Natural Disasters

Adaptation in Action

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In the aftermath of Cyclone Sidr, Reuters finds some good news amid all the death and destruction:

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….

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.

Another important factor: advances in meteorology. "This time," one aid worker told Reuters, "the weather forecasting system and regional preparations worked very well….Ten years ago, weather forecasting systems were not so good."

The one major barrier to further improvements is poverty:

[W]hile death tolls are falling the damage to people's houses remains the same and that seems unlikely to change.

"We cannot make our houses stronger. The poor people only have bamboo," Akbar says.

There's a lesson there for other environmental threats. The best reforms will make communities richer and more resilient. The worst ones will make them more poor and brittle.