Cyclone Remal reminds us to build more coastal resilience

Cyclone Remal causes large swaths of land in the coastal areas to go under waterAFP

Just a few weeks ago, Cyclone Remal struck our coasts and left us with a trail of death and destruction. It killed dozens, left thousands of homes damaged, trees uprooted, millions left without electricity, embankments breached, and coastal areas submerged. Reports say it affected 37 lakh people in 19 districts. Also alarmingly, following the cyclone’s devastation, scores of animals were found dead in Sundarbans, the largest mangrove in the world.

As hundreds of thousands of people were evacuated from the southwestern coastal districts, fortunately the human toll remained low but it caused huge damage to the Sundarbans as it always works as a protection against cyclones for us. Following the devastation by the cyclone in the Sundarbans, the forest department imposed a three-month ban on fishing and tourism so it can recover.

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Bay of Bengal is often called a hotspot for cyclones. Our coastal areas being hit by tropical cyclones is nothing new for us. Global warming is causing the water in the bay to rise faster than any other in the world. I was alarmed going through a research report published by Yale Climate Connections in 2023 by a hurricane scientist named Jeff Masters -- it says 22 of the 30 deadliest tropical cyclones worldwide have occurred in the Bay of Bengal.

A NASA report of February 2024 predicts that due to rising temperature, intense cyclones may rise in the northern Bay of Bengal, affecting India, Bangladesh and Myanmar. Global warming is causing rapid change in weather patterns. According to climate scientists, weather events are becoming more extreme and less predictable. Extreme rainfall, intense cyclones and heatwaves are becoming new normal for us.

We are a small country with a long vulnerable coastal belt – about 580 km long, with all around islands and up the estuaries, it is nearly 1,320 km. With extreme weather events like cyclones increasing, there is no way for us but to build more resilience of the coastal communities and villages.

I am from a coastal village in Banshkhali, southeastern Chittagong. In our village, we only have the cyclone centre built in 1994 financed by Saudi Arabia after the powerful cyclone of April 1991. No infrastructure has been built after that one. Population has increased but cyclone centres have not.

On 28 May 2024, just after Cyclone Remal, the government approved a Tk 874 crore project for repairing the embankment in Banshkhali and Anowara—of which Tk 600 crore is for Banshkhali. Given the poor condition of our embankment, it has brought huge hope and joy to coastal people.

Over last two decades, massive developments happened across the country, especially in terms of roads and connectivity. Perhaps, it is time to focus on vulnerable and less-focused coastal areas; to build necessary climate-friendly infrastructures and to plant more trees to restore coastal eco-systems and to build resilience.

We need to engage and activate volunteer organisations across the country and also to create public awareness about the role of trees in this age of rapid climate change, especially in the less-focused coastal areas

While we have no control over adverse weather events like cyclones, our focus should be on mitigating the losses. Government must prioritise actions such as ensuring adequate cyclone shelters and protecting embankments, at the same time, community awareness and engagement are equally important.

In Banshkhali, many social volunteer organisations led by educated youths have emerged. For past few years, Jashim Uddin, a police officer from the soil who received the Smart Bangladesh Award 2023, has mobilised the volunteer organisations for climate actions. He distributed thousands of trees among them and facilitated their planting.

This year after the extreme heatwaves in April, there has been a growing demand to plant more trees during monsoon. On 4 June, Farhina Ahmed, secretary of the Environment, Forest and Climate Change Ministry announced the government’s plan to plant 8.33 crore trees during this monsoon across the country. To make it a success, we need to engage and activate volunteer organisations across the country and also to create public awareness about the role of trees in this age of rapid climate change, especially in the less-focused coastal areas.

* Parvez Uddin Chowdhury is a development worker

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