Each year tropical cyclones bring floods and high winds that wreak havoc on coastal communities in Bangladesh. Crops are ruined, homes are destroyed and farm animals swept out to sea, wiping out the incomes of already impoverished people.

But farmers are experimenting with new ways to weather the storm, one of which is rearing ducks instead of chickens. The rationale is that because ducks can fly and swim, they have a better chance of surviving.

While coping with cyclones and flooding is nothing new, Bangladesh is among the nations most vulnerable to climate change, which is making extreme weather more intense and more likely to occur.

Ducks have better odds of surviving a cyclone than chickens.
Image: Red Cross

Breaking the cycle

In 1991, one of the deadliest ever tropical cyclones hit the Chittagong region in southeastern Bangladesh, killing more than 135,000 people and leaving an estimated 10 million homeless. With no coordinated warning system in place, many were ill prepared for the coming storm.

Number of people displaced due to disasters worldwide in 2017 - by event (in 1,000)

Image: Statista

In 2017, Cyclone Mora displaced 478,000 people in Bangladesh, with a similar number left homeless by monsoon rains the same year.

Cyclones destroy lives and livelihoods with alarming regularity. But with the help of researchers from University College London, the Red Cross, and its partner the Bangladesh Red Cross, have been trying to break this cycle.

Double impact

In addition to teaching villagers how to prepare for approaching cyclones, a Red Cross initiative aimed to also increase family incomes by promoting new methods of earning money that are less prone to cyclone damage.

The Vulnerability to Resilience (V2R) programme, which ran from 2013 to 2016, helped villagers create sustainable livelihoods and reduce disaster risk. The programme awarded grants to the poorest inhabitants of areas where a majority of people lived in poverty.

As well as paying for farmers to replace chickens with ducks, the grants helped start farms and small businesses like village shops.

Creating paid work for vulnerable people has raised family incomes and helped repair and improve village roads, flood embankments and drinking-water ponds.

At the start of the project, nearly one-third of participating families earned below $40 per month. After three years almost all had monthly incomes of $65, with over half bringing in between $50 and $200.

The building of better toilet facilities, together with education about hygiene, improved health and helped eradicate waterborne diseases such as diarrhoea.

New elevated wells prevented drinking water becoming contaminated during flooding, and also saved villagers – mostly women – long treks to collect water. The time saved by not having to walk long distances for water could instead be spent working in newly created jobs or small businesses.

Elevated wells prevent drinking water becoming contaminated during flooding.
Image: Red Cross

The Red Cross project also helped establish community disaster management committees in each village. These committees learned how to plan responses to different dangers, administer first aid and carry out search and rescue operations.

When Cyclone Roanu hit coastal areas of Bangladesh in 2016, it brought dangerous winds, flooding and landslides. While some farms were flooded, the new elevated wells provided safe drinking water and villagers had alternative sources of income to rely on.

An early warning system alerted villagers to the coming danger and authorities evacuated half a million people to safe shelters.

No deaths were reported in villages participating in the project.