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close this bookThe Courier No. 136 - Nov-Dec 1992 - Dossier Humanitarian Aid Country Reports Sao Tomé-Principe-Senegal (European Community, 1992)
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View the documentThe 1991 Bangladesh cyclone: the Commission's response
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The 1991 Bangladesh cyclone: the Commission's response

by Nick ROBERTS *

Bangladesh is one of the least developed countries in the world and, because of its geographical location atop the Bay of Bengal, is afflicted from time to time by severe cyclones and floods.

The first signals of impending disaster were reported by the local press and television from 26 April 1991 on the basis of warning messages sent out by the Bangladesh Meteorological Department. What was initially reported only as a depression grew over three days to a warning signal strength of '10', indicating a severe cyclone. On Monday 29 April, Delegation staff stayed up late following the media reports on the cyclone as it crossed the Chittagong coast, about 300 km south of Dhaka. Just after midnight a tidal surge, up to seven metres high in places, swept across the off-shore islands and onto a 1 50-km stretch of the south-east coastline of Bangladesh. The capital city, Dhaka, being far from the centre of the cyclone, suffered no direct damage and felt only the peripheral impact of the storm

On the morning of 30 April the acting Head of Delegation, Sean Doyle, sent an urgent fax to the Emergency Aid Unit in Brussels alerting them to the disaster. It read:

'Several heavily populated islands are reportedly under water, and telecommunications disrupted. No casualty or damage reports are yet available, and it is unlikely that a clear picture will be available before tomorrow.'

In fact it was to be several days before the full extent of death and destruction was known, owing to the breakdown of communications and the difficulty of reaching many of the worst-affected areas. For the first ten days after the cyclone, direct communications with Europe were not possible and messages had to be faxed or telexed via the Delhi Delegation and even, on a few occasions, the satellite communications system of Member States' embassies.

On I May the EC Representative attended a briefing at the Foreign Ministry at which the Government formally requested international assistance. The following day the Commission approved a ECU 10 million emergency package for Bangladesh. This included 46 500 tonnes of relief food plus cash aid of ECU 2m allocated via the Red Cross/Red Crescent Societies, the nongovernmental organisation Concern and the Delegation for the local purchase and distribution of relief supplies, clothing and shelter. The Delegation was given the task of managing the allocation of ECU 500 000 by the identification of suitable priority programmes through NGOs present in Bangladesh.

As the scale of the disaster became clear, the Delegation had to put aside all other pending matters in order to concentrate on identifying agencies with the capacity to respond immediately and effectively with assistance for the cyclone survivors. Realising that many lives were still at stake, the Delegation mobilised its staff, as well as two experts in cyclone protection infrastructures employed on an ongoing EC-funded project, to visit the disaster area and NGO offices in order to listen to reports and priority requirements at first hand. Within days, the funds had been allocated and contracts signed, two with local NGOs and one with MSF France, with medical aid, locally purchased food for distribution and shelter identified as the main priorities. Implementation began at once, as the NGOs began to reach the stricken areas and distribute food, medicine and cooking and shelter materials.

During the period, the Delegation staff worked long hours, attending coordination meetings and reviewing project proposals. The Commission throughout had to be kept up to date on the situation. It soon became evident that the death toll had risen to 50 000 after several days and was continuing to rise as reports came in from the off-shore islands, which were among the worst-hit areas.

The scale of the disaster attracted the full attention of the local and international media, whose reports and pictures provided a graphic record of the death and devastation caused. The government's final estimates reported over 138 000 people killed, the majority drowned in the tidal surge.

In order to obtain a first-hand report on the situation and to review the work of the EC-funded NGOs, two senior local staff of the Delegation, Mr Halim and Mr Siddique, travelled to some of the worst affected areas along the Chittagong coast over a four-day period from 17 May. They found that the NGOs had been very quick to mobilise and coordinate their resources, to prevent duplication of work, and relief food distributions were already going ahead. However, continuing bad weather and the destruction of communications infrastructure, including roads, bridges and boats, prevented supplies from reaching many areas. From 15 May, a US Military Task Force provided helicopters and landing craft to supplement the existing capacities.

The impressions of the EC staff are described in detail in their mission report. They reported that all the leaves on the trees and bushes had been burnt by the high wind speeds. Despite the fact that over two weeks had passed since the cyclone, they were shocked to find that bodies and animal carcasses remained unburied, with consequent dangers of spread of disease. Throughout the area there was already a serious outbreak of diarrhoea, with reported cases of cholera. The cleaning of debris, emptying of ponds (used for washing), sanitation and safe drinking water were clearly major priorities. It was also evident that the cyclone warnings sent out had not been much use for those living in isolated villages with no raised shelters to escape to. The bamboo and corrugated iron or thatched roof huts were blown down or carried away by the tidal surge, which killed many inhabitants and left the survivors without any form of shelter.

Visits were also carried out to some of the off-shore islands, where the situation was even more desperate owing to isolation. The embankments which had previously protected the islands from high tides had been completely destroyed in places and required immediate repair.

Following these reports, the Commission committed an additional ECU 500 000 for NGOs already active in the area.

On 14 May local representatives of the Member States agreed to allocate ECU 60m in Special Post-Cyclone Aid to Bangladesh, to which the Commission added a provisional allocation of ECU 20m. This information was immediately passed on to the Government of Bangladesh.

On 28-30 May, the Head of Delegation, Jacques Bailly, visited the affected coastal areas to get first-hand knowledge of the extent of the damage. Accompanied by Government officials, he was able to visit by helicopter all the worst-affected off-shore islands and parts of the Chittagong coastal area. By this time the emergency phase of the relief programme was over, but terrible destruction was still visible and the impact on the economy was just beginning to be assessed.

By 6 June, the Commission had mobilised an identification mission to advise on appropriate longer-term rehabilitation programmes for consideration under the ECU 80 m programme entitled Special Post-Cyclone Aid to Bangladesh. The Delegation hosted the mission and held discussions with Member States, the Government and UN agencies. Following this visit, recommendations were drawn up proposing support to three new projects:

- a Cyclone Shelter-cum-Primary Schools Project to construct buildings usable as shelters during cyclones and as schools and community centres at other times, co-financed by Germany, Spain and Greece;

- an Emergency Food Aid Project (60 000 tonnes) to reconstruct roads and embankments through food for work and targeted food aid to vulnerable groups; - Technical Assistance to supervise a World Bank-fmanced project to construct high-priority coastal embankments.

With the addition of three other projects, the Commission's total contribution to rehabilitation programmes came eventually to ECU 41.5m, with Member States contributing an additional ECU 63m.

In August 1991 the Commission appointed a Post-Cyclone Coordinator to assist the Dhaka Delegation with the administration and coordination of the special programme.

N.R.