As I write this piece, Cyclone Amphan is still at sea. It will reach Digha in India around 3 or 4 in the afternoon. Then after going over Kolkata, it will come towards Satkhira-Jessore in Bangladesh. It is likely to hit Bangladesh around 5 pm Wednesday and will remain strong till around 8 to 9 at night.

There is added fear. It is a night of the lunar eclipse when the tide is much higher than normal. In Satkhira and Khulna regions the river water may rise over 7 to 10 feet and if the tidal surge arrives at that time, there is fear that the water will simply flow over the coastal embankments and enter these areas. However, as it will come through Sundarbans in India and also our side of the Sundarbans, the cyclone will lose some of its intensity. But meteorologists predict the tide to be 8 to 10 ft higher than normal.

As it is, our embankments are in a fragile state, particularly in Satkhira, Khulna and Bagerhat. The embankments which had cracked and leaked during the Cyclone Aila, have undergone only makeshift repairs. These are extremely weak at many points. Due to erosion in many areas of Satkhira and Khulna regions, the river has come right up against the embankments. In many places half of the embankment has crumbled away. So I won’t be surprised if, under Amphan’s impact, the embankment breaks in many places. This is very unfortunate and shameful too.

In this situation I humbly appeal to the water resources ministry to repair the embankments with utmost urgency. There are many polders along the coast where there are sluice gates, but these are not functional. So repairing the embankments is not enough. These sluice gates must be repaired too.

The height of our embankments at present is 15 ft near the sea and 14 to 12 ft further inland. If these are strong, then these can thwart tidal surges of 14 to 15 ft height. Of the 139 polders in our country, 90 are being repaired and being made higher. The remaining polders are in a bad shape.

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As I am writing before the tidal surge has occurred, from the existing data it is obvious that the embankments cannot stand up against the surge effectively and saline water will enter the areas. And as long as the saline water remains, the soil will become saline too. After Aila and Sidr, no steps were taken to repair the embankments speedily. In some places it took two to three years to repair and during those few years the people had to suffer terribly because of the tidal water that had inundated the areas. The land did not yield crops for 4 to 5 years. Only in areas where rain washed away the salinity have crops begun to grow again. This time the salinity will be so high that I doubt if even shrimps or crabs can be cultivated in the water.

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In this situation I humbly appeal to the water resources ministry to repair the embankments with utmost urgency. There are many polders along the coast where there are sluice gates, but these are not functional. So repairing the embankments is not enough. These sluice gates must be repaired too.

I also would like to tell the ministry of agriculture to seek advice from the agricultural experts about how to restore the crop lands as soon as possible. I had an idea that if drains could be dug by the embankments, then rain water could be used to wash the salinity away from the land. Instead of just relying on nature, this will help in the leaching process.

Given the velocity of the cyclone, maybe over 100 km per hour, vast numbers of trees will be uprooted and damaged, corrugated tin houses will be destroyed. But other than cyclone warning on the TV channels, I see no information. And so I was forced to watch the Indian TV channels of West Bengal. They were full of news, statements by government officials and ministers about the preparation being taken. I was amazed to see that vehicles were prevented from using the flyovers in Kolkata. The reason was very natural. If the wind speed was 150 to 160 km per house, cars would simply be flung off the flyovers by the wind. They were taking all sorts of preparation.

The trees on the Kolkata roadsides might not be deep-rooted and may fall and so repeated warnings were being issued. Advice was also being issued to clear the streets as soon as possible so that the thoroughfares did not get blocked

I can have the same apprehensions about Khulna, Satkhira and Bagerhat. It can happen in Jashore too. So we have to plan from now to clear the roads speedily. I also saw on Indian TV channels how they are protecting the fish farms. In that regard, there is a ray of hope as the fisheries ministry in Bangladesh has been advising on how to protect the fish farms. The agricultural ministry also has been giving good advice.

But advice is not enough. Once the water enters, steps must be taken to drain it out immediately. Unfortunately, the infrastructural work belongs to the water development board under the water resources ministry. But the department of agricultural extension under the ministry of agriculture has to give advice about agricultural matters. Then again, the local government engineering department and the roads and highways department are in charge of the roads.

In the past we have seen it takes a long time for things to come back to normal after a cyclone hits. Arrangements have to be made for drinking water in the affected areas. During the Aila and Sidr cyclones, the navy did the job efficiently. We hope they perform equally well this time. There are large numbers of canals and streams in the coastal region which can be used for the government’s relief distribution work.

The people do not want to be dependent on relief. If we actually discuss matters with them, they will say their priority is for the embankments to be repaired, for their cropland to be fixed, for drainage to be ensured so that salinity is removed.

Now let us look at the management of the cyclone shelters. As it is, there are very few such shelters in Satkhira, Khulna and Bagerhat. In my calculations, our country needs 10,000 cyclones shelters, but we have around 5000 and most of these are in Patuakhali, Bhola, Noakhali, Lakshmipur, Feni, Chattogram and Cox’s Bazar. So those who come to the shelters can in no way maintain social distancing. They might have to remain close together. So as soon as the storm is over, they must be sanitized. Arrangements must be made so they can wash their clothes with soap and water, so they can wash their hands and faces. Their temperature must be checked.

If any of them show symptoms of coronavirus, they must be isolated. Those who had been in contact with them must be identified and isolated.

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This is not theoretical talk. We know all these things. I am just urging for quick action to be taken. The local government bodies must be used. The union parishad and ward members and the upazila parishad can be given these responsibilities. These people’s representatives know who live in their areas. The government UNO offices have a lot of data. The election commission has the voters’ list. Families can be easily identified with these lists. This will make relief distribution easier. This must be done transparently.

I want to give the example of relief distribution in the coastal upazilas of Khulna and Satkhira after Aila and Sidr. The UNOs drew up lists through the union parishad members and took help from the local NGOs. The list of those who were to receive relief was hung up on the office wall so the whole process had clarity.

There were hardly any complaints after Aila and Sidr. When I visited the UNO offices in Satkhira and Khulna, I saw that they had drawn up lists for relief distribution with the names of the recipients and their as no debate over these lists. So I hope the entire process is both speedy and transparent.

The people do not want to be dependent on relief. If we actually discuss matters with them, they will say their priority is for the embankments to be repaired, for their cropland to be fixed, for drainage to be ensured so that salinity is removed.

The cyclone warning in our country system is clearly foolish. Bangladesh has so much experience in disaster management. Let us use this experience. Let us do all we can to restore people’s lives back to normal.

Undoubtedly the ultra poor need relief and the landless need special assistance. But if the government forms a taskforce for rehabilitation, they can take the help of experts, NGO workers who have experience working in the coastal regions. But the planning must be done with alacrity.

Finally I want to say that Bangladesh’s cyclone warning system has changed very little since the days of the British rule. River ports and seaports have been delineated. But I beg of the authorities to stop issuing warnings for the ports. Issue the warnings for the people. Follow the methods in which India, in which developed countries issue these warnings.

The warnings issued by the West Bengal government or all over India regarding Amphan are worth studying. One good thing we have is sanding orders. We do not need to discuss certain issues as responsibilities have been cleared demarcated. NGOs have their responsibility, just as do the government officials, the police, the armed forces, the district administration and so on. On paper, everything is clearly marked.

But everything depends on the weather forecast. These forecasts are indecipherable. These must b made understandable for the people. I have been harping on this for long. But the meteorological department is under the defence ministry, controlled by the prime minister so perhaps no one is approaching this problem.

The cyclone warning in our country system is clearly foolish. Bangladesh has so much experience in disaster management. Let us use this experience. Let us do all we can to restore people’s lives back to normal.

* Ainun Nishat is emeritus professor of BRAC University

This piece has been rewritten in English by Ayesha Kabir