Bangladesh is one of the most disaster-prone countries in the world and still experiences several cyclonic storms each year. Flooding and coastal erosion often wreak havoc on low-lying coastal areas.
In June, Bangladesh suffered its worst flooding in more than a century, leaving more than 7 million people without food and without shelter. Scientists say climate change may have exacerbated the disaster.
We might think that in the face of disaster, everyone might be equally threatened. But in fact, according to the data, women tend to be overrepresented in deaths due to cyclones in Bangladesh. 14 times more women than men died during Cyclone Bora in 1970.
This is both because gender inequality has led to a decline in literacy rates, limiting women’s access to information, and because gender roles have confined women to the home and reduced decision-making power in the home.
Thankfully, today, women are entering the ranks of climate warning volunteers, going into spaces that may not be accessible to men and ensuring that important information about climate change is disseminated among women’s networks.
In late 1988, a sudden hurricane descended at midnight and took the life of Jenna Mistri’s older brother, who was just two months old.
Mistri’s 65-year-old father, Suranjung, recalled: “We didn’t see this hurricane coming.”
The broadcast said a storm was approaching Chilla, the small village at the southern tip of Bangladesh where they were located. But they weren’t worried, and Suranjung thought the hurricane wasn’t high in magnitude.
But then, in the early morning, the hurricane level suddenly began to rise. Suranjung recalls: “All of a sudden it went to Category 10. Then the waves came.” The wall of water, taller than the house, washed over the family’s house, and a wall collapsed, crushing the sleeping baby to death.
In recent years, however, the number of deaths from extreme weather events in Bangladesh has dropped dramatically, thanks in large part to the country’s multi-layered early warning system of weather monitoring equipment, communication systems and a comprehensive network of volunteers. And half of these volunteers are women, who are working to overcome the large gender disparities that exist within the group.
Bangladesh has relatively few resources, but its early warning system has enhanced the country’s climate defenses. Experts believe its success sets an example for other low-income countries seeking to develop early warning systems to address climate change.
“Bangladesh is really in a pioneering position in terms of effective early warning systems,” said John Harding, head of the World Meteorological Organization’s Climate Risk and Early Warning Systems Secretariat.
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has set an ambitious plan for countries to ensure that within the next five years, “every human being on the planet” will have access to early warning systems.
Harding said, “Early warning systems are one of the most effective tools we have to deal with these climate change impacts.”
Bangladesh has been strengthening its early warning system for decades – so what lessons can other countries learn from it?
Bangladesh’s cyclone system began operating in 1970, when Cyclone Bora killed half a million people in the Bay of Bengal, one of the deadliest storms on record. The disaster prompted Bangladesh to invest heavily in weather forecasting technology, cyclone shelters, and training a network of volunteers along the coast. 2020, when Cyclone Ampan made landfall as a powerful Category 2 cyclone storm (almost as severe as Bora’s Category 3 storm), Bangladesh recorded only 26 deaths. As the storm rushed toward the coast, Mistri’s family once again heard the news of the approaching cyclone on the radio. But this time, they were ready.
Two days before the cyclone made landfall, Mistri received a text message on her phone warning her of a low pressure over the Bay of Bengal, and she tracked the cyclone’s progress through messages on social media. By the time the cyclone made landfall, her family had already packed up their belongings and evacuated to a nearby cyclone shelter.
Bangladesh’s success in reducing the death toll is due in part to its improved ability to monitor and track cyclones over the Bay of Bengal. in 1970, Bangladesh had only two coastal radars that could track the progress of cyclones within 200 miles of the coast. Today, however, Bangladesh has a comprehensive network of weather stations, including coastal radars, ground-based weather stations and balloon-borne instruments that measure barometric pressure and humidity, allowing it to monitor developments closely and in real time.
Last year, the World Meteorological Organization adopted a resolution on the free exchange of weather data among its 193 member countries, which means Bangladesh and other countries can now get weather forecasts from much further afield. Harding said this sharing of weather data “is particularly important for events such as tropical cyclones, which themselves can start to arise from further south in the Bay of Bengal.”
But having the data is not yet fully effective in warning people of impending danger, and we need to make sure the information actually reaches them.
Harding said:Even if you have the best science, the best predictions, if it’s not translated into the right language or format, the population won’t understand it.”
Bangladesh’s early warning system uses a variety of communication methods, including television and radio broadcasts, cell phone network pushes, text message notifications, and a hotline that people can dial to listen to pre-recorded voice messages.
But the key to helping as many people as possible lies in Bangladesh’s vast network of volunteers, which disaster reduction experts call the “last mile.
After the 1970 disaster, the Bangladesh Red Crescent Society developed a cyclone preparedness program aimed at reducing unnecessary deaths and increasing community resilience. The program is now overseen by the government’s Ministry of Disaster Management and Relief, with more than 76,000 volunteers standing by in coastal villages.
When the program began in Chira in 2009, Mistri immediately signed up for volunteer training. I had never met my brother,” she says. It was very painful for me. I joined the volunteer team to make sure no other children would lose their lives.”
Volunteer teams use a system of graded flags hung in central markets or village squares to communicate the severity of the storm. They also patrol the streets with megaphones to spread warnings and even go door-to-door by walking or riding motorcycles to make sure everyone gets the message, including those who stay at home, don’t know how to read or don’t have a cell phone. The study found that community response is critical to swift life-saving action when disasters strike.
Maleeha Fedus, program manager at the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) in Bangladesh, says gender inequality has led to a decline in literacy rates, gender roles that confine women to the home and reduce household decision-making power, limiting women’s access to information.
She said:- “The early warnings women receive are usually filtered through male members of the household and the information is not properly disseminated to women.”
This has resulted in women often being overrepresented in Bangladesh in deaths due to cyclones. 14 times more women than men died during Cyclone Bora in 1970. To add insult to injury, many women choose not to evacuate because they believe they should stay at home or fear gender-based violence in overcrowded shelters.
“They will wait for permission from a male member of the family.” Fedus said. These women feel that staying in a shelter without a male guardian brings stigma to the family. And volunteers need to convince women to address these issues. During Hurricane Ampan in 2020, Mistri’s relative, Aparna Mistri, initially refused to evacuate because she was embarrassed by the thought of breastfeeding her child in public and sleeping in the same room with so many strangers.
“The shelter is a very crowded place. There were so many men there. When I changed clothes, I felt uncomfortable.”
When asked what changed her mind, Aparna pointed to Mistri, who was sitting with us. , such encounters are common for Mistri, who often faced resistance from women evacuating during the hurricane. But the situation is improving with the introduction of female volunteers who will help the women during the evacuation process. “Only women can step up and help women.” said Lina Sardar, a 38-year-old female volunteer who works with Mistri.
Female volunteers are able to access spaces that may be inaccessible to men, ensuring that important information about the impending cyclone is disseminated among female networks that might otherwise remain isolated. In addition, being a volunteer enhances women’s social status and allows them to play a role in society, where they might otherwise work only in the home.
As a result, the ratio of male to female deaths in disasters has been decreasing in recent years, dropping to 1:1 during Cyclone Ampan in 2020.
In 1970, there were only 44 cyclone shelters in Bangladesh. However, after the Bola disaster, the combined efforts of the government and international assistance increased to nearly 4,000 official shelters by the mid-2000s. Most of these shelters are also schools and community centers.
A study published last year found that Bangladesh will increase access and combine shelter and community management to help improve evacuation behavior.
Bangladesh now aims to expand its disaster risk reduction model beyond cyclone threats, training teams to respond quickly to disasters such as earthquakes, fires and floods. The program will help reduce the number of deaths during disasters.
While early warning systems can save lives, they cannot minimize the socio-economic impact of recurring disasters. In the run-up to Tropical Storm Ampan in 2020, advanced warning and shelters saved many lives, but an estimated 500,000 people remained homeless.
“What we also need is global financial support for the victims of man-made climate change. We can’t just help people survive, but we need to help them restore their livelihoods.”
Mistri has found that raising public awareness of hurricanes gives her a sense of purpose that is distinct from her traditional role as a mother. She says: “I feel proud to be part of the volunteer effort, and it’s a great opportunity for me to do something for people.” In her spare time, she helps local students learn about the dangers of tornadoes and how to evacuate safely.
However, due to the devastation of the cyclone, people are rebuilding their houses. Rising sea levels are also threatening Bangladesh, with coastal areas eroding and land becoming saline. This has made farmland unusable and destroyed the main source of food and income for many families in the village, Mistri said.A 2019 report found that each family in the most vulnerable areas of Bangladesh needs to pay an average of 6,608 taka ($70) a year to prevent and repair damage caused by climate disasters, which has left many people poorer.
Mistri wants to stay in Chira, but she knows she still needs to leave to find work. “There’s no future here.” She said. A 2018 World Bank report predicted that climate change in Bangladesh could lead to the displacement of up to 13.3 million people, or one in seven of the country’s population, by 2050.
The Bangladeshi government is struggling to address the threat these climate disasters pose to its people. “We are not sitting idle, we are not waiting for the rest of the world to come to our rescue.”
Translated with www.DeepL.com/Translator (free version)