As Bangladesh picks up the pieces in the wake of the tropical cyclone Sidr, it needs all the help the global community can offer. The cyclone, with 160 mph winds, swept in from the Bay of Bengal, killing thousands and making tens of thousands more homeless. While the efforts of rescue and relief teams that have reached most of the remote areas of Bangladesh should be applauded, the question needs to be asked whether the authorities could have managed the
cyclone’s impact better. No doubt, Sidr was one of the worst cyclones to hit Bangladesh in recent years and there was little anyone in its path could have done.
It is almost as if Bangladesh — one of the most low-lying areas on the planet — is geographically cursed, the way storms batter its coast every year. A severe cyclone killed more than half a million people in 1970, while another killed 143,000 people and destroyed thousands of homes in 1991. Given the fact that tidal surges often cause the most damage from storms, it is crucial for vulnerable populations to move to safety before floodwaters roar inland. This exercise may be a logistical nightmare, but it could spell the difference between lives saved and lost. So Bangladeshi authorities will do well to wonder if adequate protection was provided to the 10 million people living in vulnerable coastal areas. From all accounts, alas, it seems storm shelters were only available for about half a million people. In a small country like Bangladesh, there is not much of a buffer zone for people to retreat to when disasters strike. Had Dhaka stepped up its storm planning after the 1970 cyclone, warning systems and shelters would have limited such dreadful casualties.
Tropical storms are likely to become more frequent as climate change accelerates, and North-eastern India too can expect to be affected. So it would be a good idea for both countries to face this challenge together. India’s National Disaster Management Authority, for instance, could provide valuable inputs to Bangladesh’s flood control plans by sharing topographic data and satellite imagery.