The country of Bangladesh has historically served as a virtual bulls-eye for cyclonic activity in its corner of the Indian Ocean. Not only is the bay that leads onto shore extremely flat (and shallow), the shoreline is shaped like a horseshoe, which draws the storm activity inward. Also, the Bangladeshi lowlands along the ocean are also flat, and they do not drain well at all. This is good when you want to grow rice, but it is not so good when you want to avoid tragedy when a cyclone blows ashore and brings flooding with it. In the centuries before such inventions as radio and radar, these storms would have casualties in the hundreds of thousands, as the storms would literally hit without warning, and the people would only have time to take shelter in their flimsy homes, which would collapse under the force of the gales, and end up collapsing. As a result, the Bangladeshi culture became quite fatalistic about this, as people would just accept the fact that if it was one’s time to die in a storm like that, then one should accept it. Even praying to avoid that fate was frowned upon.
The purpose of this research project is to gauge public perceptions of the entire weather forecasting process, to see if a more sophisticated system of communication, through which the government could warn people about impending storms, would be useful in Bangladesh. This research is extremely significant, because if it turns out that improved communication would continue to save lives, then that communication should become a government priority.
Because the technology is out there to provide the public with a wealth of information about oncoming weather events, or longer-term climatic trends, there has been considerable interest in finding the most effective way to communicate that information to the public. Despite (or perhaps because of) the wealth of outlets from which people can gather information about the weather, the fact remains that people are slow to change their behaviors, even after they hear warnings from information that they trust. For example, a study by Semenza et al. (2008A) looked at the public perception of warnings about elevated heat and diminished air quality in two climatically different cities in the United States and found that, if people changed their behaviors at all, they did it because of their own perceptions, not because of warnings. The federal government of the United States is just one entity that has taken a concerted interest in beefing up the weather warning system, as a way of saving lives – but also in saving costs when it comes to dealing with climatic disasters (Broome, 2005). Semenza et al. (2008B) also conducted a study of the degree to which people would undertake voluntary behavior change in order to reduce the likelihood of disasters. The primary purpose of this study was to identify specific economic, social and structural barriers that made change less likely to happen.
Even given the scientific evidence of global warming and climate change, there are still many skeptics, particularly in the United States, where the conservative movement has convinced some of its adherents that the science still is inconclusive, or even that the Left is pushing this misinformation to advance its own ends. A study by Akerlof et al. (2010) confirmed that, compared to people from Canada and Malta, people from the United States are considerably less likely to believe that climate change is a real threat, or that it could affect them personally. Similar findings have popped up in studies in other countries (Curtin, Presser and Singer, 2000; Bord, Fisher and O’Connor, 1998; Zahran, Brody and Grover, 2006). Because people in Bangladesh are also skeptical of the dangers of the incoming cyclones, a study comparing American and Bangladeshi attitudes about government warnings would be instructive. Another study that looked at perceptions in Malta dealt more specifically with the triggers that it would take to spur people to take action to change the environmental conditions in their own community or country (DeBono, Vincenti and Calleja, 2010; Krosnick, 2006; Miller and Ratner, 1998). The most sobering conclusion from this study was that it would take significant harm from the environment before most people would make radical changes to their lifestyle in order to preserve the global health of the planet. Without such triggers as widespread disease and drought, very few people would be motivated to make basic lifestyle changes that, taken aggregately, would benefit the environment considerably.
Given the fact that Bangladeshi are less likely, on average, to heed government warnings and take inconvenient measures to prepare for a storm, given their cultural trends, it is important to pay attention to trends such as those found by Streatfield and Karar (2008) and Islam (2006). Because Bangladesh is still in the midst of a population boom, it is necessary to improve the public communication system in the country for two reasons: one, for the sheer increase in people who might require evacuation in a disaster, and two, the number of elderly people that will be mushrooming with improved health conditions. The elderly could represent a significant problem in terms of logistics in a natural disaster – not only in terms of transportation logistics, but in terms of providing mobile medical care, as many elderly have ongoing medical conditions that may require constant treatment, even while being evacuated. As a result, these chronic conditions could lead to loss of life, if the infrastructure to provide that ongoing care is not in place during an evacuation.
This project will conduct surveys of members of the Bangladeshi public, questioning them on their attitudes about public communication of impending natural disasters. The surveys will be conducted over the telephone and in writing. The surveys are designed to collect data on the following four topics: awareness and attitudes towards climate change, awareness of organizations that promote and/or fund the care of coastal areas, awareness of the function (and attitude toward) breakwaters, and awareness of such environmental issues as coastal erosion. Particularly, the survey is designed to find out the reason for the gap between public attitudes about sustainability as a concept, as opposed to sustainable development. The outcome, which will explain the reason for the gap, will give decision makers and policy planners the information they need to devise future strategies.
As far as specific methodology, the interviews will take place over the telephone as well as face to face. The interviewees will comprise a representative spectrum of the Bangladeshi population as a whole, both in terms of ethnicity and age. There are eighteen total questions, broken down into the four aforementioned themes.
We are estimating a total cost of 1000 euros to operate the survey. We are relying on the same expert volunteers that devised the questionnaire to interpret the results for us. We anticipate that some of the cultural factors that currently contribute to the difficulties that Bangladesh faces in preparing for natural disasters will explain the gaps; finding out which groups hold to these cultural ideas most fiercely will help determine the specific educational strategies that we will recommend to policymakers to result in more effective storm preparation and survival strategies. Because some of these factors have to do with spiritual or religious notions, such as the refusal to pray before and during storms, it is possible that some of the resistance will fade away as the older generations pass on, and that the younger generations will be more rational. However, cultural practices that are based on religious reasons do not always fade with generations, as the practices can become ingrained habit or tradition, separate from religious significance. The educational effort will likely need to take on several media to reach all of the desired groups.
We anticipate several different outcomes from this study. First of all, we hypothesize that very few respondents will be concerned about the long-term safety and health of the Bangladeshi coastline. After all, storms have been hitting for centuries. The fatalistic attitude at work among many of them will make them dubious, in our opinion, about the possible assistance that more government education can provide. Also, we surmise that there will be more resistance in the older demographic sectors, who tend to be more tied to traditional ways of thinking, which would include a belief in the spiritual fatalism keeps them from even praying when storms are rolling in. Also, we hypothesize that respondents will not be optimistic about their opinions making a difference with regard to climate policy for the country. Because democracy is still fairly new in this part of the world, which was one of the last strongholds of the British Empire, the idea that the government would listen to its citizens, instead of vice versa, is still taking hold here. Because the pattern of cyclones has remained relatively consistent in Bangladesh for centuries, we offer as our final hypothesis the claim that most of the respondents will be skeptical about the possibility that climate change is responsible for a growing incidence of cyclonic activity.
Other factors that could affect the effectiveness of the survey include a willingness to answer questions honestly. Because there has been such emphasis on disaster management in ongoing government educational programs with the Bangladeshi public, there may be a backlash, and a perception that there is too much emphasis on storm preparation. However, if the planners of the educational campaign remember to treat their audience as fellow stakeholders in a healthy, prosperous nation, then they should not hit as much resistance in their programming.
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