“I still remember Cyclone Sidr in 2007,” said Hasina Begum, Headmistress of Paschim Napitkhali Primary School in Barguna, Bangladesh.
She fell silent, her face slowly crumpling up - the shadows in her dark eyes gathering into deep pools of sadness.
“There were warnings, but nothing could really prepare us for what happened. Cyclone Sidr hit my hometown, Barguna with ferocious intensity. Powerful gusts of winds and heavy rainfalls frightened the helpless people, many of whom had left their homes and processions to seek the protection of cyclone-shelters, like my school.”
The Paschim Napitkhali Primary School, a non-descript two storied building had played a life-saving role in 2007, when Barguna and other coastal regions were hit hard by the storm surge of over 5 meters (16 ft). Initially established by Hasina’s father, the school was later rebuilt and converted into a school-cum-cyclone-shelter. During the year, the primary school bustles with children – but during cyclones and other natural disasters, the building doubles up as a shelter. In 2007, this cyclone-shelter alone had helped save more than 800 people.
Built on pillars as high as a one-storied house, cyclone-shelters have reinforced foundation to withstand the force of the water and the winds. The raised structure and the design of the building help to save people from the tidal waves that wash over and flood these highly vulnerable coastal villages.
“On the night when Cyclone Sidr hit, the winds howled and raged outside for hours; the rain beat relentlessly and we could do nothing but just pray in the terrifying darkness,” continued Hasina. When the storm subsided and we came out, we found that everywhere around us the trees were uprooted and branches and dead livestock littered the fields where the crops were razed to the ground. The stench of death hung in the air…”
Hasina paused; her eyes tormented, her voice cracking up. “I saw arms and legs lying about in the fields, bloated corpses torn up and dumped by the waves that had caught up to them. The death toll in my village was high . Many people, who were unable to evacuate to cyclone-shelters in time, had drowned in the tidal waves that hit the region and washed away everything.”
Coastal regions such as Barguna have always been prone to disasters. Over the past few decades, Bangladesh had developed a network of cyclone shelters and early-warning system that help warn people to evacuate in advance. Even though local communities have learnt to cope better with the frequent disasters, however during 1980 - 2000, of about 250,000 deaths worldwide arising from cyclones, 60 percent occurred in Bangladesh alone.
With the effects of climate change likely to increase the frequency and severity of natural disasters, Bangladesh needs to adapt to increased uncertainty and be prepared. With this in mind, around 700 cyclone shelters are in the process of being constructed or upgraded with better designs with support from the World Bank to protect the country’s coastal population . 480 kms of embankment are also being repaired and reconstructed through the same initiative. Hasina’s school-cum-cyclone-shelter received funds to repair portions of the wall and the ceiling, which was badly damaged in the 2007 cyclone.
However, almost four years after the calamity, the community in Barguna still bears the scars of Cyclone Sidr. They live precariously, their means of living affected by the changing climate and the degeneration of their natural resources. The people are struggling against increased salinity in the soil, contaminated saline water sources and farmlands losing their capacity to yield sufficient food.
Yet, hope refuses to die and still flickers on. Little by little, the people are rebuilding their lives and livelihoods, strengthening cyclone-shelters, repairing broken embankments and preparing themselves for better disaster management.
“The memory of Cyclone Sidr still haunts me,” said Hasina. “I do not want my people to go through that horror; ever again. Times are getting harder - we have a lot to do now. But we need to, and shall, work harder to protect our villages, farm our lands and educate our children.”
For this is a country of people, terribly vulnerable to, but rising up to the challenges of the changing climate.