A Shelter From The Storm

Written by Nijad Subei, in association with Mohammed Simsim and Mohammed Javid

“In November 2007, Cyclone Sidr devastated the southwest coastal belt of Bangladesh. Heavy rain, a high storm surge and winds of up to 220 km per hour destroyed houses and caused extensive damage to crops, livestock and educational institutions. Transportation and communication networks, together with water and electricity supplies, were disrupted. At least 3,400 people died, and more than 55,000 people were injured. The Islamic Development Bank (IsDB) funded the building of sustainable and self-sufficient school-cum-cyclone shelters through the King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Program for Charity Works to boost Bangladesh’s resilience to natural disasters, while improving educational opportunities.” 

In November 2007, Cyclone Sidr devastated the south-west coastal belt of Bangladesh. Heavy rain, a high storm surge and winds of up to 220 km per hour destroyed houses and caused extensive damage to crop, livestock and educational institutions. Transportation and communication networks, together with water and electricity supplies, were disrupted. At least 3,400 people died, and more than 55,000 people were injured. Overall, approximately 1.2 million people were victims of this cyclone.

Because of its geographical location, Bangladesh has always been prone to natural disasters. Destructive cyclones, tidal surges and floods are regular phenomena, and populations living in coastal areas are repeatedly affected by these disasters. Huge numbers of people have no access to shelter during cyclones; their cattle die, and their farming equipment is ruined, but they still have to find a way to re-establish their lives.

The devastation caused by Cyclone Sidr was reported by international news channels and media. In response, an anonymous philanthropist (Fael Khair in Arabic), named after his death as the late King of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz Al Saud, made a generous donation of USD 130 million for relief assistance to the victims of Cyclone Sidr in Bangladesh.

He entrusted the fund to IsDB for implementation through a new program known as the King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Program for Charity Works (KAAP) “Fael Khair (FKP)”. The program was established to provide urgent relief to the victims of Cyclone Sidr and to fund the construction of durable shelters to protect the lives and essential belongings of people in the coastal belt areas of Bangladesh during similar disasters in the future.

A Memorandum of Understanding was signed between the Government of Bangladesh and IsDB in 2008. The major part of the donation (USD 110 million) was allocated for constructing, furnishing and equipping multi-purpose buildings known as schools-cum-cyclone shelters (SCCSs). The remaining USD 20 million was allocated to the victims of Cyclone Sidr, in the form of agricultural inputs and support to re-establish their lives, and to provide subsidies to partially meet the future maintenance costs of the cyclone shelters. An advisory committee was established to maintain high-level contact with the Government of Bangladesh and to advise on the implementation of the KAAP “FKP”.

Initially, a storm surge modeling study assessed the storm surge heights at potential locations for SCCS buildings. Storm surge levels over a period of 50 years were considered when selecting the type of building for each location.

Designs for the buildings were invited as part of an international architectural competition. Two designs were adopted based on their aesthetics and functionality. The first was the Killa type for buildings located on an elevated piece of land. This design is used in areas where the storm surge height is low (less than 1.6 m). The second design was the shelter-on-stilts type, which is used for buildings located in areas where the average storm surge height is over 1.6 m. In these buildings, the ground floor is open so that the storm surge can pass through without damaging the building, and the first floor is elevated at a level higher than the 50-year cyclone recurrence level. Both types of building can accommodate about 2,000 people along with 500 cattle. 

International technical specifications and high standards were followed in the design and construction of these structures, which have an expected lifespan of at least 100 years. The robust infrastructures are designed to cope with wind speeds of up to 260 km per hour. High-strength concrete was used to build strong structures in the saline coastal belt and potable water was used to ensure the quality of the concrete and the durability of the shelters. 

The structures have been designed to be well ventilated even if all the doors and windows are closed during storms. Furthermore, the SCCSs are green buildings, collecting their own potable water using a rainwater harvesting system and using solar power to generate enough electricity for basic lighting, ventilation and communications. During natural disasters, the national electricity network can be disrupted, and potable ground and surface water sources become unusable. In such circumstances, an KAAP “FKP” SCCS building will continue to provide for basic needs as a totally independent and self-sufficient unit. 

Each building contains six standard-size classrooms and separate rooms for the headmaster and teachers, together with a sufficient number of washrooms for school use. Standard-size durable school furniture (benches, tables, chairs and storage) is also provided. 

All SCCS buildings offer a separate space for cattle to be housed during a cyclone. This space is accessed by a gently sloping ramp, which can also be used by people in wheelchairs to access the shelter. One washroom has been specifically designed for people with disabilities. The buildings include separate spaces for storing emergency food and medical supplies and solar power equipment. A beacon light powered by solar power operates on the roof so that shelters remain visible during disasters, especially in heavy rain and at night, and all buildings have a black and white S-shaped tiled area on the roof to facilitate GIS/GPS/GTV mapping.

The rehabilitation and livelihood part of the KAAP “FKP” for the cyclone victims took the form of small qard hasan (micro-credit) interventions, with no interest, fees or charges, to support agriculture, fisheries, livestock and other rural economic activities. Interventions also supported the delivery of training to help those affected re-establish their livelihoods, and to significantly raise agricultural production to alleviate poverty, and in turn contribute to the economic growth and development of Bangladesh. A similar approach has been used in subsequent natural calamities. 

So far, about 343,900 people in 12 districts of the coastal belt have benefited from the Fael Khair qard hasan program. The allocated USD 20 million has been rolled over approximately 7.7 times, meaning that the total amount of microfinance loans extended has exceeded USD 154 million. On average, at the peak of the program, more than USD 1 million was granted each month by the three non-governmental organizations involved.

The KAAP “FKP”, in conjunction with Government of Bangladesh agencies, identified a number of locations throughout 13 coastal districts where multi-purpose buildings could act as shelters during natural disasters and as schools at other times. Within the budget available, 172 SCCSs have now been completed and handed over to their local communities in the coastal belt areas of Bangladesh. More than 35 of the SCCSs have since proven their effectiveness during Cyclones Mahasen, Roanu and Fani, providing shelter for people, their cattle and other belongings, including small vehicles. 

The Operations Evaluation Department of IsDB has evaluated the project, and reported very positively on its accomplishments, and on the quality of delivery. Moreover, due to the project’s remarkable success, the Government of Bangladesh asked the KAAP “FKP” to use savings made during the project to construct additional shelters in the three most deprived districts on the coastal belt of Bangladesh. After estimating the savings and future project costs, KAAP “FKP” has planned an additional 14 shelters, and preparations for construction are currently underway.

An impact evaluation by a specialized consultant demonstrated the success of the microfinance intervention. The analysis showed a significant positive impact on local populations affected by the cyclone, and the benefits of the adopted Islamic microfinance scheme in comparison with the traditional interest-based microfinance options widely available in Bangladesh.

To continue the program and assure its future sustainability, a separate institutional structure, the Fael Khair Waqf, has been registered under the Bangladesh Waqf Administration. A mutawalli committee has been constituted to ensure proper investment and oversee the utilization of this fund. To help defray the administrative costs of the rehabilitation program, part of the Fael Khair Waqf fund has been invested with Islamic banks (until a permanent investment waqf can be established).

The people of Bangladesh are very resilient. They only need a helping hand when their lives are devastated by natural disasters – and the KAAP “FKP” has provided that. The program has changed many lives and has improved the socio-economic landscape of the coastal belt of Bangladesh. The vision of the KAAP “FKP” is aligned with the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals – no poverty (SDG1), quality education (SDG4), decent work and economic growth (SDG8). With the cyclone shelters and the rehabilitation program, the Fael Khair’s dream has come true; far fewer lives are now lost and less property is destroyed during the annual monsoon season in Bangladesh, and the overall welfare of poor villagers in the coastal belt areas has been improved. This is the true spirit of Islam.