Prepared for disaster in Bangladesh

Prepared for disaster in Bangladesh

The German Red Cross and Red Crescent conducts a simulation on Hatiya Island using a new process called Forecast-based Financing that bridges a much-needed gap in disaster-preparedness.

Pilot Mark Blomberg flies across the northern tip of the perfectly flat Hatiya Island in the Bay of Bengal, touches down in the water and parks next to the muddy flats exposed from a low tide.

Story and photos by LuAnne Cadd

Hatiya appears calm today as MAF picks up six Bangladesh Red Crescent Society and German Red Cross (BDRCS/GRC) staff that have conducted a simulation on the densely populated island for their cyclone preparedness program called Forecast-based Financing.

 "If people are better prepared, they can face a storm much better.” Olaf Neussner, German Red Cross

Before the storm 

It’s early March, sunny and breezy, but in just one month the cyclone season begins and this southern low-lying region of the country lies vulnerable to all storms, especially cyclones and destructive storm surges that can result in crippling loss of life, property and agriculture.

In Bangladesh, cyclones occur from April through May and again from October to November. Cyclonic storms hit the coastal area of Bangladesh in regular interval and the accompanying storm surge can reach as far as 200 km inland. From 1981 to 1985, 174 cyclones (with wind speeds of more than 54 km/hr) formed in the Bay of Bengal. Seven destructive cyclones have crashed onto Bangladesh shores since 2007.

The BDRCS/GRC have spent the last year collecting data on the islanders, identifying 1112 households to participate in the FbF program, and running other early-warning preparedness exercises including training in how to strengthen a home using ropes. When a cyclone is confirmed through early warning systems, money will be quickly distributed to the pre-chosen households in time for evacuation and to purchase ropes, food, medicine etc.

Isolated islands 

“Keep in mind that Hatiya is an island and that means for a while after a cyclone, the island will be cut off from the rest of the world,” Olaf Neussner says, Project Delegate for the German Red Cross. “So if they already have some supplies in their homes, that will help them. If a strong storm surge happens, that might destroy some roads preventing them from easily going to the shops anymore. They will have enough money for these things if we give it to them, but otherwise they’re too poor to afford that.”

Forty beneficiaries participated in the simulation, each given 500 taka, the equivalent of about £5. For the real emergency, it will be more.

Additionally, Muhammad Mamtaz Uddin, Senior Project Officer, explained that they work with two schools on the island, training students and teachers to handle weather equipment and laptops to record weather fluctuations in rain, wind speed, temperature and humidity and thereby being able to detect weather anomalies of an impending cyclone.

Ready to respond 

The United Nations estimates that disasters cost the global economy more than $300 billion each year, and the Asia-Pacific region suffers the heaviest burden. 2.1 million lives were lost in disasters from 1995–2014. Extreme weather events can now be predicted with a fairly high degree of accuracy, yet the typical approach for donors and humanitarian organisations is to wait until after the disaster to make an appeal or fund a relief operation.

“MAF cuts our travel time and makes it easier to reach remote places like Hatiya where it would take 8 hours to reach by land and sea". Olaf Neussner, German Red Cross

The Red Cross, Red Crescent and partners, the German government and the World Food Programme (WFP) now have implemented trial programs of Forecast-based Financing in at least 15 countries. Recent studies show encouraging outcomes, even though weather forecasting is imperfect. According to the Red Cross Climate Centre, a test case in flood-prone areas of Bangladesh showed that one dollar spent helping families prior to a flood would save three dollars in losses.

Risk reduction looks at long-term activities to reduce loss. Disaster response provides relief after the damage is done. “Forecast-based financing bridges the two options: making it possible to take cost-effective preventive action on the basis of immediate threats,” says Judy Slatyer, Australian Red Cross CEO.

Saving time

The Bangladesh Red Crescent Society and German Red Cross program began in July 2015 and MAF has been flying staff to and from Hatiya, saving them a day of overland travel versus one hour of flight.

“We use MAF to commute,” Olaf explains. “It cuts our travel time a lot and makes it much easier to reach some remote places like Hatiya where it would take maybe 8 hours to reach by land and sea. Of course, we have to work, so if we spend a lot of time on the road, it’s wasted time. With the work that we’re doing, we hope to reduce the risks of people dying and large damages. If people are better prepared, they can face a storm much better.”

Bangladesh lies vulnerable to cyclones and destructive storm surges that can result in crippling loss of life, property and agriculture.