SHYMNAGAR, Bangladesh (AlertNet) – Rizia Akhter doesn’t look forward to what the coming storm season may bring, but for the first time in years she feels secure.
Akhter, 45 and a single mother of five children, lost her home in Ardasha Gram village when cyclone Aila struck Bangladesh’s southwest coastal region on May 25, 2009. The storm killed at least 300 people and destroyed 4,000 kilometres of roads and embankments. More than 87,000 people in the region lost their houses, possessions and livelihoods.
But Akhter is now one of 43 families in her village living in a newly constructed house - one that has been built to withstand the increasingly strong storms that experts say may be linked to climate change.
“When the warning about Aila was given, we didn’t understand how devastating the storm would be. We were not even sure whether the cyclone would hit or not. So we stayed at home. Within a few minutes of the cyclone hitting, a water surge washed out our house,” Akhter said.
The home that Akhter lost was made of iron sheets. Following the cyclone, her family had to live in a hut made of bamboo, straw and plastic sheets.
But her new house is built of wood, with brick roof tiles. Most important, it stands on four concrete pillars two metres tall to protect it from rising waters.
“The height offered is enough to deal with the expected rise in sea level and growing storm surges,” said Aminul Islam, assistant director of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) in Bangladesh, which built the new houses in partnership with BRAC, a Bangladesh-based non-governmental development organisation.
The 170 square foot (15 square metre) homes are designed to withstand winds of up to 240 kph (150 mph).
Akhter and one of her daughters survived the 2009 cyclone by grabbing hold of a piece of iron roof sheeting that was floating past. She believes that if her family had been living in a sturdier elevated house, like her new one, they would not have been washed out and their lives endangered.
The Disaster Resilient Habitat (DRH) project aims to build safer settlements in Bangladesh coastal villages affected by cyclones or tidal surges, so that families can survive future cyclones.
Community participation was an important element in designing the houses, and architects from BRAC University consulted with villagers before coming up with a design.
“The project’s innovative approach ensured that solutions came from within the community rather than being imposed from the outside,” Islam said.
One villager, Fatema, said that community members had originally asked that the walls and roofs of the houses be built with brick and iron rods to make them more resilient, because they feared the wooden walls and brick-tile roofs would be less strong.
But Ainun Nishat, vice chancellor of BRAC University and a climate change expert, said that even as built the new houses should be able to withstand 150 mph winds, and that using local materials such as wood helped keep costs low so that the structures could be replicated in the future.
The fact that much of the area devastated by Aila is still covered in saltwater also posed a challenge to other types of construction, according to Nishat.
“Had we built the walls and rooftops with (local) bricks made of salt water and mud, there was a significant chance of the structures being ruined within five or six years” because of the salt content in the bricks, he said. Bricks used for the roofs were brought from a distance away, workers said.
The project has also focused on creating local jobs, a key element because many livelihoods were wiped out by the cyclone.
“The whole process of developing the DRH concept offered employment opportunities for different sections (of society), including the families targeted,” said the UNDP’s Islam.
The $1,750 cost of each home was covered by UNDP, while the new residents helped with the construction.
Many in the area have to travel significant distances to find work in brick-making, while for those who want to stay closer to home, like Rizia Akhter, there is little employment available other than fishing or cutting mud to build embankments as a protection against storm surges.
The UNDP now plans to expand the construction of storm-resistant houses to villages affected by Aila in the Dacope sub-district of Khulna district.
“These villages are getting cyclone-resistant homes which will have solar energy, rainwater harvesting and (cyclone) early warning systems, and livelihood support,” said Islam. The additional homes are due to be ready in March, and the UNDP is seeking donors to underwrite further expansion of the programme.
Although Bangladesh’s 16 coastal districts have more than 2,800 storm shelters, which have dramatically decreased deaths from cyclones in recent decades, a growing number of the shelters are now unusable, according to officials from the Ministry of Disaster Management. Adequately protecting the coastal population will require building 2,500 new shelters, they said.
Some of the existing shelters also are located too far from villages to be of much use in a sudden disaster, NGO worker say. Part of the problem is that cyclone warnings are often disregarded because they have not always been accurate in the past, and the delay in seeking shelter can cost lives.
Gareth Price-Jones, Bangladesh country director for Oxfam, said storm-resistant houses will help save lives as long as they are adapted to villagers’ way of life. According to Price-Jones, mobilising the community to assess disaster risks, agree on the most vulnerable households and design practical action plans is crucial.
“The key issue that has arisen in the past is that these kinds of structures have not been genuinely owned by the community. Too many ... have sat unused after initial success in the past. (But) it looks in this case as though the community has been very much involved, which is a really positive sign,” he said.
Nevertheless, the wider problem of worsening extreme weather events, including cyclones, remains.
“Without a serious global effort to address climate change, then it’s almost inevitable that these communities will see increased risks, decreased resilience and deterioration in their living conditions over the next few years,” Price-Jones warned.
Syful Islam is a journalist with The Financial Express newspaper in Dhaka. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org. This story is part of a series supported by the Climate and Development Knowledge Network.