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Post-disaster rehabilitation teaches resilience

Lessons from Cyclone Sidr guide responses to worsening storms

In November 2007, Cyclone Sidr tore across southern Bangladesh, taking 3,400 lives and causing nearly US$2 billion in damage. Six months later, Cyclone Nargis one-upped Sidr by killing more than 100,000 in neighboring Myanmar and causing nearly $4 billion in damage. Although Nargis caused more misery — and stoked fears that climate change was already making tropical cyclones more frequent and intense — Sidr may have a more enduring legacy because of its lessons on how to make disaster-prone coastal communities more resilient.

WorldFish led a project funded by USAID to restore the productive capacity of 46,500 fish-, prawn- and shrimp-farming households. To get most fish farms up and running in the next aquaculture cycle, it supplied starter packs.

“Sidr took our crops, fishpond and house, leaving us hopeless,” recalled Gita Roy of Jhalakathi District. “The project gave us lime, oil cake, cow dung and fish fingerlings.”

Subsequent analyses of affected farmers’ losses and coping strategies, and of agency delivery, provided understanding of how settings, assets, livelihoods, damage magnitude, victims’ coping ability and institutional support mechanisms jointly affected how quickly and how well farms recovered — all valuable information toward improving post-disaster interventions.

Ninety-six percent of beneficiaries reported their main house lost or damaged. The same percentage lost half or more of their aquaculture stocks. Twenty-nine percent lost all of their assets, including personal belongings. Yet only a third of households resorted to such extreme coping strategies as selling jewelry or agricultural products at depressed prices or mortgaging farmland. Aquaculture proved to be an asset for surviving the disaster, as fish quickly harvested from damaged or polluted farms provided food when households needed it most.

Most farmers repaired their ponds without assistance, with three quarters completing repairs within 3 months. This shows that post-disaster aid need not allocate resources to pond rehabilitation if the storm comes in November, as Sidr did, because ponds will be ready by seeding time 5 months later. If, on the other hand, the cyclone hits in April, many farmers will need urgent help rehabilitating ponds.

Despite a second flood in September 2008 that affected 40% of project fish farms, they were more productive that year than in 2006. Farmers harvested 50% more brackish-water shrimp, nearly twice as much fish, and five times more freshwater prawn. The number of beneficiaries that described aquaculture as their primary livelihood rose to 21% after the cyclone, a tenfold increase.

“I especially valued the aquaculture training,” reported Gita Roy. “With profits from fish culture, we’ve rebuilt our house and leased a quarter hectare of rice land.”

The project now aims to protect the farms most at risk. Having identified the 23% of farms that flooded four or more times in the past decade, it provides nets for those farmers to set atop pond embankments to retain fish even if ponds overflow.

This partnership of USAID, WorldFish and others leads the way in formulating strategies by which smallholder farmers in coastal areas can better withstand the natural disasters that will likely become more frequent and intense with climate change.

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