Bhola Cyclone Devastates East Pakistan Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Massive storm waves generated by a typhoon in the Bay of Bengal swept over low-lying islands and shorelines in the Ganges Delta, killing between 300,000 and 500,000 people in the second worst natural disaster of the twentieth century.

Summary of Event

On the night of November 11, 1970, 3.5 million people living on low-lying islands and shoreline in the fertile deltas of the Ganges and Brahmaputra rivers retired for the night, unaware that they were threatened by a natural disaster of unprecedented proportions. Indian and Pakistani authorities had issued radio bulletins warning of the approach of a tropical cyclonic storm, but without indicating its severity. In a region swept by cyclones several times a year and accustomed to a level of death and property damage that would merit disaster status in Florida or Australia, the routine warning went virtually unheeded. In any case, there was not much that could have been done. Transportation throughout the region depended on small boats and chronically overloaded, unsafe ferries, and the population lived primarily in flimsy bamboo or mud brick huts. The only areas with sufficient elevation to provide protection from high seas were far inland, and hurricane-resistant structures were almost nonexistent. Cyclones Bhola cyclone (1970) [kw]Bhola Cyclone Devastates East Pakistan (Nov. 12, 1970) [kw]Cyclone Devastates East Pakistan, Bhola (Nov. 12, 1970) [kw]East Pakistan, Bhola Cyclone Devastates (Nov. 12, 1970) Cyclones Bhola cyclone (1970) [g]South Asia;Nov. 12, 1970: Bhola Cyclone Devastates East Pakistan[11010] [g]Pakistan;Nov. 12, 1970: Bhola Cyclone Devastates East Pakistan[11010] [g]Bangladesh;Nov. 12, 1970: Bhola Cyclone Devastates East Pakistan[11010] [c]Disasters;Nov. 12, 1970: Bhola Cyclone Devastates East Pakistan[11010] Yahya Khan, Agha Muhammad Rahman, Mujibur Gandhi, Indira

Cyclone is a general term for a tropical storm originating over the ocean and characterized by a circular pattern of high winds. Those originating in the Atlantic Ocean and Caribbean Sea are also called hurricanes, whereas cyclonic storms in the Pacific and Indian Oceans are called typhoons; the three terms are often used interchangeably. Unbeknownst to local weather forecasters and to the population of the delta, an unnamed cyclone with hundred-mile-per-hour winds was headed straight for the coast of East Pakistan under circumstances that maximized the disastrous consequences. As the eye of a strong cyclone travels across water, it piles up water ahead of it in a massive storm wave. The funnel shape of the Bay of Bengal concentrates such a storm wave, and by sheer ill chance, the leading edge of the storm arrived in the vulnerable delta region during a peak high tide.

Shortly after midnight on November 12, 1970, the sound of rising winds from the approaching storm was augmented by the ominous roar of a wall of water, fifty feet high as it swept over the outermost islands and still twenty feet high when it reached the mainland. Within a few moments, delta islands supporting tens of thousands of people were swept clean of people, livestock, houses, and crops. Further inland, panicked families clung to trees or were flung into churning waters rushing inland. In its withdrawal, the spent wave carried a gruesome cargo of drowning people, livestock, and the muddy debris that represented the livelihood of the destitute survivors. The typhoon itself struck immediately afterward and prevented any communication with the stricken region for the next forty-eight hours.

Estimates of the death toll from this disaster vary widely, since no reliable census figures for the region existed. An incalculable number of people were washed out to sea and never recovered. Pakistani authorities counted 160,000 bodies recovered from the land and buried in mass graves. In an effort to forestall epidemics, relief agencies consigned many corpses of humans and animals to the sea in the early stages of cleanup work. Taking into account the official body count, testimony of survivors, and best estimates of the population of the delta (the normal population of the region had been augmented by an influx of seasonal agricultural laborers and fishermen), a total death toll of between three hundred thousand and five hundred thousand is likely. The victims included a disproportionate number of women and children, who were trapped in houses and unable to swim.

The dollar damage from the disaster is sobering, reflecting as it does economic conditions in one of the world’s poorest nations. The $75 million damage total represents half a million homes destroyed and the crops of half a million families razed at harvest season. Since the region itself was devastated and had few resources with which to respond, both international aid and aid from within Pakistan were critical.

Aid was especially urgent because of the threat of contagion and famine. The crops of three million subsistence farmers had been destroyed, water supplies were contaminated, and corpses of humans and animals littered the ground. Cholera, endemic in Asia, was particularly feared. The United States, the United Nations, China, and even India, Pakistan’s historic enemy, pledged aid.

Delivering the aid was difficult in a delta region without roadways, but the political situation hindered it still further. Pakistan was ostensibly governed democratically under a modification of the British Parliamentary system, but the incumbent president, Yahya Khan, had been appointed by his predecessor and governed under martial law. The ability of the government to respond to the disaster was severely compromised by internal division, political instability, and the long history of neglect of the eastern portion of the country.

In 1970, East and West Pakistan were still united, but the union was highly unstable. Separated by a thousand miles of Indian territory, the two Muslim-dominated portions of former British India had little in common apart from religion. West Pakistan controlled a disproportionate share of the nation’s wealth, military power, and political influence; the greater number of Bengalis in the east complained that their region was neglected in nearly every aspect of political and economic life. A strong Bengali separatist movement, the Awami League Awami League , anticipated that the scheduled December, 1970, elections would give their region a greater voice in the National Assembly.

Two urgent tasks confronted relief agencies operating in the stricken region immediately after the typhoon struck: to bury the dead and to ensure the survival of the living, who had been rendered absolutely destitute. Logistically, this was a difficult task in a maze of islands where cargo traveled on small boats (mostly destroyed by the typhoon) and airstrips were unknown. Despite the extreme urgency, the central government was inexplicably slow in moving relief supplies from West Pakistan to Bengal and in deploying the military to deliver supplies and provide manpower for cleanup work. Pakistan’s claim that the Indian government refused passage to military aircraft engaged in relief work proved to be false. In fact, Pakistan seems to have been reluctant to allow India to play a prominent role in relief work because of India’s support for the Bengali separatist movement.

It did not escape attention that the absence of dikes and permanent structures—which had been promised by the central government after cyclone damage in the 1960’s—contributed to the enormous death toll in 1970. Although the Pakistani government ultimately pledged the equivalent of $105 million for disaster relief and infrastructure improvements to lessen the impact of future cyclones, it was the deficiencies in the response that most impressed the Bengalis. President Yahya landed in Dacca, the East Pakistani capital, en route from Beijing to West Pakistan two days after the disaster, but he did not tour the disaster area or offer concrete aid. In the early stages of relief, the most conspicuous players were British Army troops, boats, and aircraft deployed from Singapore to assist a member nation of the British Commonwealth.

In the short run, the relief provided was successful in averting large-scale mortality from famine and disease; perhaps a “mere” ten thousand additional people perished from treatable injuries, dysentery, and malnutrition because of the delays and irregularities in aid delivery. The feared cholera epidemic was forestalled. The typhoon was, however, the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back in strained East-West Pakistan relations, and it precipitated a bloody civil war Civil wars;Pakistan Revolutions and coups;Bangladesh Bangladesh Liberation War (1971) Postcolonialism;Pakistan .

Significance

The December, 1970, elections Parliamentary elections, Pakistani signaled a decisive victory for the Awami League, which won all but 2 of the 162 seats in the provincial legislature and an absolute majority in the National Assembly. According to parliamentary precedent, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman should have become president of Pakistan, but both General Yahya and his leading West Pakistani opponent, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto Bhutto, Zulfikar Ali , were inalterably opposed. The newly constituted legislature never met. The early months of 1971 were marked by escalating unrest and demands for autonomy in East Pakistan. The Western-based government countered with a buildup of troops and increasingly severe repression Human rights;Pakistan .

On April 11, 1971, Mujibur Rahman and his associates formed a cabinet and proclaimed the independence of Bangladesh, after which they fled to India. Continued savage repression and worsening conditions in Bengal produced a flood of refugees Refugees;Pakistanis —perhaps as many as nine million—who fled to India. On December 4, 1971, the Indian Army invaded what had been East Pakistan, defeating the Pakistani Army in just twelve days and recognizing Bangladesh as an independent nation shortly afterward.

For the new nation, the damage caused by civil war overshadowed the damage caused by natural disaster the previous year; the combination placed an intolerable burden on a poor country. Although the delta region was soon repopulated and its agricultural infrastructure restored to pre-1970 levels, progress in constructing dikes, earthworks, and secure buildings and in improving forecasting and evacuation procedures was slow.

The 1970 cyclone in East Pakistan is a classic example of the interaction of a natural phenomenon with human activities to produce a disaster. Severe cyclones strike the Ganges/Brahmaputra delta with predictable regularity, and they have undoubtedly done so since antiquity. In 1876, 300,000 lives were lost under conditions that approximated those of the 1970 disaster; however, half of the earlier victims died of disease and starvation, whereas in 1970, most of the victims were immediate casualties. Between 1960 and 1970, ten to twelve “minor” cyclones claimed an estimated 50,000 victims. In June of 1985, a storm wiped out 20,000 people in the same area, resulting in scenes of devastation reminiscent of 1970.

In 1991, a cyclone even more ferocious than the 1970 storm killed 139,000 people and left 10 million homeless. A sophisticated ten-level warning system and better access to radios aided evacuation, and the construction of concrete typhoon shelters on pylons on vulnerable islands mitigated the disaster. Population density was also higher, however, with several hundred thousand people living on “chars,” tiny, temporary alluvial islands a few feet above sea level.

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Three and a half million people live in the delta region, despite the danger from typhoons, because of the intense population pressure in Bangladesh and because the delta islands are otherwise favorable for farming. Well-watered and periodically renewed with silt from flooding, the delta is a prime agricultural region. For its size, Bangladesh is the most densely populated country on earth, with fourteen hundred people per square mile of territory, about two-thirds of which is arable land. A family farming fifteen acres of arable land is considered wealthy. Most of the affected population consists of peasant subsistence farmers whose annual crops, even in a bumper year, produce almost no surplus to finance improvements in infrastructure.

Areas vulnerable to cyclone damage are not unique to Bangladesh; adjacent India, North Australia, much of Polynesia, and the coastline of the Caribbean Sea are periodically visited by storms as severe as the devastating 1970 Bay of Bengal storm. The very conditions that predispose to cyclone vulnerability—a monsoonal, subtropical climate and coastal location—are attractive for human settlement.

Worldwide satellite-based weather forecasting systems are now better able to predict the course and severity of cyclonic storms than they were in 1970, ensuring that prompt evacuation of coastal areas—always the best strategy for minimizing loss of life in a cyclone—occurs when, and only when, a real threat exists. In the Caribbean and Polynesia, this system works fairly well; people receive enough warning to evacuate their families and most critical possessions to solid buildings on high ground.

In Bangladesh, the distances are greater, transportation is poorer, and the lack of stone, iron, and petroleum in the nation makes building solid structures prohibitively expensive. Cement requires limestone or its precursors, shells and coral; hard-fired brick requires a significant fuel source. If fifteen thousand people living on an island are to be protected from a major cyclone, they must be transported within a twenty-four-hour period to an area at least fifty feet above sea level or to an area protected by dikes or strong buildings. The protection of livestock is also critical in an economy where beasts of burden are the main source of energy for agricultural labor.

Counteracting the damage to property that inevitably accompanies severe cyclones requires either a construction designed to withstand high winds or one acknowledged to be temporary. In Bangladesh, and indeed throughout many vulnerable regions, most residential housing falls into the second category: bamboo huts in Bangladesh, low-end mobile homes in Florida. From an ecological perspective, management of a region such as this should preclude intensive development. Critics have alleged that such problems are exacerbated by the fact that federal disaster aid, sponsored by the U.S. government, often reimburses individuals and corporations for what are predictable losses in ecologically vulnerable environments.

History’s worst known natural disaster was the 1887 Yellow River flood in China, where a combination of dense population, widespread destruction, civil disorder, and complete lack of aid-delivery systems resulted in a death toll of perhaps seven million, the majority from famine. In the twentieth century, another Yellow River flood in 1931 claimed as many as four million lives, making the 1970 Bengal typhoon the second most lethal disaster of the twentieth century, and the third worst in history. The history of great natural disasters is certainly incomplete: As long as the world’s population continues to grow, pressure to occupy lands vulnerable to natural disasters will increase, the density of population will increase, and death tolls in natural disasters will rise, even when better technology exists for predicting disaster and providing protection from it. Cyclones Bhola cyclone (1970)

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Albeverio, S., V. Jentsch, and H. Kantz, eds. Extreme Events in Nature and Society. New York: Springer, 2006. Detailed overview of natural and manmade disasters, their causes, effects, and management strategies. Bibliographic references and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Cobb, Charles E. “Bangladesh: When the Water Comes.” National Geographic 183 (June, 1993). An eloquent pictorial essay. Concentrates on river flooding but gives a good account of the 1991 typhoon and of the population pressures that make Bangladesh vulnerable to disasters causing great mortality.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Cornell, James. The Great International Disaster Book. 3d ed. New York: Scribner, 1982. The chapter on cyclones provides an illuminating perspective on the disastrous consequences of hurricanes and typhoons. The correlation between population densities and mortality statistics is made explicit in a list of disasters headed by the 1970 Bangladesh typhoon.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Iyer, Pico. “Trail of Tears and Anguish.” Time, June 10, 1985, 42-45. Account of the 1985 Bangladesh cyclone, which was a repetition, though on a smaller scale, of the 1970 disaster.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Morales, Dom. “East Pakistan: The Wave.” The New York Times Magazine (January 10, 1971): 36. Combines interviews with survivors of the typhoon, firsthand accounts of the delta one month after the disaster, and an overview of the political situation.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">O’Donnell, Charles Peter. Bangladesh: Biography of a Muslim Nation. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1984. Contains a clear account of the political situation in Pakistan in the 1960’s and discusses how the 1970 cyclone contributed to the subsequent breakup into two nations, Pakistan and Bangladesh. Also contains a good general account of the physical and economic conditions in Bangladesh.

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