When Tropical Cyclone Bhola hit Bangladesh in 1970, it claimed hundreds of thousands lives. Since then, the Bangladesh Red Crescent Society has built 147 evacuation shelters. The aim is to provide a safe place for people to go to when the warning of an approaching cyclone is sounded.
One of the biggest challenges for cyclone preparedness is the lack of communal ownership of evacuation shelters and the cultural issues that prevent people from seeking safe cover when they should. Too often, the shelters were not built in consultation with communities. People did not feel a sense of ownership over these shelters.
Women at Risk
The decision to seek safety in a shelter largely depends on cultural, safety and security issues. Women from conservative backgrounds in Bangladesh await their husband’s decision before they leave the house, while men hesitate to send their wives and daughters to shelters where they are likely to be in close proximity to other men. As a result, children and adolescent girls are also not able to seek protection as they depend on their mothers to move to the shelters.
“Women also take care of livestock and livelihood assets, which they feel reluctant to leave, and be blamed for losing their only means of income,” says Haurunur Rashid, Bangladesh Red Crescent.
Some aspects of the previous shelter design were also considered flawed due to cultural factors such as the lack of indoor water and sanitation facilities, making it almost impossible for pregnant or menstruating women to stay at the shelters, often at the cost of their lives.
Listening to the Communities at Risk
Having listened to these concerns, the Red Crescent ensured that new shelters were constructed with raised earthen platforms, which could secure livestock and increase safety.
The Bangladesh Red Crescent quickly took action to help encourage the most vulnerable people, including women and children, to evacuate their homes and seek refuge in these shelters. In Cox’s Bazar for example, women like Jareka Begum, began single-handedly cleaning the shelter and receiving people, making it naturally more welcoming for local women to use them.
“Involving women, especially in making decisions regarding infrastructural design, is crucial,” said Ekram Chowdhury, Bangladesh Red Crescent.
Access for Disabled People
There is also now recognition, through the participation of disabled people in the committee, to create appropriate access for wheelchairs and to ensure that the needs of those with disabilities are met. This has led to a change in design, for the newer shelters, which now take into consideration the specific physical and cultural requirements of the community.
“In recent times, with stricter enforcement of the national cyclone shelter management policy, the newer shelters are being built with ramps and water and sanitation facilities,” says Abdul Wazed, the director general of the Department of Disaster Management at Bangladesh’s Ministry of Disaster Management and Relief.