Coping with cyclones in 21st century

Shihab Sarkar | Published: May 09, 2019 21:25:18 | Updated: May 16, 2019 21:12:52

Brewing menacingly for around a week, the dreaded cyclone Fani has at last crossed Bangladesh, and finally headed north in India. It did it not with a bang but a whimper. However, before Fani entered Bangladesh, it had made its landfall in Puri, in the eastern Indian state of Odisha. In the coastal areas of the state, it literally wrought havoc with the normal chores of life, leaving a trail of devastation. However, fatalities there finally reached a humble figure, at 12. With the memories of 2007 and 2009 disastrous storms Sidr and Aila still fresh, the coastal Bangladesh had been bracing for a terrible catastrophe this time.

Thanks to the full-throttle rescue preparations enforced by local administrations in the southern Bangladesh districts, the extent of damage and loss was relatively minimal. In the storm that fomented for nearly a week before the final strike, only five persons died, with over 60 injured. Communications at many places were disrupted, with dwelling houses and Boro crops damaged badly. The storm caused damage to crops on some 63,063 hectares of land in 209 upazilas of 35 districts, ministry sources said. A total loss of Tk 385,402,500 in damages was learnt to have been made by the cyclonic storm. Around 13,631 farmers were affected in 35 districts. In spite of these impacts, Bangladesh had just a brush with the feared 'super-cyclone'. However, the encounter with 'Fani' (snake in Bangla) was a close shave. Fani could have spread its hood ferociously and invited catastrophic consequences for lots of people, especially those living in the remote islets. Fortunately, the nation has been spared those nightmares this time. These days whenever a cyclone keeps being formed in the mid-Bay for weeks, changes directions and returns again with renewed ferocity, people do not get scared to death as they did decades ago. Unlike during the massive killer cyclone in 1970, also called the Bhola Cyclone, and several others in the following times, storm warning system coupled with emergency rescue operations have undergone radical changes. It was mainly in the absence of these facilities that hundreds and thousands of people had to meet their untimely deaths. In the 1970 cyclone, an estimated 500,000 people either died or washed out into the Bay of Bengal.

Except the highly disorganised nations, few of them have to pass through the ordeals of this natural calamity in terrible forms. Credits for this go to the international organisations worldwide, who deal with natural disasters and rush succour to the victims. In Bangladesh the relevant offices dealing with disaster management and relief operations have now graduated to an international level. They are now capable of facing up to any challenging situation created by formidably powerful cyclones. In the 1970s and the 80s, few people had trust in the weather forecast broadcast by government-run outlets. The weather department was awfully understaffed with little support coming from modern technology. The warning of the great 1970 cyclone speeding towards the coastal area was broadcast over radio only a couple of days ago.

Until recently, foreign satellites circling above Bangladesh used to send weather-related image updates on the waters of the Indian Ocean. This 24-hour monitoring enabled the country to take all-out preparations prior to the strikes of many a mid-level and massive cyclones. With the Bangabandhu Satellite placed in the orbit, Bangladesh can now claim to be in the club of nations able to correctly track the sea-borne storms.

In spite of a highly sophisticated satellite in the orbit, Bangladesh, like many others, is still constrained by some limitations. It is the failure to predict tsunamis. This terrible calamity has been baffling mankind since long. But due to its infrequent nature, it did not cause much worry to coastal nations. With the impact of climate change deteriorating without respite, and changes in under-sea patterns of earthquake tremors, the onslaughts of tsunamis are also becoming fiercer. This trend first hit the modern-times world in 2004. During that devastating calamity, 30-foot giant waves triggered by a quake crashed down on the coast in the Indian Ocean. As part of the nature of tsunami, unprepared and helpless coastal people and myriad types of structures are later sucked back into the sea. 2004 was no exception. The tsunami mainly struck the west and north coasts of Sumatra in Indonesia. The worst hit area in the country was the Aceh province.

Besides Indonesia, several South Asian countries including Sri Lanka, Maldives, Thailand and India also bore the brunt. The coastal Bangladesh near Kuakata had a brush with the tsunami waves as did a couple of East African countries. The tsunami killed a total of 2, 25, 000 people in Indonesia and the other countries. The dreadful aspect of a massive tsunami is it keeps being followed by a number of large to moderate-scale disasters. This is what has happened in the aftermath of the 2004 tsunami.

Despite all-out efforts by weather scientists, a foolproof tsunami warning system has yet to be in place. As a country with a long, unbroken coast, Bangladesh is hamstrung by this limitation. It has few options except looking to innovative seismologists and tsunami experts abroad. But there are little signs of any remarkable breakthrough in tsunami warning system being developed in the advanced countries.

The fraught state vis-à-vis the dread for tsunami notwithstanding, there are little possibilities that this disaster will strike the country anytime soon. In the last 200 years, there have been no records of a deadly tsunami striking Bangladesh. But the land has kept being battered by devastating cyclones for several centuries. There are few written records of these storms. The persons who could come up with detailed oral portrayals of these cyclones, especially those living in the 17th-18th centuries, are long dead. The chances of availability of scattered written records are slim. It was mainly because the quality of paper used for printing purpose 300 to 400 years ago was not that suitable for survival today. The presumably earliest written records of cyclones date back to the British colonial period. Those were written mostly by the colonial administrative officials. During this time, a handful of local scribes would keep records of natural calamities like cyclones and occasional earthquakes. All these records portray Bangladesh as a land chronically prone to cyclones. It was not only sheer luck and the positioning of the stars in its favour that Bangladesh could earn the capability of battling cyclones so efficiently. The country's status as an independent and sovereign nation also has a critical role in this feat.



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