In the dark early hours of 12 November 1970 a tropical cyclone swung in from the Indian Ocean and made its way, to devastating effect, up the course of the world’s largest delta — the confluence of two huge river courses, the Ganges and the Brahmaputra — in what was then East Pakistan. The delta was heavily populated with subsistence farmers and, further, the overwhelming majority of East Pakistan lay on land less than 20 metres above sea level and was thus vulnerable to even a gentle breeze lapping the waters of the Indian Ocean. If you were asked to design the perfect country to be all but wiped out by a weather-driven natural disaster, this would be it: low-lying, densely populated, little or no preventative infrastructure, mired in poverty. If you then placed that country in the worst place in the world for serious ‘storm-surge’ problems — around the fringes of the Indian Ocean, preferably near the mouth of the Ganges (which will act as a natural funnel for the cyclone) — then, for lo, you have East Pakistan; the world’s unluckiest country.
That storm killed between 300,000 and 500,000 people, not counting those who starved to death in the aftermath. It was the worst natural disaster resulting from unfortunate weather that the world had ever — or still has ever — seen. It is also the template for those who believe that disasters such as these, acts of God, can somehow effect monumental political change, that every cloud — even those big, grey, rapidly billowing, weird ones that herald misery — can have a silver lining. The Pakistan government responded to the cyclone with, as one local politician put it at the time, ‘gross neglect, callous indifference and utter indifference’. This was a commonly held view around the rest of the world, principally in the United States and western Europe, but felt with most conviction within Pakistan itself.