The cyclone that killed Chaina Mistry's two-month-old brother in late 1988 arrived unexpectedly and in the middle of the night.
"We didn’t see it coming," remembers Mistry’s father, Suranjon, who is now 65.
An announcement on the radio had warned the family of a storm approaching their home in Chila, a tiny village nestled into the southern tip of Bangladesh. But they weren't worried, says Suranjon: the signal number, used to categorise the intensity of cyclones on a scale of 1 to 10, had remained low.
But then, in the early hours of the morning, it abruptly started to rise. "Suddenly it was at 10," recalls Suranjon. "And then the wave hit." The wall of water, higher than a house, smashed through the family home, causing a wall to collapse which crushed the sleeping infant.
But a lot has changed since the death of the older brother that Mistry, now 29, never had the chance to meet.
Bangladesh has really been a bit of a trailblazer when it comes to seeing what an effective early warning system can look like – John Harding
Bangladesh is one of the most disaster-prone countries in the world, and still experiences several cyclonic storms each year, their impact amplified by the country’s funnel-shaped bay. Floods and coastal erosion frequently cause devastation in the low-lying coastal region. In June this year, the country was hit by the worst flood in over a century, leaving over seven million people without food or shelter. Scientists say that climate change may have played a role in the disaster.
The death toll from extreme weather events has drastically decreased, however, thanks in large part to a multi-layered early warning system consisting of weather monitoring equipment, communication systems and a comprehensive network of volunteers. Crucially, half of these volunteers are women, who are working hard to overcome the huge gender disparities in who is most impacted by disasters.
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Bangladesh's system has become renowned for increasing the country's resilience with relatively few resources, with its success lauded by experts as a model for other low-income countries looking to develop early warning systems in the face of a changing climate.
"Bangladesh has really been a bit of a trailblazer when it comes to seeing what an effective early warning system can look like," says John Harding, head of the World Meteorological Organization (WMO)'s climate risk and early warning systems (CREWS) secretariat.
Volunteers in Bangladesh's Cyclone Preparedness Programme (CPP) take part in an early warning drill in Chila village, April 2022 (Credit: Catherine Davison)
Last month, the UN Secretary General António Guterres set out an ambitious plan for countries to ensure "every person on Earth" is protected by an early warning system within the next five years, as part of a call for greater investment in adaptation to climate change. An action plan for this will be presented by the WMO at the next UN climate conference, Cop27, later this year.
"[Early warning systems] are one of the most effective tools that we have at our disposal to deal with these climate change impacts," says Harding.
Bangladesh has been strengthening its early warning system for decades – so what can other countries learn from it?
The start for Bangladesh's world leading system dates back to 1970, when Cyclone Bhola resulted in the death of an estimated half a million people in the Bay of Bengal – one of the deadliest storms ever recorded. The disaster prompted Bangladesh to begin investing heavily in weather forecasting technology, cyclone shelters and training up a network of volunteers along the coast.
When Cyclone Amphan made landfall in 2020 as a strong Category 2 cyclonic storm – almost as severe as Bhola's Category 3 – it recorded a death toll of just 26. As this cyclone barrelled towards the coast, Mistry’s family were once again alerted to the approaching cyclone by an announcement on the radio. But this time, they were prepared.
Two days earlier, Mistry's phone had pinged with a text message warning her of a depression in the weather over the Bay of Bengal, and she had tracked the cyclone's progress via messages exchanged on social media. By the time it made landfall, her family had gathered their belongings and evacuated to a nearby cyclone shelter.
Bangladesh's success in lowering its death toll is due, in part, to this improved ability to monitor and track cyclones as they form over the Bay of Bengal. In 1970, the country had only two coastal radars, with an ability to track the progress of cyclones once they were within 200 miles (322km) of the coast. Today, a comprehensive network of weather stations, including coastal radars, ground-based stations and balloon-borne instruments measuring air pressure and humidity enable Bangladesh to closely monitor developments in real time.
I never got to meet my brother. That is very painful for me. I joined the [cyclone preparedness programme] to make sure that no other children have to lose their lives – Chaina Mistry
Last year the WMO adopted a resolution on the free exchange of weather data between all 193 member states, meaning that Bangladesh and other vulnerable countries now have access to forecasts from much further afield. Such sharing of weather data is "particularly important for events like tropical cyclones, where the event itself may start quite a bit further south in the Bay of Bengal," says Harding.
But simply having the data is only one part of effectively warning people about the dangers coming their way. Ensuring this information actually reaches them is another huge component.
"Even if you have the best science, the best predictions available, if it's not translated into the right language or format for the community they won't understand," says Harding. "[It] has to be built with that local perspective from the very start."
Bangladesh's early warning systems uses a variety of communication methods, including TV and radio broadcasts, push messages via mobile phone networks, targeted SMS notifications, and a helpline which people can dial to listen to pre-recorded voice messages.
But the key to reaching as many people as possible – known as "the last mile" by disaster risk reduction experts – lies in the country's huge network of volunteers.
Sabastin Bachar, team leader of CPP for Chila village, shows the three-tiered flag system which is displayed in the village square (Credit: Catherine Davison)
In the wake of the 1970 disaster, the Bangladesh Red Crescent Society set up a cyclone preparedness programme (CPP), with the aim of reducing unnecessary deaths and improving community resilience. Now overseen by the government's ministry of disaster management and relief (MoDMR), the programme has over 76,000 volunteers in villages along the coast.
When the programme started working in Chila in 2009, Mistry immediately signed up to train as a volunteer. "I never got to meet my brother. That is very painful for me," she says. "I joined the CPP to make sure that no other children have to lose their lives."
Part of a team of 20, Mistry is responsible for making sure that everyone in her community is aware of the latest weather risk warnings. Volunteers use a tiered flag system, displayed in the central marketplace or village square, to communicate the severity of the storm. They also patrol through the streets with megaphones to disseminate the warning, and even go door-to-door by foot or motorcycle to ensure that the information reaches everyone – including those who are homebound, illiterate or without access to a mobile phone.
The early warnings that the women and girls receive are often filtered through the male members of the family – Maliha Ferdous
Several studies have found that during disasters, a community-led response – with government and non-profit support – is essential for the rapid, widespread action which saves lives.
In the past year, the CPP has attempted to extend the last mile approach all the way down to schoolchildren, initiating the Prostoot or "learning through playing" programme in some secondary schools. The schools run dedicated disaster-preparedness days, says Ahmadul Haque, director of the CPP, where they do evacuation simulations throughout the day. Children also learn basic first aid and form disaster management teams. The goal, Haque says, is to create a "disaster-ready generation".
The biggest factor in the success of any disaster preparedness programme is "people knowing what to do," says Saleemul Huq, director of the International Centre for Climate Change and Development (ICCCAD) in Bangladesh. Bangladesh's volunteer system has become "a very, very good means of empowering people to know what to do", he adds.
The ability to quickly spread information at a local level has been particularly important in saving the lives of women, who across the globe are often disproportionately affected by sudden-onset disasters.
Gender inequality results in lower literacy rates, gendered roles which confine women to the home, and less decision-making power in the household, limiting women's access to information, says Maliha Ferdous, a project manager at the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) in Bangladesh.
"The early warnings that the women and girls receive are often filtered through the male members of the family," she says. "It is not properly disseminated to the female."
This has led to women often being over-represented in death statistics from cyclones in Bangladesh. During Cyclone Bhola in 1970, female deaths outnumbered males by 14:1. This was compounded by many women choosing not to evacuate in the belief that their place was in the home, or out of a fear of gender-based violence in overcrowded shelters.
"In most cases they wait for the permissions of the male member of the family," says Ferdous, explaining that women often feel that it would bring dishonour to the family to stay in a shelter without male guardians to accompany them.
The CPP volunteers in Chila village are responsible for ensuring everyone in the community is aware of the latest weather risk warnings (Credit: Catherine Davison)
Addressing these beliefs is part of the role that volunteers today play when trying to persuade women to evacuate. During Cyclone Amphan in 2020, Aparna Mistry, a relative of Mistry's who also lives in Chila, at first refused to evacuate, embarrassed at the thought of breastfeeding her child in public and sleeping in the same room as so many strangers.
"The shelter is a very crowded place," she says, protectively drawing a blanket over her now three-year-old son, who lies sleeping in a hammock outside the family shop where she is talking to me. "There are so many men there. When I change my clothes I feel uncomfortable."
Asked what changed her mind, Aparna points at Mistry, who is sitting with us. "By force!" she says, and laughs. The encounter is a common one for Mistry, who says that during cyclones she often faces resistance from women to evacuate. But things are improving, she says, with the introduction of female volunteers who help to council and support these women through the evacuation process. "Only women can stand up and help women," says Rina Sardar, a 38-year-old female volunteer who works alongside Mistry.
In 2015, UN member states adopted the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction, which emphasises the importance of integrating a gender-sensitive approach into disaster management. In line with this, the CPP began gradually onboarding more female volunteers; women now make up 50% of its volunteer force.
Female volunteers are able to access spaces that men might not, ensuring that vital messages about incoming cyclones are spread among female networks which might otherwise remain isolated, explain Ferdous. Additionally, becoming a volunteer can elevate the social standing of women, giving them a role in a society which might otherwise relegate them solely to the domestic sphere.
As a result, the ratio of male to female deaths in disasters has been falling in recent years, and during Cyclone Amphan in 2020 decreased to 1:1, according to the MoDMR.
Empowering women in the community also gives them more autonomy over their own evacuation, and enables them to help with community-managed shelters, decreasing the risk of gender-based violence during evacuations, says Ferdous.
These shelters are themselves another huge part of Bangladesh's success in reducing the risks to people of extreme weather. Through them Bangladesh has excelled at offering people clear and accessible means to protect themselves when they receive warnings.
In 1970, Bangladesh had just 44 cyclone shelters. But in the wake of the Bhola disaster and with the combined efforts of the government and international aid, this had increased to almost 4,000 formal shelters by the mid-2000s. Most double up as schools and community centres.
A study published last year found that Bangladesh's combination of increased access and community management has helped to improve evacuation behaviours.
Most cyclone shelters in Bangladesh are also used as schools or community centres. This one in Chila village doubles up as a school (Credit: Catherine Davison)
"It’s a learning process," says Huq, pointing out that Bangladesh has had years to perfect its early warning systems, and with each disaster learns a new lesson on what works and what doesn't. He believes that Bangladesh can act as a model for other climate vulnerable countries looking to build resilience against the impacts of climate change.
The country now aims to expand its model of disaster risk reduction beyond the threat of cyclones, says Huq, training teams to rapidly respond to hazards such as earthquakes, fires and floods. The plan would help to reduce the death toll during disasters – although, cautions Huq, "cyclones are relatively easy. Floods are more difficult because floods are less predictable."
A 2019 report found that families in the most disaster-prone regions of Bangladesh pay an average of 6,608 taka (£60/$70) each year on preventing and repairing damage caused by climate-related disasters, pushing many deeper into poverty
He is anxious to emphasise, though, that whilst early warning systems can save lives, they cannot minimise the socio-economic impacts of recurring disasters. Many lives were saved by advanced warning and shelters ahead of the arrival of Cyclone Amphan in 2020, but it still left an estimated half a million homeless, including many in Chila.
"The missing link is global financial support for the victims of human-induced climate change,"says Huq. "Simply helping people survive and then not helping them regain their livelihoods is something that we have neglected." Finance from richer countries to help poorer and more vulnerable countries mitigate and adapt to climate change, as well as support for people suffering the worst impacts of climate change, has become huge source of tensions at international climate talks.
A rising threat
Mistry, who at 29 remains unmarried, has found that raising awareness of cyclones has given her an alternative sense of purpose to the traditional role of motherhood. "I feel proud to be a CPP member," she says. "This is a great opportunity for me to do something for people." In her spare time, she helps to teach local schoolchildren about the dangers of cyclones and how to evacuate safely. As we sit speaking under a bright red saree, strung across the courtyard to provide cover from the midday sun, many of them came to say hello, affectionately calling her "mother".
However, Mistry has had to rebuild her own house twice due to cyclone damage. Rising sea levels also present a slower-moving threat in the area, contributing towards coastal erosion and salinisation. Mistry says that this has rendered agricultural land unusable, obliterating the primary source of food and income for many families in the village.
"I joined the CPP to make sure that no other children have to lose their lives," says Chaina Mistry, pictured here preparing for an early warning drill (Credit: Catherine Davison)
A 2019 report found that families in the most disaster-prone regions of Bangladesh pay an average of 6,608 taka (£60/$70) each year on preventing and repairing damage caused by climate-related disasters, pushing many deeper into poverty.
Mistry wants to stay in Chila, but recognises that she may eventually be forced to move away in search of a job. "There is no future here," she says. A World Bank report from 2018 predicted that climate change in Bangladesh could displace as many as 13.3 million people, or 1 in 7, across the country by 2050.
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Bangladesh's government is working to counteract these threats to its population. The country's recent Mujib Climate Prosperity Plan aims to both increase the resilience of coastal populations and use the global need to tackle and adapt to climate change as a catalyst for greater economic prosperity, creating a projected 4.1m jobs by investing in clean energy and fossil-free infrastructure projects, among other schemes.
Bangladesh's prime minister, Sheikh Hasina, has written that the plan will not only help to "avert the worst of climate change; it also makes economic sense". She has committed to funding for gender-sensitive adaptation measures and women's participation in decision-making processes. (However, Bangladesh’s disaster response has also recently been criticised for neglecting the country's vulnerable trans community. The MoDMR didn't immediately respond to a request for comment in response to this criticism.)
Financially, says Huq, the plan "will require substantial external support to be implemented". In the meantime, Bangladesh has been investing in climate adaptation on its own for decades, Huq adds. In the 2020-21 financial year, it allotted 7.5% of its national budget towards hazard reduction and adaptation.
"We haven’t been sitting idle," says Huq. "We’re not waiting for the rest of the world to come to our rescue."
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