Bangladesh schools stay open — even for cyclones

New shelters funded by the World Bank have a dual purpose: to save lives and educate children

A view of the Kurir Char Government Primary School cum cyclone shelter in southern Bangladesh. The ramp to the right doubles as a path for livestock to enter the shelter.
Julian Spector

BARISAL DISTRICT, Bangladesh — Cyclones have killed hundreds of thousands in this South Asian country over the last century, but in the last two decades the death toll has declined rapidly, thanks to the widespread rollout of early warning systems and shelters. The newest addition to that arsenal won’t just save Bangladeshis; it will educate them.

The three most destructive cyclones of the last 50 years struck Bangladesh with winds stronger than 135 miles per hour, but their effects varied considerably. A storm killed some 500,000 Bangladeshis in 1970, one left about 140,000 dead in 1991, and Cyclone Sidr resulted in 4,234 fatalities in 2007. This decline has been spurred by the Red Crescent Society’s development of a grass-roots network of volunteers who communicate a cyclone’s approach. The government’s investment in shelters has helped as well.

When Bangladesh launched an emergency program to restore the districts most damaged by Sidr, the engineers noticed something small but crucial: Disaster shelters that serve only to aid disaster victims don’t have anyone to take care of them as the moist tropical environment hastens their deterioration. That insight guided a new wave of World Bank–funded shelter construction to build concrete refuges that house elementary schools.

“If you left a house empty for a number of years, it would start falling apart,” says Anna O’Donnell, the project team leader at the World Bank. “Just having people use that building on a daily or weekly basis means when you see these issues arise, you can address them.”

The $375 million effort, approved earlier this year, aims to build 552 shelters and renovate 450 existing ones by 2020. The three-story reinforced-concrete structures can withstand cyclone-force winds and rain. The classrooms can house refugees while the lower level protects livestock, which are essential to the livelihoods of the agrarian coastal population.

The massive expansion of schoolhouses serves another purpose too. When islands arise in the Ganges-Brahmaputra Delta through sedimentation, poor people move in to occupy the newly habitable land. The benefit of cheapness comes with the cost of isolation, since many chars, as the islands are called, have no direct access to the mainland.

A family rests next to their devastated house in Taful village of Bagherhat district in Bangladesh, Nov. 17, 2007, two days after a strong cyclone devastated the southern coastal area of the country.
Jewel Samad / AFP / Getty Images

Education offers a route out for the island children. If they stay on the chars as farmers, they could witness their land disappear underwater in the next 35 years. Prominent Bangladeshi scientists have predicted that 17 percent of the country’s land will be flooded by that time. With so many problems to tackle and limited resources, combining education with disaster preparedness gives the government more bang for its buck.

Bangladesh’s Local Government Engineering Department (LGED) completed one such shelter on the island of Nazirpur in 2013. The char, which rises some 4 feet above the winding rivers of Bangladesh’s southern delta, lacked storm shelters when Sidr crashed ashore. There are hardly any buildings more than two stories tall, and most houses consist of bamboo or wood with corrugated iron roofs — the kind of structure that collapses in the face of a storm surge.

The new shelter-school in Nazirpur stands in a grassy clearing a short walk inland, adjacent to a shuttered one-story school with green shoots sprouting from its flat roof. Some islanders survived the cyclone on the roof of that squat building, now dwarfed by its newer cousin. The new structure’s third floor holds rooms for people, including separate bathrooms for men and women and a special room for pregnant women. The ramp leading to the second story offers something the flat-roofed school couldn’t: refuge for cattle and goats.

“[The local people] not only cultivate — they have many livestock. Livestock is their capital,” says Promatha Ranjan Sarker, an assistant engineer at the LGED. “Before the cyclone shelters, when disaster came, maximum cattle or livestock died.”

The poverty of the region — a study by rural development organization BRAC found per capita income of $120 a year in certain char communities — makes the death of a cow especially devastating for a family. Sidr killed 100,000 farm animals and resulted in $1.7 billion in damage.

Students read aloud from Bengali textbooks in the Kurir Char shelter.
Julian Spector

At the Kurir Char Government Primary School cum cyclone shelter, a few kilometers south of Nazirpur, school children study on the upper floor, reading aloud from Bengali textbooks. The boys, with close-cropped dark hair, sit together on the right side of the room, dressed in T-shirts, polos and plaid button-downs. The girls sport loosely draped scarves in vibrant colors — goldenrod, magenta, purple and green floral. Each child intones the words in a monkish incantation that ricochets off the concrete walls in noisy unison.

This shelter, like the others built in the aftermath of Sidr, has already changed the lives of members of the surrounding community. Nazirpur residents and LGED engineers alike affirm the need to build more shelters. The government’s analysis found that an additional 7,124 shelters were needed by 2025 to fully cover the 14 coastal districts. Of those, it prioritized 2,191 shelters in the most vulnerable locations as the goal for 2020. When the current building spree wraps up, 80 percent of the high-priority shelters will be finished.

That means a lot of people will still lack refuge in a flood, but the limitation comes more from physical capacity than finance, O’Donnell notes. “When the emergency operation started, there weren’t many contractors who knew how to do large concrete structures in the coastal area, because they hadn’t done that before,” she says. “They’ve gotten to be a lot better at that, and that has developed the capacity of the local construction industry.”

The monsoon and its residual effects limit construction to about half the year, and the lack of access to remote islands impedes delivery of materials to building sites. But a government pilot program for steel shelters could enable faster construction with more standardized quality controls. The parts can be manufactured in Dhaka and shipped around the country, whereas concrete needs to be mixed on site each day. 

The scarcity of concrete structures on the chars — the material is too expensive — gives rise to another problem. Though the shelters enable more people to survive cyclones, char residents still face the challenge of rebuilding their livelihoods when their bamboo homes and fields have washed away. With climate change amplifying the risk of disaster, it will almost certainly be harder for the poor coastal population to re-establish a foothold against the waves.

This story was supported by the Benenson Awards in the Arts and the Susan E. Tifft Research Grants.

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