I chose to do my case study on Cyclone Bhola. I did so mostly due to my interest in the subcontinent’s political and social history. I recently wrote my senior thesis paper on child trauma narrative that manifested in the face of India’s decolonization and simultaneous partition by the United Kingdom in 1947.
It was a tropical storm that made landfall over the course of two days. It’s effects and recovery process was a strenuous, highly politicized one that last for the next two years and became the first natural disaster that led to civil war. It happened in the southeast asian subcontinent, specifically the nations of Pakistan, India and East Pakistan (present day Bangladesh). Cyclone Bhola made landfall in the Delta Ganges area effecting India but more catastrophically, Bangladesh. With little to no previous means of mitigation, neither human nor natural, the nation of Bangladesh and the outlying islands within the Bay of Bengal were horribly devastated.
Bhola cyclone track. Retrieved from http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:1970_Bhola_cyclone_track.png
The devastation caused by Bhola were mostly due to the massive storm surge and its accompanied flooding, reaching up to estimates of 20-30 feet. Though most of the population was aware of the impending cyclone, very few evacuated because of indifference towards cyclones that often happened during the yearly harvest season. This disconcern combined with the utter lack of means to evacuate ( as the area had no stable transportation system or other means of emergency preparedness) and a fiscal attachment to their farmlands led to a high death toll. Though the death toll ranges greatly (anywhere from 300,000 to 1 million) it is generally agreed upon that there was 500,000 deaths and $84.6 million worth of damage done.
Pakistani domestic relief response was incredibly belaboured and minimal due to political tensions. Following the partition of India, Pakistan and East Pakistan international relations had been strained, especially due to the immense violence that followed. Though India did offer aid to East Pakistan almost immediately after Bhola, West Pakistan was hesitant to accept due largely in part to pride. But this hesitation was understandable especially given that India had known about the impending cyclone but had failed to relay the information to West Pakistan. But political games did not stop here, in fact West Pakistan became aware of Bhola Not only did West Pakistani government hinder immediate international aid, but President Yahya Khan continued to provide subpar aid and deny the horrific nature of their distant nation because of amongst all three areas, which eventually led to a civil war between Pakistan and East Pakistan that later materialized to the establishment of Bangladesh as an independent nation.
[Map of Bangladesh]. Oxford Cartographers. Retrived from http://people.ucalgary.ca/~bsa/aboutBD.html
Arguably, Bhola itself is was what caused the massive catastrophe and even with previous mitigation there still would have been no stopping such destruction. That is, the population of the Delta Ganges were aware of a threat of tropical storms and flooding, as they had previously occurred and the crops depended on the deposition left by such flooding. The fertile soil then led to a dense population (one of the largest in the world) and regular seasonal workers. Such a dense population that even if there had been adequate emergency preparedness, evacuation would have been a nearly impossible task. But at the same time, some mitigation and emergency planning by the community would have prevented such a high death toll. There had been a promise by West Pakistan government to install levees and seawalls following a relatively destructive storm a decade earlier but failed to do so. Further the residents of the Bhola stricken area lived in such immense poverty that the only connection with the outside world was through the hard to come by radio or word of mouth. A lack of resources such as a warning system and a coherent education on dangers of cyclones was largely due to the continuous lack of funding East Pakistan was given by their distant and detached government. So it was really environmental and human factors that led to the calamity that ensued following Bhola.
But the recovery process did spawn some interesting social phenomena and fun facts. For example following a recovery plan made by the World Bank, International Development Association for the first time provided credit for reconstruction. Also this was the first time in history a natural disaster became a catalyst for civil war and later the establishment of a nation. In the following year ex-beatle, George Harrison, held a benefit concert entitled The Concert for Bangladesh, which not only raised awareness but also $250,000!