Bangladesh: Building resilience in the eye of the storm

Sameh Wahba
Thursday, July 27th, 2017

Bangladesh, for its geographical location, is in the frontline of the battle against climate change. Credit: Ismail Ferdous/World Bank


While flying along the coast of Bangladesh earlier this year, I saw from the sky a vast, serene delta landscape, crisscrossed by innumerable rivers and contoured paddy fields.


Nonetheless, I was aware that this apparent quietude might well be the calm before a storm.


Indeed the magnitude of threats faced by Bangladesh is unprecedented in terms of risk, exposure and vulnerability. And with a population of 160 million, the country is one of the world’s most disaster prone and vulnerable to tropical cyclones, storm surges, floods, a changing climate and even earthquakes.


However, the story of Bangladesh is one of resilience.


After the deadly cyclones of 1970 and 1991, which together resulted in the loss of at least half a million lives, the government of Bangladesh instituted disaster risk reduction policies and invested in infrastructure and community-based early warning systems to reduce risks from coastal hazards.


Over the years, these investments in cyclone preparedness and flood management helped save lives, reduce economic losses, and protect developmental gains. As a result, the government’s actions are globally cited as being proactive in investing in disaster risk management.


The World Bank has been a longstanding partner of the government in investing for resilience.


Soon after its independence in 1971, Bangladesh became a World Bank member country. Disaster risk management was already a priority for the young nation—the first project financed by the World Bank aimed to rehabilitate coastal areas and protect local populations from cyclones.


At present, the World Bank is supporting Bangladesh in addressing these challenges through three large-scale investments:


Emergency 2007 Cyclone Recovery and Restoration Project (ECRRP)

Coastal Embankment  *Improvement Project Phase I (CEIP I)

Multipurpose Disaster Shelter Project (MDSP)


Together, over $1 billion of critical investments for resilience are in place to help some of the world’s most vulnerable and isolated people.


For example, ECRRP was born as an emergency response to Cyclone Sidr, which struck Bangladesh on the evening of November 15, 2007. A Category IV Cyclone, with a radius of 500 km and wind speeds reaching 220-240 km per hour, Sidr caused extensive damage to life and property.


A comprehensive analysis estimated the damage and losses at $1.7 billion. ECRRP was then formulated as a wide-ranging project to assist the government in restoring livelihoods and damaged disaster protection infrastructure as well as improving disaster preparedness and risk management.


Cyclone Sidr had torn through villages in coastal Bangladesh. The cyclone destroyed and left, but salinity intruded into the soil, leaving a barren land in many agriculture-based communities. Yet, 10 years later, ECRRP beneficiaries shared how saline-resistant seeds distributed through the project enabled crop yields to almost double compared to before the devastating cyclone.


ECRRP also finances one of the largest multipurpose disaster shelter programs in the country, which provides safe refuge for the community and doubles as primary schools during non-disaster times. In addition, the project has rehabilitated coastal embankments damaged by the cyclone and undertaken emergency works in the coastal region.


With lessons learned from ECRRP, two complementary stand-alone projects were prepared: the CEIP Phase I and MDSP. Technical designs incorporating elements such as climate change scenarios and inclusive disaster protection were taken into account. Through these investments, an integrated, multi-pronged approach has been undertaken for disaster risk reduction.


The Bangladesh experience has taught us that disaster risk management strategies need to be inclusive and integrate the needs of the people they aim to protect.  Once in the eye of the storm, Bangladesh is now ready to share its experience of living with—and becoming resilient in the face of—disasters.


ECRRP, CEIP Phase I, and MDSP are projects financed by the World Bank—with grant support from the Global Facility for Disaster Reduction and Recovery (GFDRR), the Bangladesh Climate Change Resilience Fund, and the Pilot Program for Climate Resilience—and aim to increase the resiliency of vulnerable communities to future disasters and achieve the twin goals of boosting shared prosperity and eradicating extreme poverty.


The author is Director of the Social, Rural, Urban and Resilience Global Practice unit of the World Bank.

This blog is the first of a series on how Bangladesh has become a leader in coastal resilience.

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