Cyclone Mocha Threatens Bangladesh, Prompting Mass Evacuations

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Rad flag flatters in Coxís Bazar sea beach as a warning sign for upcoming cyclone Mocha in Coxís Bazar on May 12, 2023. Myanmar and Bangladesh deployed thousands of volunteers and ordered evacuations from low-lying areas on May 11 as the Bay of Bengal's first cyclone of the year approached. (Photo by Munir uz zaman / AFP)

As Cyclone Mocha approaches south-eastern Bangladesh, approximately half a million people are being evacuated to safer areas due to the potential danger posed by the powerful storm. Predicted to make landfall at midday with winds reaching 170kph (106mph) and storm surges up to 3.6m (12ft), Cyclone Mocha has raised concerns about its impact on Cox’s Bazar, the world’s largest refugee camp, which houses nearly a million people in makeshift homes.

The camp is already experiencing rainfall, and red warning flags have been raised, indicating the urgency of the situation. Cyclone Mocha could become the most powerful storm to hit Bangladesh in nearly two decades. In preparation, nearby airports have been closed, fishermen instructed to suspend their work, and 1,500 shelters have been set up to ensure the safety of vulnerable individuals in the region.

Authorities, such as Vibhushan Kanti Das, additional deputy commissioner at Cox’s Bazar, have expressed their readiness to face the hazards and their commitment to avoiding any loss of life. Families have been steadily arriving at designated cyclone shelters throughout the day, with hundreds seeking refuge in classrooms at a school in Cox’s Bazar. Some brought their possessions in plastic bags, while others brought their livestock.

The Rohingya refugees, numbering close to a million, who have fled neighboring Myanmar and reside in fragile bamboo shelters covered with tarpaulin, are at considerable risk. The United Nations is working to protect these vulnerable areas, but the government of Bangladesh prohibits refugees from leaving the camps. This leaves many refugees anxious and uncertain about the potential consequences if their shelters are hit by the cyclone.

Mohammad Rafique, who lives in a bamboo shelter with his family, acknowledges that their current shelter is unlikely to provide sufficient protection from the impending strong winds and heavy rains. Rafique, like many others, can only rely on prayers for their safety. Landslides triggered by the anticipated heavy rainfall pose a serious threat to those residing in hillside camps, where landslips are a recurrent occurrence.

While the Bangladeshi government and NGOs are working to ensure the camps are prepared for the cyclone, the logistical challenges of relocating a million refugees make it a complex task. The primary objective is to save lives, but the aftermath of the cyclone may bring additional risks, including flash floods and landslides due to heavy rains.

The frequency of storms and their intensity are influenced by climate change, although the precise impact remains uncertain. Rising sea surface temperatures contribute to more intense storms with extreme rainfall. The world has already experienced a temperature increase of approximately 1.1°C since the industrial era, highlighting the need for substantial emission reductions by governments worldwide to mitigate further climate change effects.

As Cyclone Mocha approaches Bangladesh, the priority lies in protecting lives and ensuring the safety of vulnerable communities, including the refugees who face heightened risks in the face of this powerful storm.