Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Seeing Bangladesh's future in Sidr's aftermath

The New York Times has a revealing piece today about the impact of Supercyclone Sidr on Bangladesh. The death toll currently stands at 3500, and is likely to rise to perhaps 10,000 -- worse than 9/11, but relative progress compared to the impact of past storms of this size in Bangladesh, such as the 1970 Bhola Cyclone, which killed upwards of half a million people, or Cyclone Gorky, which in 1991 claimed some 140,000 lives.

The fact that the immediate death toll from Sidr is an order of magnitude less than similar typhoons from the past is a testament to the effectiveness of an early warning system that has been installed, and the improved communications infrastructure throughout Bangladesh. (For example, mass text messages over cell phones warned seaside villagers to flee days in advance of the storm.)

As much as this improved warning system is to be appreciated, it does nothing to alter the calamitous underlying trend facing Bangladesh; that is: an exploding population in dire poverty in one of the most storm-vulnerable places on earth. While people are not dying in immediate droves, the economic catastrophe of the storm is worse than ever. Global warming is eroding the massive Gangeatic delta that Bangladesh straddles, and is increasing the force and perhaps likelihood of storms.

Here, in other words, is Bangladesh's future: it will receive better early warnings about threats that it can do nothing to avoid. People will pile into shelters, but how do they pick up the pieces? By 2040, the 200,000,000 Bangladeshis may become the object of a more or less continuous relief operation. The concept of "development" under these circumstances becomes something of a joke in poor taste.

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