Sunday, June 4, 2017

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Bangladesh has been one of the world’s most disaster-prone countries, ravaged year after year by cyclones and floods. Since 1980, natural disasters have claimed over 200,000 lives and caused economic damage to the tune of over $ 17 billion. It is estimated that 14% of Bangladesh’s GDP is exposed to natural disasters, and 1.8 % of it is lost because of nature’s fury.

Bangladesh is especially vulnerable to cyclones because of its location at the triangular-shaped head of the Bay of Bengal, the sea-level geography of its coastal area, its high population density, and the lack of coastal protection systems.

During the pre-monsoon (April-May) or post-monsoon (October-November) seasons, cyclones frequently hit the coastal regions. About 40% of the total global storm surges are recorded in Bangladesh, and the deadliest cyclones in the past 50 years, in terms of deaths and casualties, are those that have struck Bangladesh.

The number and severity of cyclones in Bangladesh and the associated mortalities have varied greatly in the past 50 years. The 1970 Bhola cyclone caused 500,000 deaths and the 1991 cyclone caused 140 000 deaths.

But since the creation of disaster mitigating systems in 1991, deaths and damages have come down drastically. For example, the severe cyclone of 2007 caused 4234 deaths, which was a 100-fold reduction compared to the devastating 1970 cyclone. Subsequently, the toll in cyclones came down to 3000. The most recent cyclone Mora caused only six deaths, though it hit the coast at 120 kilometres per hour.
A well-prepared Bangladesh government had appealed to people in the affected districts of Cox’s Bazar and Chittagong to move to 538 pre-built cyclone shelters. And a day before the cyclone made landfall, the government evacuated about 300,000 people.

Change in perspective 

All this is because the concept of disaster management had undergone a radical change in Bangladesh since 1991. It is no longer “disaster response” or acting after the occurrence of a disaster, but anticipating and being prepared for it in order to mitigate its impact.

Bangladesh’s disaster management system combines response (after the event), recovery, rehabilitation and prevention, mitigation and preparedness.

After the 1998 floods, “risk reduction” became the keynote of the disaster management program. Bangladesh is a pioneer in disaster risk reduction.

Successive governments have consciously worked out institutional, legal and policy frameworks for disaster anticipation, preparation, mitigation and response. It realised early enough that disaster management has to be “mainstreamed” and that there should be participation and coordinated action by a variety of departments and institutions from the cabinet to the village level. Disaster management can never be the job of one department or ministry.

Bangladesh also realised that government alone cannot meet or prepare for disasters – the private sector and civil society should also be made to pitch in both in risk preparedness and disaster relief. And people at the lowest levels, including the women, will have to be empowered to contribute to the decision making at the appropriate levels. It is the depressed social and economic groups, and also women, who suffer the most when natural disasters strike because their interests are ignored by the elite decision makers. The Bangladeshi disaster management scheme is a success because “empowerment” of marginalised groups is a key ingredient.

The Ministry of Disaster Management and Relief is the apex body for disaster management in Bangladesh and its main concern is “risk reduction” through a variety of pre-emptive activities. The government has restructured and established the Disaster Management Department so that it becomes the main instrument for implementing and coordinating the multifarious disaster management activities.

Prime Minister at the apex

At the national level, there is the National Disaster Management Council (NDMC) headed by the Prime Minister to formulate and review disaster management policies and issue directives to all concerned. There is the Inter-Ministerial Disaster Management Co-ordination Committee (IMDMCC) headed by the Minister in Charge of the Disaster Management and Relief Division (DM&RD) to implement disaster management policies and decisions of the NDMC. In addition there is the National Platform for Disaster Risk Reduction (NPDRR) headed by an experienced person nominated by the Prime Minister.

The Earthquake Preparedness and Awareness Committee (EPAC) headed by a minister; a Cyclone Preparedness Program Implementation Board (CPPIB) headed by the Secretary, Disaster Management and Relief Division; a Disaster Management Training and Public Awareness Building Task Force (DMTATF) headed by the Director General of Disaster Management Bureau (DMB) to coordinate disaster-related training and public awareness activities of the government, NGOs and other organisations; and a Focal Point Operation Coordination Group of Disaster Management (FPOCG) are other national institutions.

For the dissemination of early warning signals about cyclones to the communities in the coastal areas, the Cyclone Preparedness Program (CPP), a globally renowned volunteer organisation of Bangladesh, which combines volunteerism and communication technology, was established in 1972, after the devastating 1970 Bhola cyclone. The CPP has undergone significant technology upgrades and covers a wider area now than ever before.

In addition, there is the Bangladesh Metrological Department; the Flood Forecasting and Warning Centre; the Water Development Board; and the Fire Service and Civil Defence forces, all of which have been strengthened substantially.  Since climate change is a major trigger of disasters, the Environment Ministry has evolved a national plan to tackle issues stemming from climate change. The government has roped in national research institutions also.

Legal framework

The legal framework for disaster management is provided by the Disaster Management Act of 2012. It incorporates existing orders, reformation of institutions, envisages creation of new institutions, puts necessary mechanisms in place and makes the disaster management system accountable with mandatory legal provisions.

Previously, the framework was provided by the Standing Order on Disasters (SOD) of 1997. It was rightly called the “Bible of Disaster Management”. It provided for duties and responsibilities for the ministries and departments, and established committees at all levels, considering the inter-relatedness of disaster management activities. The 2012 Act incorporates the provisions of SOD.

Bangladesh has a clearly defined Disaster Management Policy and a Disaster Management Plan, with guidelines addressing specific disasters situations. 

Economic development 

From the Sixth Five Year Plan onwards, Bangladesh has been including economic development as part of its disaster mitigation efforts. Economic development facilitates the growth of mass awareness and willingness to participate in disaster management efforts, both before and after the disaster.

Bangladesh has marched forward on the economic front, with poverty coming down from 40% in 2005 to 24.7% in 2014.Bangladesh is currently registering a GDP growth rate of 6%. A country previously dismissed as a “basket case” has today met five out of the eight Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). The literacy rate has gone up; sanitation coverage has widened and women›s participation in all activities outside the home has gone up tremendously

But unplanned urbanisation is a disease Bangladesh is still suffering from, like all South Asian countries. Urban congestion, fires, building collapses, pollution, and urban flooding are ever-present threats, which have to be met.

However, Bangladesh is well ahead of many countries in tackling disasters and is a role model. Community resilience, volunteerism, an effective Early Warning System, a community-based decision making process, government commitment, a vibrant NGO sector and a good legal and institutional framework have given Bangladesh an exalted status in the comity of disaster-prone nations.