Challenges for disaster risk reduction | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, February 26, 2017 / LAST MODIFIED: 12:00 AM, February 26, 2017

Challenges for disaster risk reduction

With a population of about 152 million, Bangladesh has been identified as the highest ranking disaster prone countries and the fifth ranking in the risk index (2012) in the world. An estimate indicates that fourteen percent of the country's GDP is exposed to disasters per year. Although over the last four years the GDP growth (6.12 percent) and per capita income (USD 1312) have shown an upward mobility, high level of poverty (24.7 percent in 2015) remains a major concern. The underlying causes of persistent poverty in Bangladesh are of many folds, resulting from geo-physical settings within South Asia combines with social, economic and political factors. People living in the fragile geophysical location have to face frequent disasters. These people hardly have alternative options to come out of the vicious cycle of poverty and are forced to live in precarious conditions either in their original locations or moving elsewhere.

Floods are the most frequent disasters in Bangladesh, causing immense suffering to a large number of people, damaging infrastructure and other resources. Roughly one-third of the country become severely affected by floods while the catastrophic floods of 1988, 1998, 2004, and 2007 caused inundation of more than 60 percent of the country's land. The four types of flooding in Bangladesh include flash floods caused by overflowing of hilly rivers of eastern and northern Bangladesh; rain floods caused by drainage congestion and heavy rain falls; river floods during monsoon season; and coastal floods caused by storm surges. Flood has been characterised as both natural and human induced disaster as it is related to many natural as well as humane structural and non-structural causes. Severe floods in Bangladesh have inundated areas, increased river erosion, breached embankments, and damaged standing crops and infrastructures.

Cyclone in this land is as old as its history, which has been mentioned by the eminent historian Abul Fazal in his Ain-E-Akbari in the 16th century. For ages, cyclones have remained as the deadliest and most hazardous disaster for human populations, other species and resources. Cyclones increase vulnerabilities of affected communities as recurring events, lingering in post disaster phases and associated with complex recovery. The deadliest cyclones in Bangladesh occurred in 1991. Two more severe cyclones Sidr (2007) and Aila (2009) affected the coastal belt of the country.

Slow onset disasters such as drought (already affected about 8.3 million hectare of land) and salinity intrusion (in 2007 intrusion spreading from 1.5 to 2.5 Mha) and climate change-related hazards, earthquakes, arsenic contamination in groundwater, fire incidence, infrastructure collapse and lately lightening have been putting people at multidimensional risks. Projected displacement would be 6-8 m by 2050. Bangladesh ranking, based on the number of people to be exposed to disaster risk, has been calculated as: first out of 162 countries due to flood; third out of 73 countries due to tsunami; and sixth out of 89 countries due to cyclones. 

Data indicates that disasters pose serious impacts on human populations, societies and surrounding environments. It is a well recognised fact that climate change increases frequency and severity of disasters with adverse impacts on humans, other species and ecosystem. Human health is at risk from growing incidences of diseases due to disasters, rising temperatures and rainfall variability. Deforestation, over fishing, over grazing, salt build up, waterborne diseases from irrigation, endangered wild life from loss of habitat, loss of genetic diversity, water pollution, air pollution and disasters related to each other and having impacts on people and ecosystem. Although disaster affects an entire community, all segments of population do not suffer from the adverse impacts equally. There are multifaceted dimensions of vulnerability to disaster: children, elderly, people with disability, special occupational groups and women in poorer categories are among the most vulnerable.

The causes of disasters are multidimensional and shaped by complex interactions among natural/ecological/environmental, social and cultural processes. Disaster risks of a country are also related to the process of global and regional mitigation measures combined with national mitigation, preparedness and management capacities. Effective response with mitigation and adaptation measures to disasters and dissemination of information can reduce the adverse impacts of disastrous events on human health and resources.   

Disaster risk reduction efforts in Bangladesh

In independent Bangladesh disaster management initiatives had commenced following the consequences of the devastating cyclone of 1970. Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman launched the “Cyclone Preparedness Programme” in 1973 and provided high preference on disaster management activities. However, attentions on disaster management issues had not been given priority by the successive governments, which is apparent from the country's inability to manage the two consecutive floods of 1987 and 1988 and the devastating cyclone of 1991. These disasters attracted international attentions while Bangladesh urged for international cooperation and expert support. 

Since then challenges of managing disasters and to recuperate disaster loss Bangladesh has gradually stepped towards disaster response mechanism through shifting paradigm from reactive emergency response to proactive risk reduction. In 1997 a well-designed document was drafted: Standing Orders on Disasters (SoD) (revised in 2010), which explains specific roles of relevant stakeholders (local and national levels) during different phases of disasters. A Comprehensive Disaster Management Programme (CDMP I and II) has been launched to facilitate disaster management approach. Academic institutes have been established at higher education levels to provide technical knowledge to disaster managers. 

A good number of institutional structures to achieve technical monitoring, capacity building, preparedness and response in reducing disaster risks have been established by the Ministry of Disaster Management and Relief (MoDMR). The Disaster Management Act (2012), National Plan for Disaster Management and Disaster Management Policy have been prepared. With the contributions from academia and civil society the disaster management models adopted inclusive approach towards mainstreaming disaster risk reduction (DRR) including gender mainstreaming in DRR. The revised version of National Plan for Disaster Management has been developed in line with the international driver Sendai Framework of Disaster Reduction (SFDRR) for the next ten years. Other ministries have also endorsed some of the DRR inclusive documents in their plans and  policies: the Sixth Five Year Plan (2010-2015) and Seventh Five Year Plan (2016-2021), Ministry of Planning; Bangladesh Climate Change Strategy and Action Plan (BCCSAP, 2009) and Gender Action Plan (GAP, 2013 based on four pillars of BCCSAP/Ministry of Environment and Forests/MoEF); National Women's Advancement Policy (2011, Ministry of Women and Children Affairs/MoWCA); National Child Policy (2011) and Children Act (2013, MoWCA); National Education Policy (2010, Ministry of Education); National Agriculture Policy; Post 2015 development Agenda (2012, Ministry of Planning) among others. Effective applications of the policies and initiatives are vital for disaster risk reduction and adaptation to changing environments.

Bangladesh is also a pioneer in promoting gender and DRR agenda in disaster within South Asia and has received global recognition for gender mainstreaming efforts in Disaster Risk Reduction (the author received the prestigious Mary Fran Myers Award, 2016 of Gender and Disaster Network from the Colorado University (Boulder), USA). Since mid-nineties researchers have been pointing out that although gender, and recently social inclusion were recognised as a crosscutting issue, it was not integrated into disaster risk management policies, plans and decision-making processes, including risk assessment, early warning, information management and education and training. It must be mentioned here that Bangladesh has been proactively responding to the international policies on disaster risk reduction since the development of the Hyogo Framework for Action (HFA, 2005-2015) to build a disaster resilient community. However, implementation process of HFA lack an inclusive focus, especially gender dimension has been overlooked. Following wide level national and international consultations in the post 2015 agenda gender and social inclusion issues have been incorporated in the Sendai Framework of Disaster Risk Reduction (SFDRR, 2015-2030). Implementation of listed activities with appropriate budgetary allocation proved to be crucial in making them more than just a “paper-plan syndrome”.

Another important agenda in the contemporary disaster risk reduction effort is involvement of the private sector in disaster risk reduction. In Bangladesh, the government is expected to play the major role when disaster strikes and must provide services almost without any direct commercial return. Private sectors have hardly been involved explicitly in disaster mitigation or risk reduction activities as part of their corporate activities. Traditionally the sectors' involvement in DRR was of welfare-oriented philanthropy or one-off charity. It was never thought of as an investment. Role of private sectors in context of common disasters such as flood, cyclones and others systematic knowledge has only been collected in rare occasions and therefore, data in this regard is not available. Out of four pillars of SFDRR, two (“Investing in DRR” and “Build Back Better”) are directly indicating for investment and sufficient resources for disaster preparedness and recovery. It is relevant to mention that Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has been announced as one of the winners of the environmental accolade “Champion of the Earth” in Policy Leadership category of the United Nations (2015), in recognition of Bangladesh's initiatives to address climate change. One of the main reasons for achieving the award, as narrated by UNEP in a release is, “Sheikh Hasina has proven that investing in climate change is conducive to achieving social and economic development.” Disaster risk reduction efforts are also to be connected with such successful initiatives.

Prior to the Sendai framework the government introduced several policies instruments to facilitate the private sector engagement to establish a well-encompassing disaster management framework. The National Disaster Management Plan provides strong emphasis on equitable and sustainable participation of all stakeholders including the private sector. As the capacity to deal with earthquake and human-made urban disasters is yet to reach a satisfactory level, the implementation of disaster management policies and plans in line with SFDRR, SDGs and Seventh Five Year Plan requires huge financial and technological resources and systematic efforts.

The Government of Bangladesh has increased the budget allocation for the education sector over the last few years. However, dedicated budget for children affected by climate change or living in disaster prone areas has not been prioritised. Research reveals that children in disaster affected districts are facing educational disparity in terms of location. For example, a Char called Majher char is 4 km away from the district headquarters but is separated from the town by the Meghna River. 

A recent study by the author indicates that local level disaster management capacities have been improved compared to last few decades for two reasons: knowledge imparted to the members of District, Upazila and Union level Disaster Management Committees and their long experiences in working within disaster affected communities. Currently the local level disaster mangers have access to systematic knowledge on disaster management and risk reduction issues such as preparedness, mitigation, taking part or observing rescue operation, conduct relief programs and others. However, although trainings they have received are effective and satisfactory, regular follow-up trainings and effective monitoring are still required. Lack or limited communication equipments to reach and communicate with people in remote devastated areas and villages remain a challenge. Moreover, strengthening existing resilient mechanisms of local people, preservation and dissemination of indigenous knowledge and practices need to be dealt with special emphasis.

Bangladesh needs to be equipped to address the human induced disasters like the Rana Plaza disaster of April 24, 2013. The death of 1129 garment workers, mostly women, generated a lot of questions to rethink managing and preventing such industrial and urban disasters. Attempts should be taken to grasp the harsh realities and thereby lend policies in context of both natural and human induced disasters. DRR efforts of Bangladesh will be most effective if they are supported by stronger policy and budgetary allocations, implementation guidance and coordinated efforts of national, regional and global perspectives for both natural and human induced disasters.

The SDGs have also given specific focus on disasters and reducing the risks. Disaster risk reduction efforts would become successful when effective communication is established among multidimensional actors including inter-governmental agencies, researchers, academics, development partners, national and local level disaster managers, humanitarian agencies, private sectors and communities who are at risk. Attention must be given to the multifaceted and multilayered governance, global accountability, and South Asian regional risk reduction issues, often shaped by political crises, to reduce the challenges of disaster risk reduction efforts. 


The writer is the Director and Professor at the Institute of Disaster Management and Vulnerability Studies, University of Dhaka. She is the winner of 'Mary Fran Myers Award, 2016' from Colorado University (Boulder), USA for her contribution to disaster studies.

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