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Bangladesh climate under the weather

Google Maps - Bangladesh Death tolls are commonly used to measure the human impact of disasters unfolding on foreign shores. To some extent they also shape the likely humanitarian response. When cyclone Sidr tore apart the deltaic south of Bangladesh two weeks ago it was the numbers that bombarded the headlines. The area had just emerged from the seasonal phenomena of Bonna (large flooding) which claimed over 1000 lives. Sidr is thought to have left at least 3500 dead and a much greater number displaced or destitute.

These figures could have been frighteningly higher. In 1991, a cyclone of similar scale and intensity killed 138,000 Bangladeshis, an astonishing toll even within a population now topping 150 million. What counted most for a large share of the population during the onset of cyclone Sidr was the actualisation of a model for disaster risk reduction. This is becoming a crucial framework for protecting lives and livelihoods in the midst of environmental disasters.

Seventy-two hours prior to landfall, the Bangladesh Government initiated a cyclone warning through its Comprehensive Disaster Management Program. Based on improved satellite imaging and meteorological modelling which pointed to the location, time and intensity of the cyclone, the government was able to relay this message through its disaster management department and the local Red Crescent. This message was then delivered to the 15 districts directly under threat.

Following this 40,000 trained volunteers, police, coastguard and health workers were mobilised to disseminate the warning to the 10 million coastal inhabitants potentially exposed to the cyclone.

Simple but well-executed diaster response procedures enabled thousands of families in remote rural areas to find refuge in purpose-built storm shelters, undoubtedly curbing what could have been another spiralling death toll during the storm surge. The widespread use of megaphones by volunteers to announce the danger was credited with saving thousands of lives alone.

This model of preparedness is crucial in a country so frequently at odds with nature. Bangladesh is perhaps the most disaster prone country on earth, with seasonal monsoons and cyclones among its most destructive phenomena. More than 200 rivers and waterways snake across the country to the turbulent Bay of Bengal. Most of the country is less than 10 metres above sea level.

The delta region, a fertile area for the agriculture and fishing-based economy, is highly susceptible to water sourced disasters. The results of these are saltwater intrusion into fresh water supplies, waterlogging, land erosion and devastation of economically disadvantaged farmers and fisherfolk. It is saddening but hardly surprising that many of the dead from cyclone Sidr were fishermen ignoring the cyclone warning in search of a plentiful catch.

Climate change may also prove an underlying factor in the intensity of these disaster impacts. The Intergovernmental panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has already noted that the accelerated melting of Himalayan ice caps and even incremental rises in sea levels would likely increase the severity of flooding in the short-term during the Bonna season and greatly magnify the impact of tidal storm surges during the cyclone season.

The cyclical nature of these disasters has led the Bangladesh Government to pursue a more holistic approach to disaster management, which addresses the risks, vulnerabilities and hazards associated with these recurrent events. This rationale contends that a better-prepared government and disaster 'resilient' communities will mitigate the impact of natural disasters, ensuring affected communities are reached during the critical survival phase of the response and reducing onerous financial aid and recovery commitments.

This would also strategically address what the International Monetary Fund has referred to as 'Samaritan's Dilemma' whereby governments and decision-makers defer responsibility for investments in risk reduction, relying instead on the immediacy of aid delivered by foreign donors.

Bangladesh has taken significant strides towards what the government describes as 'a paradigm shift in disaster management from conventional response to a more comprehensive risk reduction culture'. As demonstrated through the Sidr response, the Bangladesh government has invested heavily to remodel its disaster management systems at the central and district levels within a longer-term development context, recognising, for example, that entrenched poverty is a key determinant of disaster vulnerability.

At the community level, a range of initiatives has been piloted to protect lives and mitigate disaster impacts. Numerous village-level disaster management committees have been established and have conducted mock evacuation drills targeting high risk groups including children and the elderly.

Preparedness measures include raising homes and water points above flood zones, pre-positioning food rations and first aid equipment, and better management of environmental resources through soil conservation and tree planting. Despite some problems the weight of evidence suggests that well-honed public knowledge, more resilient mitigation measures and clear response procedures have reduced and will continue to reduce exposure to risk. They will also lead to better-managed disaster responses.

Within disaster-prone communities, local knowledge and experience of extreme weather events including disaster patterns form a very human resource that needs to sit equally with broader stratagems and modelling for disaster risk reduction and response within developing countries. Both investments should inform a recognised process for ensuring a safer and more viable existence for the Bangladesh population in the midst of climatic uncertainty.

With the eventuality of future disasters, this reaches hopefully towards a new measure recognising lives saved as opposed to lives lost.

Ben FraserBen Fraser is an aid worker who has worked and written from Pakistan, Indonesia Afghanistan and Sudan.




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