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Bangladesh's severe weather hotline faces test as tropical storm approaches

Source: Mon, 13 May 2013 16:36 GMT
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Children gather to retrieve their belongings from the wreckage after a tornado touched down in Brahmanbaria, March 23, 2013. A tornado swept through nearly two dozen villages southeast of the Bangladeshi capital, killing at least 20 people, officials said. REUTERS/Stringer
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DHAKA, Bangladesh (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – A new telephone hotline in Bangladesh that gives advance warning of bad weather could be put to the test in coming days as a tropical storm threatens to reach hurricane strength over the country.

The hotline, launched in March, enables Bangladeshis to get recorded weather bulletins and flood forecasts 24 hours a day from the Bangladesh Meteorological Department by dialing a dedicated number – 10941 – on their mobile phones.

Officials will be hoping the phone line will help steer people away from danger as Tropical Storm Mahasen gathers pace as it heads north across the Bay of Bengal towards Myanmar, Bangladesh and India’s West Bengal region. It is expected to hit in the next 72 hours.

“The newly introduced service will help people stay updated about weather and flood forecasts and make preparations if disaster approaches,” Abdul Wazed, director general of the Department of Disaster Management, told Thomson Reuters Foundation in a telephone interview before the news broke of the impending storm.

Wazed said his agency hoped the phone warnings would give people time to prepare for extreme weather and reduce their exposure to risk, particularly as “the number of disastrous events continues to increase.”

The service, which is aimed primarily at the country’s vulnerable coastal population, is being implemented under the country’s Comprehensive Disaster Management Programme (CDMP), a project funded by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).

The disaster management programme aims to reduce Bangladesh's vulnerability to hazards and extreme events, including those linked to climate change, and to make sure 13 key ministries and agencies adopt risk reduction strategies.

Calls to the new hotline cost 2 Taka (just over one cent) per minute but Wazed said his department is trying to reduce the cost to ensure the service is used by Bangladesh’s poorest people.

“We are trying to reduce the cost to 1 Taka per minute or to make the calls free of charge so that more people can hear the alerts and avoid danger,” he said.

His agency also plans to air television and radio advertisements about the service to increase uptake and has already put up 110,000 posters around the country.

WARNINGS FOR FISHERMEN

Last year, Bangladesh launched a pilot project to warn ocean-going fishermen about extreme weather using an electronic device in their boats. Fifty boats were given the device, which could also be used to track them.

In the second phase of the project, which will start soon, an additional 300 boats will be given the device, using funding from the UK-based Humanitarian Innovation Fund.

Bangladesh and supporting NGOs eventually hope to make such devices mandatory for all ocean-going boats.

Tapash Ranjan Chakroborty, an Oxfam campaign officer in Dhaka, said there are some 12,000 fishing boats with sea-going capacity in Bangladesh. If they are within 90 kilometres of the shore, the device allows them to hear warnings and start for home, hopefully avoiding extreme weather. 

A study carried out by the Bangladesh-based Campaign for Sustainable Rural Livelihoods (CSRL) found that the intensity and frequency of storms in Bangladesh has tripled in the last 30 years.

During the 2007-2010 period, Bangladesh had 10 to 14 storms severe enough for a signal number 3 warning each year. Three decades ago, just four or five such warnings were issued each year.

Rafiqul Islam, a fisherman in Satkhira district, said most fishermen today depend on the radio to get weather bulletins. The state run radio service reaches up to 50 kilometres offshore.

“We also carry cell phones and friends and relatives inform us about the weather. With the new service, we will be able to hear weather bulletins instantly and start returning if disaster approaches,” he said.

With cell phones now almost ubiquitous in Bangladesh, phone-based early warning systems will be a big help, said Atiq Rahman, executive director of the Bangladesh Centre for Advanced Studies.

But he said he hoped the service would be expanded to provide much more localised and specific warnings.

“I think the time has come to provide area-specific weather alerts instead of general ones. The BMD (the meteorological department) couldn’t give any warning about the formation of a tornado that lashed Brahmanbaria district recently, killing many and destroying several villages,” he noted.

Syful Islam is a journalist with the Financial Express newspaper in Bangladesh. He can be reached at: youths1990@yahoo.com

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