Published: May 30th 2009May 30th 2009
In a coincidental and tragic follow-up to two of the blogs I published recently, Cyclone AILA hit the southern coast of Bangladesh last week, washing out dozens of villages (like the ones I wrote about two weeks ago) and producing more climate refugees. I was actually due to go to Barisal on a launch boat the night that Aila hit, but the country has a good tracking system and I was told that there was a signal 7 storm coming. Anything beyond a signal 4 and Save the Children staff are not allowed to get on a launch boat; and with signal 7 being just one step below a cyclone, it seemed safe to stay at home. As the storm approached from the Bay of Bengal, the government and the NGOs waited and watched. From what they could tell, the storm wasn't too severe--just 80 to 90 mph winds, as opposed to the 350 mph winds that had destroyed the coastal belt in 2007's Cyclone SIDR. The warnings went out to villagers to identify and go to their local cyclone shelters (many of them built and managed by INGOs like Save), but the warning was also tempered by the statement that the storm wasn't a severe one. So as the storm got closer people walked to their local shelters but left all of their possessions behind, thinking they would return home within hours. What nobody had realized, however, was that Cyclone AILA would hit Bangladesh at high tide on a full moon, causing a tidal surge that was 10 feet higher than the one experienced in Cyclone SIDR. Whereas SIDR left over 3,000 people dead and AILA has mercifully taken a toll around 150 (though this number is rising), AILA's damage seems to carry more potential for prolonged disaster.
Almost a week after the cyclone hit, dozens of villages are still underwater. Families have lost their land, their cattle, their assets, and their opportunities for livelihoods. Many will have to move in with relatives or squat on nearby land and start from scratch, just like some of the families that we visited in Bhola two weeks ago. In fact two of the hardest hit districts (Bhola and Patuakhali) are in our working area, and as the information comes in we will have a much better picture of just how many people have been displaced. With the tidal surge flooding many of these coastal areas, the largest concern now is for water access and the potential for epidemics. Still water is a breeding ground for epidemics (recall the concerns after Hurricane Katrina), and with such a densely packed and vulnerable population, disease could spready quickly and fatally. Reports indicate that an outbreak of diarrhea hit yesterday, already killing some and posing the threat to kill hundreds as people continue to lack proper food or access to safe water. In most of the affected areas tube wells remain submerged under tidal water and will not be able to be used again for clean drinking water. Right now many INGOs like Save are prioritizing safe water in their emergency response efforts.
The numbers are still being debated. Online most sources say that up to 350,000 people have been affected by the storm. When I shared a car the other day with the Country Director of Save the Children (USA), he spent most of his time on the phone with staff members discussing distribution of clean water technology. Between calls I did get the chance to ask him what sense he has of the damage. He says that the number buzzing around the aid scene is that more like 3 million people have been affected, though parts of the coast are still inaccessible and nobody has been able to do a full survey. And the death toll is likely to rise too, as missing people are confirmed dead. As many as 500 fishermen are believed to have ignored the storm warning and sailed into the bay (risking their lives to make some money for the day and feed their families). Not only will they most likely be counted among the dead, but they will leave behind an army of orphaned children. As kind of a side project/personal commitment, a few of us work with an orphanage in Bhola where the majority of the boys have been orphaned by fishing-related deaths. It is likely that the waiting list for the orphanage will explode in the next coulpe of months, as widows discover that they are unable to feed their children.
It is increasingly evident that the disaster and climate vulnerability of Bangladesh will cause major geopolitical strain over the next 50 to 100 years. The New York Times just addressed the topic of climate refugees, mentioning of course Bangladesh:
This article looks more indepth at Bangladesh:
And my friend Ben wrote this, highlighting an interesting but depressing technology that can predict how much of Bangladesh (and other parts of the world) will be under water in a number of years. It is sobering, to say the least: