Sunday, November 18, 2007

Cyclone Sidr would have killed 100,000 not long ago

Reuters: The death toll from the monster cyclone that has struck Bangladesh is already in the hundreds. But just 16 years ago a similar cyclone killed over 140,000 people. And another one in 1970 killed around 500,000. Bangladesh has made huge strides in reducing death tolls in the cyclones that bash its coastline every year. "I can imagine that this cyclone would have killed over 100,000 in (the early 1990s)," says Kamal Akbar, executive director of aid agency RDRS Bangladesh. ActionAid's Wahida Bashar Ahmed agreed that not so long ago the death toll from Cyclone Sidr would have exceeded 100,000.

Cyclones are not getting any less powerful, so what has changed? "In the 1970s Bangladesh did not have the capacity to face such calamities," says Akbar. "Now in every district there are disaster preparedness volunteers. They are out in the field talking to people, asking them to move to safer places." As Cyclone Sidr raged up the Bay of Bengal this week, tens of thousands of volunteers went out to tell villagers how to protect themselves and help evacuate those in danger's path. Announcements were broadcast over mosque loudspeakers to alert communities to the impending disaster, says Ahmed, ActionAid's emergencies co-ordinator in Bangladesh. Bangladesh has also set up several thousand cyclone shelters in recent years. And all new schools are designed to double up as flood shelters. They are built from reinforced concrete and elevated from the ground.

Akbar says factors such as wind speed are taken into account when constructing new hospitals, clinics and schools to ensure they could withstand cyclones. Aid agency CARE's spokesman in Bangladesh, Jamil Ahmed, points to another factor behind the falling death tolls – the huge advances in meteorology.

"The damage could have been much more serious. This time the weather forecasting system and regional preparations worked very well. People have already been very active for the last two to three days. Ten years ago weather forecasting systems were not so good." Bangladesh has also been running a massive public awareness programme on risk reduction with a strong focus on reaching children through the classroom. "The Bay of Bengal is like a funnel – cyclones are sucked into Bangladesh," Akbar says. "Floods are a reality. We cannot run away - we have to learn to cope and live with it."...

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