DHAKA (AlertNet) – As the frequency of extreme weather increases, Bangladesh is preparing itself to face future natural disasters more successfully by training its armed forces and volunteers in better disaster response.
Floods, cyclones, droughts, low rainfall and salinity have become more commonplace in Bangladesh, and the country is also vulnerable to earthquakes. Taken together, these risks threaten the lives and livelihoods of millions in this densely populated and low-lying nation.
Incessant rainfall in June this year in the southeast and northeast of the country resulted in flash floods and landslides that caused the deaths of at least 122 people. Thousands remained stranded in low-lying districts for days. The southeastern city of Chittagong experienced heavy rains on October 4 and 5 that created flooding as deep as three feet (one metre), bringing traffic to a standstill.
“We are training people, both uniformed and non-uniformed, so that they can respond effectively when disaster hits the country,” said Brigadier-General Ataul H.S. Hasan, director of the government’s Disaster Response Exercise and Exchange (DREE) programme.
“Many disastrous events are increasingly taking place in Bangladesh due to climate change,” said Hasan. “People who are trained under the programme will be able act when necessary.”
Hasan credits disaster preparedness and timely actions by both armed forces and volunteers with holding the death toll from Cyclone Aila, which struck Bangladesh in 2009, to only 170 people.
An earlier 1991 cyclone in Cox’s Bazar district, by comparison, claimed 138,000 lives.
The DREE programme started in 2010 with small-scale discussions among the participants about how to respond to disasters. This year, a Field Training Exercise (FTX) was included with more than 2,000 uniformed and non-uniformed participants.
“Thorough the FTX we wanted to identify gaps in preparation to quickly respond when calamity hits,” Hasan said.
Senior coordinator of the DREE exercise, Lieutenant Colonel Mohammad Tawhid-Ul-Islam, said that climate change had caused the intensity of weather-related disasters to increase and also made their impact more devastating.
“We need to remain prepared to act fast,” said Tawhid-Ul-Islam. He said the country had so far improved its resilience to most types of disasters, apart from high-magnitude earthquakes.
To help ease that gap, the Bangladesh Armed Forces Division and United States Army Pacific Command co-hosted a joint exercise on earthquake disaster preparedness in Dhaka in late September.
Participants included representatives from 163 ministries and departments, as well as law enforcement agencies, universities, utility services, civil communities, multilateral donor agencies, and local and international NGOs.
Major M.M. Matiur Rahman, director of the Fire Service and Civil Defence Directorate, said his agency has 6,200 employees and 12,000 volunteers across the country trained to respond immediately to disasters.
AIM IS 62,000 VOLUNTEERS
“We have plans to train 62,000 volunteers to deal with earthquakes in three cities – Dhaka, Chittagong and Sylhet – and other natural disasters like cyclones, floods and tsunamis,” Rahman said.
The first 72 hours following a disaster are a crucial period for response efforts, one key reason to improve the country’s rapid response capabilities, he said.
The government plans to establish a fire service station in each sub-district across the country. Some 48,000 volunteers in coastal districts (in addition to the 12,000 across the country) have been trained to act as soon as they receive a disaster warning, officials said.
According to Ainun Nishat, an environmentalist and vice chancellor of Brac University, Bangladesh is a global leader in disaster preparedness.
“The government has prepared a five-year-long national plan for disaster management where necessary instructions are given on how to act when disaster hits,” said Nishat, adding that many other countries had replicated the plan because of its effectiveness.
However, Nishat said that because Bangladesh is a densely populated country, its natural disasters still tend to result in higher losses than in other countries that may be less well prepared.
The director-general of the Disaster Management Bureau, Ahsan Zakir, said that the country is trying to make the best of its limited resources.
“We are now much (more) resilient to catastrophes like floods and cyclones, but still lacking capacity to face landslides and earthquakes,” he said.
Dissemination of emergency weather information to people via mobile phones has already started on a trial basis, according to Zakir. People can dial in to hear the latest weather forecast.
“By mid-October a cell phone operator will start informing people (in particular danger areas) through short message service (SMS) if the water flow rises to danger level” or approaching storms reach a particular danger level, he said.
“Steps are also there to incorporate the disaster preparedness issue in the school-level curriculum and to regularly carry out earthquake drills in the educational institutions to raise awareness,” Zakir said.
Syful Islam is a journalist with the Financial Express newspaper in Bangladesh. He can be reached at: email@example.com