Disaster preparedness on the coastal chars of Bangladesh
by Philippa Howell June 2003

The people of Bangladesh’s chars are acutely vulnerable to disasters, yet they are the least visible and most marginalised within the national warning and shelter system.

Bangladesh’s off-shore chars (flat silt islands just a metre above sea level) are home to tens of thousands of people, many of whom have migrated there after losing houses and assets to river erosion elsewhere in the country. Life is extremely vulnerable to recurring disaster in the form of cyclones, storms and tidal surges.

This physical vulnerability is compounded by social and economic systems that leave most inhabitants landless and debt-ridden. Hence, in these circumstances of particular vulnerability, disaster preparedness requires not only adequate physical protection, but also steps to tackle these structural inequalities in order to reduce vulnerability and increase coping capacities.

Early-warning systems and patchy preparedness

After the severe cyclone in 1970, substantial sums were spent in Bangladesh on building cyclone shelters and setting up national warning systems. The Red Crescent Cyclone Preparedness Programme (CPP) plays an important role with its network of radio bases and trained volunteers. Yet shelters are still scarce on the chars; on Char Jahiruddin, for example, there are only two useable shelters (capacity 4,000–5,000) for a population of 20,000 people. Poor facilities represent a heath hazard in overcrowded conditions. There is no safe path to shelters during a tidal surge, and reaching them means wading or swimming through snake-infested waters. Very few houses are strong enough to survive cyclone winds or escape a tidal surge: most people survive major cyclones by climbing trees, although many islands have little tree cover.

Factors of vulnerability

Vulnerability is rooted in social and economic conditions, as well as physical hazards. On the chars, the poor rely almost exclusively on sharecropping, or fishing under the ‘dadon’ system, whereby the catch, usually bought at half its market price or less, is controlled by the person who gives loans for the equipment. This economic dependence (often described as a ‘patron–client’ relationship) combined with physical risks makes it hard to build up household assets, further reducing resilience to recurring disasters. Moreover, it is precisely these powerful ‘patrons’ to whom poor people turn for assistance after a disaster, thus increasing dependency and indebtedness. Local governance and judicial systems are also dominated by the powerful.

The poorest are least likely to hear radio warnings, and most likely to live outside protective embankments and furthest from safe paths. Since the pressure on livelihoods is acute, it is tempting to ignore warnings and go fishing, or postpone time-consuming preparations for disaster. Warnings may be disregarded due to their previous inaccuracy. Above all, those with few possessions are least likely to risk losing them in order to save their lives.

Cultural factors also play a part. Attitudes to preparedness are often influenced by religious leaders, some of whom advocate prayer as the only appropriate measure. Women are especially at risk, since they do not frequent public places such as markets where radio warnings may be heard. Their long saris make swimming and tree-climbing difficult, and shame due to loss of clothing is often feared as much as death.

Training for disaster preparedness

Against this background, in 1999 ActionAid-Bangladesh designed a one-year pilot programme (funded by ECHO) to work on ‘intensive community disaster prepared-ness’ on four coastal chars. Lack of information and awareness was believed to be as much an impediment to disaster-preparedness as lack of technical know-how. The programme offered simple practical knowledge, such as the meaning of warning signals, first aid, and ways of safeguarding valuables; and suggested keeping buoyant objects such as dried coconuts in the house. The scientific explanation of how cyclones form was a revelation, since these were previously considered as being punishment from Allah. Based on this experience and the findings of a mid-term review, a replicable training package – Active Disaster Awareness and Preparedness Training (ADAPT) – was developed for use on other chars.

While awareness and knowledge can better enable poor people to prepare for and survive disasters, they cannot address socially-constructed vulnerability such as exists in Bangladesh. Focus groups to discuss preparedness strategies may be the first step in empowering poor people, but socially-constructed vulnerabilities can only be fully overcome through long-term strategies such as land reform, accountable local governance and transparent legal systems.

The lessons for donors and NGOs

By itself, knowledge is not enough to break the cycle of vulnerability. Disaster preparedness must be linked to recovery potential as well as survival if it is to make a lasting difference. This is vital if any credible development progress is to be achieved, and highlights the need for anti-poverty programmes to take account of the impact of disasters.

The chars are considered ‘lawless’ due to their remote location and shifting population, and few international NGOs work there. It is easy for the government to ignore them, despite population increases of 5–6 per cent a year, and more advocacy by NGOs could raise their profile and make the environment less conducive to corruption and exploitation. Programmes working directly to promote the capacities of vulnerable people must also seek opportunities to influence social and economic change in their favour. Advocacy is always difficult where power is in the hands of very few people, and is reinforced by the social and cultural system. For this very reason, however, community groups need a lot of support to withstand the threats of those with a vested interest in the existing system.

Support for income generation can complement advocacy work. The households most resilient to disaster are those with a range of earning options: in the long term, this is the only means of escape from exploitation. In the shorter term, cash-for-work could be used to build raised earth platforms for houses and livestock.

In such extreme conditions as those on the chars, it is infrastructure such as strong houses, roads and embankments which will save lives. NGOs and donors, whose interest in supporting infrastructure-based projects is waning, must be prepared to address these crucial deficiencies, whether through direct support or through advocacy. A major thrust of many preparedness programmes is to urge people to seek shelter in time – yet often such shelters are non-existent or inadequate. Cheaper options such as raised and strengthened houses/smaller shelters which can accommodate small groups of households (with separate spaces for men and women) should be investigated, since these would be more accessible and better protect assets. There have been attempts to build smaller community-managed shelters which double as clinics or schools, but there is little research into alternatives to protect livestock and possessions.

Equally, some form of insurance for the poor is essential. This could be linked to the many micro-finance institutions in the sub-continent, to government relief schemes or be based at local level on communal savings and storage. Assurance that lost assets will be replaced, at least partially, could encourage poor people to leave their homes and save themselves. It would also promote recovery and reduce indebtedness to patrons.

The predictable nature of the disasters that afflict the chars urges us to revisit the efficiency of current early-warning systems for marginalised populations. There is potential in incorporating indigenous indicators – ants climbing trees carrying their eggs, for example – into local systems for increased relevance and credibility.

Finally, the case of the chars illustrates the complexities of disaster preparedness and resilience. It challenges us to develop a more holistic analysis which explores the social and economic factors affecting people’s capacities to cope with disaster. This would enable preparedness and relief to be directed towards household recovery, as well as survival.

Philippa Howell was Advisor to ActionAid-Bangladesh’s disaster-preparedness programme in January–August 2000.

For more information on ADAPT, contact Roger Yates at ActionAid’s UK emergencies unit: ryates@ actionaid.org.uk; or Feisal Hussein at ActionAid-Bangladesh feisalh @aab.agni.com.



In the Eye of the Storm, an ActionAid CD-Rom for development education

Philippa Howell, Fighting Poverty: The Humanitarian Connection (London: ActionAid Emergencies Unit, 2000)

Philippa Howell, Indigenous Early Warning Indicators of Cyclones: Examples from the Coastal Chars of Bangladesh (Dhaka: ActionAid-Bangladesh, 2000)

Philippa Howell and Gaziul Hassan Mahmood, Intensive Community Disaster Preparedness Programme: Participatory Mid-term Review (Dhaka: ActionAid-Bangladesh, 2000)

M. Shameem Siddiqi, Geopolitical, Ecological and Socio-economic Features and Disaster Preparedness and Management on the Offshore Chars of Bhola District (Dhaka: Action-Aid Bangladesh, 1996)

John Twigg, Sustainable Livelihoods and Vulnerability to Disasters (London: Benfield Grieg Hazard Research Centre for the Disaster Mitigation Institute, Ahmedabad, 2000)

John Twigg, The Human Factor in Early Warning: Risk Perception and Appropriate Communications (London: Benfield Grieg Hazard Research Centre, 1998)

Hanna Schmuck, ‘“An Act of Allah”: Religious Explanations for Floods in Bangladesh as Survival Strategy’, paper prepared for a conference of the European Sociological Association, 1998