How empty plastic bottles can help cyclone-prone Bangladeshi neighbours save lives
Communities in Bangladesh’s cyclone-prone coastal areas have been learning practical skills, such as making life jackets and rafts from empty plastic bottles, to help them prepare for and reduce the effects of catastrophic storms. Tearfund’s worldwide network of churches and partners is working to equip people like Juliet and her community with the tools and techniques that they need to prepare for the effects of the climate crisis.
50-year-old Juliet was trained through her local church, by Christian development agency Tearfund’s local partner, World Concern Bangladesh, to help her community prepare for extreme climate events. She was motivated by the destruction wreaked by a previous cyclone: ‘We were speechless seeing the unparalleled power of nature,’ she said. Now she shares her knowledge in her village in the low-lying coastal Kalapara Upazila area, via weekly meetings, house-to-house visits and phone calls.
Juliet, who has become known as a ‘friend of the community’ says: ‘Our preparation starts in April or May. We repair the plinths our houses sit on and tie the houses with rope so that wind cannot blow them away. We keep some money ready, store dry food and collect candles in case of electricity failure.’ They also hold practice drills and allocate community duties, such as early warning methods, search and rescue, first aid, and damage assessment, in advance. Ward Disaster Management Committees are trained to identify larger projects such as keeping raised roads, connecting communities to cyclone shelters, in good repair.
Children are very vulnerable to drowning during flooding or tidal surges, so Tearfund’s training helps people like Juliet teach the community to make life jackets. Freely-available empty plastic bottles are recycled for this purpose, and the resulting jackets are lightweight for ease of use by the children. Rafts for adults are made from plastic drums. Families also learn to store household items and important documents safely from floods, often by burying them underground, and to make emergency portable stoves for cooking in a crisis.
When a storm is approaching, preparations ramp up, and children put on their plastic bottle life jackets. A lesson from Juliet in hair braiding can also be a life saver: Bengali women grow their hair very long, sometimes to their toes, and it can get snagged on trees or debris during storms. This is known to be a cause of death during cyclones so simply teaching and helping each other to braid and cover the hair reduces the hazard.
‘Everyone needs a Juliet in their lives,’ comments Tearfund’s Head of Church and Supporter Engagement Ruth Tormey. ‘She’s the kind of good neighbour you want in a crisis, but more importantly she puts the time and effort in before a crisis hits, by taking advantage of Tearfund’s training, to help prepare her community to literally weather the storms.’
Sanjeev Bhanja, Tearfund’s Disaster Management Lead for Asia, says: ‘The climate crisis is very real and people in communities like Juliet’s are already suffering. They face more frequent and more intense hazards, such as cyclones, flooding of agricultural land with salt water, rising sea levels and coastal erosion. They risk being pushed back into poverty, so Tearfund’s task is to help them prevent their hard work being washed away.’