While Bangladesh  played host to yet another deadly cyclone on May 17th, 2013, cyclone shelters provided a critical first line of defense to thousands of poor communities living along the remote coastline of the country. A million poor people fled from their homes to seek refuge before cyclone Mahasen struck the coast. The cyclone impacted 8 coastal districts with flooding and water logging, caused 17 fatalities and damaged about half a million households.
Tropical cyclones and accompanying storm surges emerging in the Bay of Bengal can be deadly and cause massive damage. The cyclones in the 70s and 90s were the worst in terms of storm surge height and lives lost. 300,000 died in the 1970 cyclone and 138,882 in 1991, leaving entire communities scarred for life. The more recent cyclones in 2007 (SIDR) and 2009 (AILA) were responsible for 3,363 and 190 deaths, respectively.
However, over the years, the government of Bangladesh has made significant strides to minimize the loss of lives and assets in the cyclone-prone coastal districts. In addition to improving disaster preparedness, the construction of cyclone shelters is a high priority for Bangladesh, which the World Bank has been supporting through the Emergency Cyclone Recovery and Restoration Project  (ECCRP). The project was designed to assist in the recovery from SIDR damage to livelihoods and infrastructure; support the construction of cyclone shelters and build long term disaster preparedness in climate vulnerable areas.
The project focuses on providing greater protection to vulnerable populations and livestock in the cyclone prone areas by constructing new multipurpose shelters; improving existing shelters and making roads to enable communities to access safe shelters during cyclones. Since the start of the project, the Local Government Engineering Department has upgraded 240 existing shelters and constructed 12 new shelters using funds from IDA, Global Facility for Disaster Risk Reduction (GFDRR), Kreditanstalt für Wiederaufbau (KfW), and the Bangladesh Climate Change Resilience Fund (BCCRF).
While cyclone Mahasen was approaching Bangladesh, the government activated cyclone preparedness measures at the local and central levels. According to post cyclone reports, 1,668 cyclone shelters were used to give shelter to 483,300 people. All the cyclones shelters built and improved through the ECCRP were ready to offer refugee to people and 40,219 people in the most vulnerable areas were saved, along with their livestock.
Mahasen also served to test the structural durability and functional design of the ECRRP shelters. Design features such as separate floors for livestock, separate rooms for pregnant women, gender marked toilets, store rooms, enhanced toilet facilities with soak pits and septic tanks, emergency water supply (tube wells), first aid facilities, solar lights, rain water harvesting and tree plantation are features unique to the ECRRP shelters. Inputs from the stakeholders were taken on how the shelters will be designed and operated during normal times and when cyclones hit; and shelters were built in compliance with land use planning, environmental and social safeguards requirements.
In particular, the ECRRP shelters are unique because of their structural durability. They are designed to withstand wind speeds of 260km/hr; are made of reinforced frame structure; and have 60 grade deformed bars and stone aggregates in the casting of the shelter foundation, footings, columns, beams, making these structures sustainable during severe cyclones. Also, the ECRRP shelters are built as 3 storied structures with provisions for vertical extension in the future. All of these factors made a great difference in the shelters’ performance during Mahasen.
People working on the ground believe that due to the increase in the number of useable shelters this year, thanks to ECRRP, the loss of lives has been a lot less than what it could have been in one of the most cyclone vulnerable places in Bangladesh. Says LGED Executive Engineer in Bhola, Mr. SM Akbar Hossain “Not only did the shelters house people; they were also the safe point for relief activities, such as precautionary stocking of dry food. These shelters provide a safe haven during killer cyclones and during non-cyclone times are used as Primary Schools targeting the ultra-poor, thus providing hope and mobility to the communities.”
Mahasen has tested the utility of the ECRRP cyclone shelters and points to the continued importance of the World Bank’s collaboration with the Government of Bangladesh on saving lives and securing livelihoods. These shelters have now become beacons of hope when the darkness of an approaching cyclone looms over coastal communities.
Video: Increasing Resilience to Natural Disasters