Bangladesh momentarily made world news last week when force 1 hurricane Cyclone Mora peaked at 75 mph on May 31st, making landfall around the port city of Chittagong. Seven people died and 50 or more were injured, mostly by falling trees; dozens of fishermen are still missing. But these tragic casualties were far off the ‘1 million in nature’s crosshairs’ predicted in CNN headlines. In a matter of days 300,000 people had been evacuated from the area, many to some of the almost 500 public cyclone shelters. Without enough disaster-porn to attract interest, international news coverage soon dried up; after all, ‘Bangladesh Government does a creditable job of disaster prevention’ is hardly clickbait.
Behind this non-story lies a dramatic tale of violence, betrayal, sacrifice, and heroism half a century old. Nestled in the low-lying Bengal Delta, Bangladesh was always exposed to tropical storms – 42% of all deaths from tropical storms in the last two centuries were in the Bay of Bengal – but the death toll from cyclones has declined rapidly since, and, I have argued recently, because, the country gained sovereignty in 1971. Nearly 50 years ago now, the Bhola cyclone, one of the most destructive tropical storms ever recorded, killed up to half a million people. The world was aghast and came out in full-force to help, but the government of then-united Pakistan was slow and lazy to respond, viewing such disasters as unavoidable and not their problem. The military regime’s indifference to the plight of their citizens in Pakistan’s far-flung eastern wing became such a hot political issue in the run-up to the first democratic elections that Bengali nationalists won what was ‘possibly the greatest victory of any party in a free and contested election anywhere’ in its impoverished eastern province. This triggered a genocidal attack and a bloody, but ultimately successful war, liberating Bangladesh from Pakistani rule in 1971.
The Bhola cyclone was a ‘critical juncture’ that changed South Asian history. Yet the intimate interrelation between ecology and politics in this context meant it crafted a social contract between citizens and ruling elites to defend against the disasters to which the geography of the delta leaves it uniquely prone. Since 1970, Bangladeshi governments have made it a political priority to prevent and manage disasters. How well a Bangladeshi government tackles a disaster is a litmus test of its legitimacy.
That cyclones are properly political matters is not news in a week when the US withdrew from the Paris Accord on climate change. To the extent that such projections are possible, global warming is likely to increase the intensity, if not definitely the frequency, of such storms. This makes it worth thinking about what hurricane political economy might mean in the future. Some cyclone politics are obvious: who gets protected and who gets the resources needed to recover are clearly about political power, not rights nor needs. Hurricane Katrina brought the gross racial politics of the US into unforgettably sharp relief. Similarly, in 1970, the West Pakistani rulers knew little and cared less about the plight of the peasants and fisherfolk on the far side of the subcontinent. Apparently it never occurred to the ruling elites that their own legitimacy (and therefore their power base) depended on at least making an effort. It took mass mobilization into full-scale guerrilla warfare to persuade the Pakistanis that weak defence against disasters was a political deal-breaker for a population on the permanent frontline of the hurricane. National sovereignty, and later, democratic pressure, cemented the social contract that emerged with the Bhola cyclone, empowering citizens to hold governments to account when disasters struck.
How people come to be in the path of the storm in the first place involves a less obvious political economy, the result of longer processes through which economy, polity and ecology mutually shape each other. In 1970, the Bengalis subsisting on the fringes out in the delta had been pushing the agrarian frontier deeper into the Sundarbans forest over the past hundred years or more, growing jute and paddy for colonial and export markets. They were there largely because the British Empire needed them to be, and arranged its policies accordingly.
Fast forward to 2017, and a depressing political parallel soon becomes evident as news interest in the impact of Cyclone Mora shifts to the devastation of the Rohingya refugee camps. These people have been fleeing the genocide-tolerating regime of Nobel Peace Prize-winner Aung San Suu Kyi. They have been reluctantly located by the Bangladeshi government in this beautiful harsh part of the world. These are people with nothing, not even citizenship, and their flimsy thatched roofs have now also been swept away. Hamida Begum, a 27 year old refugee from Burma told Al Jazeera:
We heard that a cyclone was coming. But there’s no place we can go … I hate being a Rohingya. We are being tortured in Myanmar. Now in Bangladesh we have no rights. Nothing. After this cyclone, we don’t have a roof. We are living under the sky. We have no future.
It is not hard to believe that these people facing the storm, close to the site of the Bhola cyclone of 1970, and in a country so renowned for its disaster management, are the ‘most unwanted people in the world’.
It is no accident that these ‘unwanted people’ were in the path of the hurricane. Again, in 2017, the after-effects of imperial policies of centuries past mix with the political economy of the present to transform some groups into cyclone victims. In the case of the Rohingya, these descendants, probably, of labourers and traders despatched from the Chittagong area to enrich the Empire are the despised minority around which warring ethnic groups find it convenient to unite. That they are Muslims that nobody, not even their Muslim neighbours, see it as in their interests to protect, makes it easy to push them off the land to make space for lucrative mineral and other extractive industries. That is how they end up in refugee camps facing down the cyclone. It is not just that they are poor and powerless that they come off worst. It is that their poverty and powerlessness has been the construction of decades, regimes, centuries, and it has always served the interests of economic power.
These are the cyclone politics of what Jason Moore has renamed the Capitalocene – a geological era in which the imperatives of capital, stretching back hundreds of years, and not the current behaviour of people in general, shape the ecological crisis of our time. We must make sense of these politics to explain the irony of the Government of Bangladesh, a country founded in order to protect its people from the effects of disasters, building a 1320 megawatt power plant only 14 km from the very Sundarbans forest that might defend against such disasters. It does so with the impeccable logic that development requires power, and Bangladesh must develop. It builds its fossil fuel burning machines even while leading the affected world in climate change negotiations, a paradox from which it cannot escape.