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Preparing for cyclones can save lives, but to save livelihoods nations must also help people adapt to cyclones' impacts, says Saleemul Huq.

Linking short-term disaster preparedness to longer-term strategies for adapting to climate change offer vulnerable parts of the developing world significant synergies.

This is particularly true for countries affected by tropical cyclones. Although climate change will not necessarily lead to more cyclones forming, the evidence is now quite strong that higher sea surface temperatures will increase their intensity.

The people who suffer most from cyclones are the poorest and most vulnerable, including women, children and indigenous people. This is true even in wealthy countries, as Hurricane Katrina demonstrated in 2005 when over 1,000 people — mostly poor — died in New Orleans, United States, despite warnings predicting the hurricane's path several days before it reached the city.

Preparedness saves lives

Effective disaster preparedness can considerably reduce the deaths and overall impact of such events. And because the developing world frequently has to deal with cyclones, many countries are getting better at preparing for them, and reducing risk.

Bangladesh, for example, has learnt from experience that investing in disaster preparedness can save many lives during a cyclone.

Back in 1971, a cyclone killed over 300,000 people and in 1991, another, of similar strength, killed over 130,000 people. Since then international donors, nongovernmental organisations (NGOs), individuals and Bangladesh's government have built several hundred cyclone shelters all along the coastal belt. Each shelter was built to a standard design as a multipurpose building — for example as a school or community center — at the most vulnerable locations. And as Cyclone Sidr headed for the coast in November 2007, almost two million people were warned, through radio, television and a network of thousands of government, NGO and Red Crescent volunteers, and evacuated to these shelters. Although over 3,000 people were killed, it was still a success story for disaster preparedness.

Many of those who died during Cyclone Sidr were fishermen out in their boats, who did not get the warning or could not get back to shore in time. Such deaths can be minimised in future. Using earlier forecasting can ensure warnings reach these fishing communities quickly, and mobilising the coast guardwould helpto bring them to safety as early as possible.

But while early warning systems and reinforced shelters can help protect lives during a cyclone, they cannot stop the damage to crops, homes and infrastructure, such as roads. Economic and livelihood losses remain high.

Adapting not reacting

It is not enough to simply be prepared for a disaster. Countries likely to face future cyclones need a longer-term framework that strengthens local people's capacity to adapt to such events.

People are already implementing grassroots adaptation strategies independently of higher authorities— for example, in the Gpalganj district in central Bangladesh, people are adapting to flooding by growing crops on floating rafts made of water hyacinth. These can survive several feet of flood water rise.

But coping with more intense cyclones must also be considered within broad level adaptation plans for climate change.

In Bangladesh, donor agencies like the UN Development Programme and Britain's Department for International Development have helped the government incorporate climate change adaptation into its comprehensive disaster management programme.

The programme helps identify likely long-term effects of climate change by using climate change models and identifying the most vulnerable locations and populations. It then helps the most vulnerable communities to think about longer-term adaptation measures through meetings and workshops run by NGOs. Such measures may even include migration — but such a drastic step needs to be taken with proper forethought. The key is planning for change, rather than reacting to it.

There is a natural link between preparing for natural disasters and adapting to climate change, particularly for weather-related disasters such as cyclones and hurricanes. But to make the most of it, communities striving to reduce the risks from disasters need to work with climate change scientists and action groups around the world.

And everyone, whether governments, international agencies or local communities, must focus their efforts on the very poor and most vulnerable. These are the people on the frontline of climate impacts.

Saleemul Huq is head of the climate change group at the International Institute for Environment and Development.

This article was updated 20 January 2008.

This article is part of a Spotlight on Tropical cyclones in the Indian Ocean.

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