Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Myanmar are facing a major clean up after Cyclone Mora hit the area earlier this week. Overall, government officials estimate that 17,500 houses were destroyed in Bangladesh and search operations continue for dozens of missing people, this includes a large refugee population living in tin shelters at exactly the location where the storm made landfall. At least 1,400 homes were destroyed in Sri Lanka with thousands more damaged as entire villages became submerged. Throughout the region it is estimated that over 1 million people have been displaced in the past week and more rain is forecasted in the days ahead.
This week’s latest natural disaster is yet another reminder of how important the Paris Agreement is to lives and livelihoods around the world.
With 10 percent of the world’s population living at less than 10 meters above sea level, consequences from storm surges, heavy rains, tropical storms and rising sea levels will only intensify. This is why developing countries demanded firm financing goals for both climate adaptation and “loss and damage” compensation following natural disasters at the Paris climate talks in 2015. Although these concepts are talked about a lot, funding for them is far behind the mitigation efforts demanded of developed countries. In the end, the Paris Climate Agreement included language on adaptation financing, but it is non-binding. Developing countries also got some language included on loss and damage, but real commitments in this area were put off for further negotiations.
Mora highlights the difficulties in building resilience in disaster prone areas, as well as the real need for global action to improve adaptation on the ground.
Major storms are common in the Bay of Bengal where the warm water feeds tropical storms over a long distance before they make landfall. In fact, 8 of the world’s top 10 deadliest tropical cyclones occurred in this region, with the 1970 Bhola Cyclone taking top place with as many as 500,000 dead in Bangladesh. But despite the frequency of storms in this area, with its high population and low elevation Bangladesh remains extremely vulnerable to these storms. Despite this and the growing threat of rising sea levels from climate change, the country has little infrastructure to protect against storm surges and monsoon flooding. With significant loss of life and property damage due to these storms an annual occurrence, there is little opportunity to fully rebuild, let alone rebuild better.
This is a common problem throughout the region. In this regard, Cyclone Mora could have been a lot worse. But although the storm was not as bad as feared ahead of landfall, that comes as little comfort to the estimated 200,000 Rohingya refugees in Cox’s Bazar where almost all the temporary housing sheltering them was destroyed. It is also little comfort for Sri Lanka, where flooding from the storm front have killed at least 202 people with nearly 100 still missing.
Bangladesh was better prepared, successfully evacuating 300,000 people ahead of the cyclone’s landfall. But nearly 1 million were in the storm’s path, including Rohingya refugees living in the Cox Bazar district where the cyclone came to shore. With the ongoing military crackdown against Rohingya in neighboring Myanmar, the number of Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh dramatically increased with most living in this border district. But ahead of Mora, priority for evacuation was only given to the most vulnerable Rohingya such as pregnant women and the seriously ill. Early assessments of the official and unofficial camps in the area reported damage was “severe” with most of the makeshift shelters used by the refugees destroyed.
Likewise, IDP camps in Myanmar’s Rakhine State were also badly damaged with 50 building destroyed, each housing about 8 families apiece in Khaung Doke Kar camp and another 50 houses destroyed and 200 damaged at the Thae Chaung camp.
Countries like Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Myanmar rely heavily on early warning systems to prepare their populations but even here systems are lacking. For example Sri Lanka only has one doppler radar station in the country, and even that was not working at the time the storm hit. As a result, there were no warnings issued ahead of the storm. Some of Sri Lanka’s rivers have flood sensors which can help communities downstream, but without adequate warning, most communities upstream found themselves flooded with nowhere to go once the rains started.
This is a lot of damage, but it comes from a storm that is only the equivalent of a Category 1 hurricane. The region has certainly seen worse, but the level of damage from a relatively weak storm highlights the difficulties in building resilience in disaster-prone areas. As Mahieash Johnney of the Sri Lanka Red Cross Society told IRIN News, “We seem to reinvent the wheel with every disaster.”
Without the world’s leading economy participating, the ability of the world to address climate change and countries such as Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Myanmar to build resilient systems becomes that much harder. Even removing the issue of climate change from the equation, there is no denying natural disasters accounted for more than 24 million displaced persons in 2016, mostly from weather related phenomenon such as storms, floods, wildfires and severe winter weather.
As Cyclone Mora demonstrates, it is typically the most vulnerable who pay those costs. Areas like Bangladesh and Sri Lanka need more than aid in the aftermath of these disasters, they need support for building back better to limit the damage of the next storm. That takes a global effort. Otherwise, the next time a cyclone hits the Bay of Bengal, the damage to life and property will be much worse.