forthcoming – and therefore severely limits recovery efforts. We need to change the narrative so as to better convince donors and our public of the very strong case for investing in disaster relief and integrated risk reduction, even when deaths are limited.
- Written by Christian Aid’s Shahana Hayat (Humanitarian Programme Manager), Amilcar Kraudie (Emergency Preparedness Global Lead), Richard Ewbank (Global Climate Advisor) and Simone Di Vicenz (Resilience Advisor).
- Long-term trends in the frequency of severe cyclones of Bay of Bengal: Observations and simulations - O. P. Singh, India Met Dept., 2007