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Cyclone Amphan: Is Bangladesh prepared?

As the strongest cyclone to strike the Bay of Bengal in 20 years makes landfall, Bangladesh's coronavirus restrictions and poor disaster preparedness threaten catastrophe in an already impoverished area.

As Super Cyclone Amphan barreled toward Bangladesh and India on Wednesday, a poultry farmer living close to the Bay of Bengal coastline said she was worried about leaving her farm behind to take shelter in a facility in Bangladesh's coastal region of Bagerhat.

"We are hungry. Nobody has offered us food in the shelter since we arrived here," 45-year-old Rohimon Begum told DW. "The cyclone will destroy my home and my poultry farm. I don't know what to do," she added.

Sheuli Begum, a volunteer, guides people to the shelters. She said that some people have opted to stay at home despite several warnings about the storm surge that could follow the cyclone.

"We have been trying hard to get them to shelters, but they are not paying heed," she told DW. On Tuesday, authorities issued a warning for the coastal regions of Bangladesh.

Cyclone Amphan comes at a time when Bangladesh is also struggling to cope with the COVID-19 public health crisis. The pandemic has already claimed 370 lives in the South Asian country, and as of Wednesday, some 25,121 people have been infected.

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Infografik Zyklon Amphan Stand 20.05.2020 EN

Carrying out rescue and relief efforts amid coronavirus protection measures is proving to be a difficult task for officials.

Local authorities have allocated a separate shelter for people who recently came to the Bagerhat area from elsewhere.

"They are not infected with the virus, but we are still putting them there for safety reasons," shelter volunteer Begum said.

The Bagerhat region is prone to cyclones. In 2007, Cyclone Sidr killed at least 3,447 people in Begerhat and some other districts in Southern Bangladesh. Nazrul Islam, a local journalist, told DW that a lack of shelters and other facilities to deal with natural disasters are behind the high death toll during cyclones.

Read more: Cyclone Bulbul: Bangladesh, India report dozens of casualties

Watch video 01:53

Super cyclone Amphan targets India, Bangladesh

Inadequate disaster preparedness

Bangladesh's low-lying coastal region, which is home to around 30 million people, is regularly battered by cyclones that have claimed hundreds of thousands of lives in the past decades. The deadliest was the 1991 Bangladesh cyclone, which killed at least 139,000 people in the country.

Climate change has led to more intense and frequent natural disasters in Bangladesh. However, the death tolls have been reduced, thanks to better technology and faster evacuations.

Experts, however, believe Bangladesh needs to do better in dealing with cyclones.

Professor Ainun Nishat, the country's top climate expert, said that the government needs to install more cyclone shelters in coastal areas.

"Bangladesh needs around 10,000 cyclone shelters in these areas. We don't have more than 5,000 right now," Nishat told DW.

Bangladeshi authorities are trying a different approach; they are urging people, who have the financial means, to build multi-story houses.

"All government buildings in the coastal areas should be elevated. They can be used as shelters during tropical storms. It becomes very difficult to accommodate everyone during emergencies," he added.

Read more: Cyclone Amphan: Millions evacuated in India, Bangladesh, as storm approaches

Climate change

Dykes along the Bangladeshi coast stretch across 7,000 kilometers (4,300 miles) collectively. They also protect the locals from tropical storms. But over the years, these protective walls have developed cracks due to a lack of maintenance.

Nishat believes that apart from maintenance issues, the dykes also need to be elevated. Global warming has increased sea levels, making high tides more pronounced than before, the expert said.

"The height of the dykes near the coast is usually 15 feet (4.5 meters), which was sufficient in the past, but not anymore," Nishat said.

Environmentalists say that mangrove forests can help mitigate the impact of cyclones on coastal areas. When the southern parts of Bangladesh were hit hard by cyclones Sidr in 2007 and Aila in 2009, a mangrove forest called the Sundarbans, which spreads over 10,000 square kilometers, acted as a natural barrier against the storms before they could hit residential areas. This likely saved lives and property. Cyclone Amphan is also expected to make landfall in the Sundarbans.

Nishat said the Bangladeshi government is taking initiatives to grow mangroves on new islands in coastal areas in order to protect them from storms.

Bangladesh is one of the countries most vulnerable to climate change. Experts say that up to 20% of the country's land could be submerged in the next 30 years due to rising river and sea levels.

Read more: Rising sea levels threaten Sundarbans forests