Potkakhali, Barguna, BANGLADESH:
When the cyclone warning came, Mukta, 17, and her friends found a new place to play – the neighbourhood cyclone shelter.
“We were there for two days, listening to the radio,” she said, her face still showing faint signs of anxiety. “We were also playing and singing,” she said, now smiling.
Mukta’s village Potkakhali lies in Barguna district of south Bangladesh, right on the path of Cyclone Mahasen that made its landfall on May 16. Well before the event, Mukta, her buddy Mohammed, 14, and a group of children were busy telling people what to expect and what to do when the storm hits their village. In effect they contributed to Bangladesh government’s efficient evacuation plan that ensured that nobody died in this village. Over a million people had to be evacuated from the cyclone’s path, a trail that left over 45,000 houses, many schools and 128,000 hectares of farms destroyed or damaged. And 45 people dead.
Mukta and Muhammad are part of a local NGO initiative that trains children in basics of early warning and quick response. Supported by elders, the children take part in awareness generation activities as well as mock drills and warning interpretation.
“One flag is for cyclones that are less intense,” the children started singing to us, a group of visiting humanitarian workers. “Three flags mean a signal to run to the cyclone shelter.” Folk songs and skits are part of the repertoire of Mim Abason, the group in which Mukta and Muhammad are members.
“We are also trained in first aid,” Mukta said, a bit excited.
Being a trained physician I needed to test it. I pretended to be someone just rescued from water, unconscious, lying on the ground.
Four children swung into action. They turned me around swiftly, carefully positioned my head, body and legs as they should be in such a situation. The leader of the group started giving me pressure pushes.
Well, I survived. I would have, even in a real-life situation of danger.
Mukta and Muhammad know that storms will always be of part of their lives. Cyclone Mahasen is the second cyclone to hit Potkakhali in the last six years. Cyclone Sidr that left over 3500 people dead in Southern Bangladesh in 2007 did not spare the village.
Bangladesh is prone to cyclones other disasters. During 1991 -2010, it was among the top three countries in terms of exposure to extreme weather events.
Recognising this vulnerability, the local responses in Potkakhali included mapping of disaster risks and putting in place better awareness and preparedness measures.
“A key highlight of this project is mobilisation of children and activation and support for dozens of children’s groups such as Mim Abason,” said Imam Azam Shahi, Plan’s project manager.
Mahasen came as an opportunity to test the efficacy of these plans. NGOs call it promotion of resilience.
In the village way of talking, life, after all, is not only about waiting for the big storm to pass. Storms come and go – life has to go on.
For Mukta and Muhammad life is also about playing David and Goliath, when pitched against a giant enemy whom they can defeat only with their wits.
The village wisdom will hopefully find resonance at this week’s Global Platform for Disaster Risk Reduction at Geneva. Under the auspices of the UN, this biannual summit is trying to find ways to make communities respond to disasters more effectively.