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[DHAKA] Cyclones are claiming too many lives because warning systems do not take account of the psychology of the potential victims, researchers have found.

Social status, literacy and housing type all influence how people respond to warnings about cyclones, which are a major killer in the country, the survey of 400 households in Bangladesh's vulnerable coastal region found.

Up to a fifth of people do not understand warnings issued by the media because they are too technical. And people living in concrete buildings, rather than traditional bamboo and straw houses, mistakenly believe they are safe and often fail to take shelter.

More than 80 per cent of people use traditional preparations for cyclones such as roping their houses to trees — which is not as effective as other options — and relying on faith, says the study which took place in 2009.

Almost eight million people in Bangladesh are vulnerable to cyclones and associated tidal waves up rivers, which can kill up to half a million people at a time. Recent cyclones, Sidr, in 2007, and Aila, in 2009, claimed 3,400 and 190 lives respectively, says the study.

The authors are now calling for more research into how people perceive, and react to, media disaster warnings. They also want better training of journalists who disseminate cyclone information.

"Many people get timely cyclone warning messages by radio and television but most of the people wait at home till the last moment before moving to safer places," said Mohammad Sahid Ullah, communications researcher at the University of Chittagong and one of the authors of the article published in the Journal of Science Communication last month (December).

People are most likely to hear the warnings from community volunteers, followed by radio and then television messages.

"They trust the siren of the volunteers more than a radio message," said Sahid Ullah, adding that the poorest people are the most reliant on volunteers.

Bangladesh has 32,000 community volunteers jointly trained by the government and the international humanitarian organisation the Red Crescent. They receive direct cyclone warning messages from Red Crescent's central office. Another 50,000 community volunteers are being trained. 

Kamal Ahmed, climate change adaptation specialist working with Bangladesh's Comprehensive Disaster Management Programme, told SciDev.Net the government is also working on a programme to send cyclone warnings by mobile phone.

A.Q.M. Mahbub, a disaster management specialist at Dhaka University, agreed that people do not always understand technical words and that warnings should be given in local languages.

He added that the current 2,500 cyclone shelters in the coastal area are not enough to accommodate the huge population living there.

Another problem is that people fear leaving their properties behind — without any insurance they may lose them forever.

"So even people who are living in vulnerable houses want to wait until the last moment at their own houses before going to cyclone shelters," he said.

The study recommends more and better alerts and media programmes on how to prepare for cyclones. It also identifies the period six to ten hours before a cyclone strikes as the best time to transmit alerts, and recommends using at least three local dialects for the warnings.

Link to full paper in JCOM [272kB]