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Bracing for disaster

  • Published at 11:59 pm April 18th, 2019
Flash floods are becoming more and more frequent
Flash floods are becoming more and more frequent / MEHEDI HASAN

Are we ready for summertime cyclones, storms, and tornadoes?

Bangladesh has a long history of natural hazards in summer. The main hazards include tornadoes, Nor’wester, flash floods, and cyclones. These disasters lead to the loss of lives, livelihoods, assets, and properties.    

Tornadoes mainly occur in the pre-monsoon (March-May), and post-monsoon (October-November) periods. They form suddenly, are of brief duration, and are extremely localized in nature. It is the pre-monsoon period when most of the abnormal rainfall or droughts occur in different parts of Bangladesh.

A tornado occurred in Manikganj on April 26, 1989. It was the deadliest tornado in Bangladesh’s history. It killed around 1,300 people.

In addition there are severe local seasonal storms, popularly known as Nor’westers (Kalboishakhi). These storms are generally associated with tornadoes. Wind-speeds in Nor’westers usually range from 113km/h to 130km/h, though often their speeds exceed 162km/h. 

Since 1971, Bangladesh has experienced several major tornadoes, which have killed an average of more than 100 people in each event, and caused severe damage in their narrow paths. 

Cyclones and storm surges 

Tropical cyclones from the Bay of Bengal accompanied by storm surges are one of the major disasters in Bangladesh. They occur mainly in April/May and October/November. The country is one of the worst sufferers of all cyclonic casualties in the world. 

Cyclones and storm surges are a continuous threat for the coastal population. The average annual frequency of tropical disturbances in the Bay of Bengal is between 12 and 13, of which five attain the cyclonic strength.

Most of these cyclones strike land on the Bangladesh coast or the coast of Myanmar and India. On April 29, 1991, a powerful cyclone struck the coastal area of Bangladesh with winds of around 250 km/h. The storm killed at least 138,000 people, and left as many as 10 million homeless. 

The cyclonic storm “Aila” hit Khulna division on May 25, 2009, killing approximately 190 in Bangladesh. Hundreds of thousands of homes were washed away when wind-driven tidal surges of up to three metres destroyed the coastal belt of Khulna region.

The country has experienced an increased frequency of flash floods in the recent years. Flash floods mainly occur in haor areas of the north-eastern part of the country during the period of late March to May. These floods cause quick damage to crops and property, and are followed by relatively rapid recession. Untimely flash floods can cause people to lose their harvest.

The following points have been placed by relevant authorities for further improving the emergency and disaster risk reduction performances. 

Emergency management 

The key tasks for effective emergency management are mentioned below.

Readiness for a rapid response includes measures that need to be taken before a disaster event in order to minimize the loss of life and interference to critical services.

It also includes the formulation of workable hazard-specific emergency plans, the development of warning systems, the maintenance of inventories, and the training of workforce. It may also include search-and-rescue measures and evacuation plans for communities at risk.

Prior to any emergency situation, the contingency plan provides the basis for identifying and further developing response capacity.

The contingency plan is the basis of readiness and cover. It includes:

1. Analysis of the context, risk mapping, and identification of likely emergency scenarios. 

2. Mapping of capacity, vulnerabilities, constraints, resources, and tangible/intangible assets.

3. Identification of other external organizations’ capacity, constraints, and resources in the department, ministry, area, country, or region.   

Reduction of risks

It is expected that responsible authorities will act appropriately for reducing the disaster risks in line with the disaster management vision of the government of Bangladesh. 

The vision is to reduce the risks faced by people, especially the poor and the disadvantaged, from the effects of natural, environmental, and human-induced hazards and to have in place an efficient emergency response system capable of handling large-scale disasters. The major areas of interventions for reducing summer disaster could include the following.

Mainstreaming disaster risk reduction in existing development works and future initiatives of different government departments and non-government organizations (NGOs) of the country is very important. Authorities concerned should develop a disaster database to carry out detailed studies and planning. 

The government and NGOs need to redesign their development programs to ensure the active participation of the most vulnerable communities. Disaster mitigation potential needs to be maximized, and traditional community coping practices need to be incorporated.

Some targeted but tested disaster risk reduction activities could be carried out in consultation with communities at risk, and with relevant organizations.

Appropriate feasibility and cost benefit analysis of independent authorities are needed for taking any structural protection initiatives. A public hearing and consultation is important in this regard. 

The respective authorities at different levels should strengthen capacity-building initiatives of the local government and communities at risk. A well-organized and coordinated effort is needed to further strengthen local level planning.

Proper resources from central government and others should be ensured by authorities and policy-makers.

Bangladesh is good at forecasting cyclones and river floods. However, there are a lot of gaps and limitations in forecasting flash floods and tornadoes. 

Our flood and flash flood warning information will not be at the desired level without the establishment of a strong regional data-sharing and cooperation framework. 

A tornado forecasting system is needed, because tornadoes generate on the land and provide little time for early warning and forecasting. The Bangladesh Meteorological Department needs to play a significant role in this initiative.

Reducing the disaster risks of the summer season is imperative to protecting lives, livelihoods, and properties in Bangladesh. 

Farid Hasan Ahmed is a disaster risk reduction expert and development lawyer.

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