How Bangladesh Survived a Cyclone

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Saiful Huq Omi / Polaris

A man sits and grieves for his family, who were lost in the cyclone that rocked Bangladesh on Nov. 15, 2007.

In all, some 27 million people were affected by Cyclone Sidr, the category 4 storm that swept through Bangladesh last week, flattening houses, damaging buildings and roads, and destroying thousands of acres of crops. More than 2,000 people were killed, according to official numbers, and the toll could eventually reach 10,000. But even as Bangladesh begins a massive cleanup operation, many are thankful that it wasn't much worse. As devastating as it was, Sidr has taken far fewer lives than 1991's Cyclone Gorky, which killed at least 138,000 people, and 1970's Bhola, which left as many as 500,000 people dead and is considered the deadliest cyclone, and one of the worst natural disasters, in human history.

Mainly, this is because Bangladesh has gotten a lot better at dealing with cyclones, which build in the Bay of Bengal and surge north to hit the country with dreadful regularity. Over the past decade especially, the country's early warning and preparedness systems have improved considerably. Officials evacuated some 3.2 million people who lived along the coastline in the days before Sidr hit, and stockpiled relief supplies and rescue equipment. Soon after the storm passed, the Bangladeshi government quickly began distributing 4,000 metric tons of rice, along with thousands of tents and blankets, and deployed more than 700 medical teams to the worst-affected areas. Early warnings and preparations had a "significant mitigating effect in this emergency," according to the United Nations Office for the coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA). "[The system] has worked much, much better than before," says A. Atiq Rahman, executive director of the Bangladesh Centre for Advanced Studies, of the country's disaster preparations. "The death toll is going to be an order of magnitude less."

Still, keeping future death tolls low is likely to get a lot harder. Scientists believe that global warming will make cyclones in the region bigger and more frequent. That's bad news for Bangladesh, whose location and geography makes it not only particularly susceptible to the effects of climate change but also extremely hard to protect. Most of Bangladesh sits on the giant alluvial delta created by the Ganges and Brahmaputra rivers, whose courses are constantly shifting, making it difficult to build up river banks to protect farmland. A World Bank project, backed by France, Japan and the U.S., would construct 8,000 km of dikes to control the rivers, but the $10 billion proposal has run into opposition from farmers whose land it would take. Massive Dutch-style dikes to hold back the sea — and future cyclone-induced waves — are probably even more unworkable. "The soil isn't steady as such — it's mud," says Rahman, who is a member of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and chair of the Climate Action Network South Asia. "You have these huge, rapidly changing geological dynamics here that make it a very hard place to protect."

On a more human scale, however, there are some slivers of hope. Already people in some areas of Bangladesh have begun building houses on tall stilts to evade annual floodwaters. Non-governmental organizations such as U.K.-based Practical Action have also developed simple house designs — two-foot-high concrete plinths topped with inexpensive and easily replaced jute panel walls — that help prevent some homes from being washed away. CARE, the U.S.-based NGO, has helped people living along the coast rediscover forgotten farming techniques such as baira cultivation, or floating gardens, an age-old agricultural system well suited to areas that are flooded for long periods of time. Farmers might also benefit from salt-tolerant varieties of rice or fast-growing crops that can be harvested before the devastating monsoons arrive. It will help, too, if the Bangladeshi government speeds up its implementation of plans created after earlier ruinous floods, including improving drainage in cities, better sanitation management and fixing up the worst slums.

Regardless of these preparations, much of Bangladesh will be transformed if current global warming trends continue. As the sea level rises, vast swaths of coastal land will disappear in coming decades — as much as 18% of Bangladesh's current landmass, according to the World Bank. And as the rivers swell with water from melting Himalayan glaciers, land in the center of the country will also disappear. Those effects, combined with more frequent and stronger cyclones, could spark an exodus of climate refugees fleeing for the cities and for other countries.

That's a problem, because Bangladesh is already one of the most densely populated countries on the globe — just under half the population of the U.S. crammed into an area the size of the state of Iowa. Neighboring India is already so worried about the growing number of Bangladeshi migrants that it is building a huge fence on the two nations' shared border. Rahman, however, sees a silver lining: Bangladesh's fleeing multitudes can help feed the West's need for cheap labor as its own population ages. "The globalization of the climate process will force the globalization of the demographic process," he says. And if the rich world is not ready to let in millions of Bangladeshis looking for somewhere dry to live? "The rich world caused this problem so they're going to have to pay for it," says Rahman. "I've started telling my colleagues from Europe and Canada that we might have to introduce a system that says if you produce 10,000 tons of carbon you have to take a Bangladeshi family. They don't like hearing that." They may have to get used to it.