The devastating Bhola Cyclone that struck Bangladesh in 1970, then known as East Pakistan, was an example of our helplessness in the face of deadly natural disasters. The ramifications of that catastrophic hazard and failure to respond timely and responsibly by the government also motivated us further to unite against the Pakistani government.
During the early stage of disaster management, we followed the approach of relief and recovery. After decades of experience, we now understand that disaster is also an issue of development, because disasters destroy our development gains and erode our capacity to develop our country. On the other hand, development itself creates disasters when it is advanced without considering the existing and future disaster risks. Therefore, disaster and development are inseparable.
Bangladesh remains one of the most vulnerable countries in the world due to its geography. Our position is in between the Himalayas and the Bay of Bengal. It's a low and flat country. The mighty river system and their nearly unpredictable courses, soil conditions, the agriculture industry and livelihoods of millions of people depend extensively on the locational context. The more alarming fact is that we are very near to three tectonic plates; any movement of these plates and their adjacent faults can generate catastrophic situations. The history of a hundred years and the recent experiences from the occurrences in regional countries lead us to believe that we are very vulnerable to seismological events, particularly earthquakes.
On the context of this geo-physical backdrop, we have to consider the other dimensions of the issue. For deeper understanding and awareness, the level, and quality of governance, institutional experiences and capacity, cultural feature, the perception of risk, diversity of livelihood, the planning and urbanisation process, inequality level etc. needs to be evaluated. We cannot change our geo-physical location, but we can mitigate and transform the effects of the disaster. There are different variables that are responsible or determinants for maximum destruction, loss or long-term impact. Thus it will not be wise to leave everything to our luck. We must not agree with the belief that losses are predestined.
If we analyse the history of last four decades we see that significant changes have taken place.
Firstly, we have been successful in reducing deaths from hydro-metrological events. The Bhola Cyclone killed at least 300,000 people, and after that we lost 138,000 people in 1991 due to the cyclone Gorkey. But Cyclone Sidr of 2007 killed less than 3000 people.
Secondly, we see that disaster events are on the rise. Here we find a significant change. New and emerging hazards are more visible – urban fires, road and river traffic accidents, building collapses, urban congestions, industrial accidents and hazardous materials to name a few. These and other emerging hazards indicate the lack of governance, level of awareness and the level of disregard to the risks.
Thirdly, it is also seen that the location of disasters is shifting from rural to urban areas with complexities which are of great concern. Because of our population density, there is great dependence of urban life on services like gas, water, and sewerage. In the worst case scenario, for example due to earthquakes, cities may have to face serious problems without these services.
Fourth is that, disasters stemming from climate events like salinity, drought, and riverbank erosion are causing great threat to the livelihood of millions of people. The issue of concern is that slow onset disasters have more serious and long term consequences. Historically we have been countering rapid onset of disasters like flood and cyclone, but not slow onset ones, which are complex and need adequate and appropriate planning, preparation and better understanding about the changing nature of the disaster.
Fifth is that disasters related to environmental degradation and which are ecological in nature are more complex and difficult to address. Ecological services are required for supporting the livelihood, and due to its sensitivity, our food security may be at stake.
Finally, our public sector, in the form of legal and institutional development, reflects the commitment of the government. Community initiatives on innovation are also supported by nongovernmental, civil society organisations, supplementing the public sector. Development partners are also helping the process of reshaping this approach and focusing on prioritising the need to mainstream and recognising disaster as a development related issue. However, our government is not making significant efforts in terms of preparedness.
Poverty and disaster
One of the key development goals for us is to reduce poverty. Disaster is one of the major challenges to reducing poverty in a sustainable manner. Poverty degrades environment and degraded environment or ecology magnifies the consequences of disasters. Disasters also compel people to live in poverty through depletion of their assets (land erosion, death of livestock and birds, reduction in production) and loss of employment. There is also the problem of decreased income due to lack of diversified skill, market, and opportunity. This situation leads them to increased debts, with a high rate of interest from the formal and informal sectors. Ultimately they opt for migration to urban areas. Thus poor people lose their land in the national economic and social life and also lose their traditional social support system. It is always the extreme poor populations everywhere that are the most vulnerable. Disaster makes the poor drop below the poverty line. Given all these problems, Bangladesh should adopt a risk reduction approach.
Disaster and development
Disaster undermines the development process. Development, if not risk sensitive, can induce disaster. Risk, if not addressed by development process, can be a huge cost for development of capital investment. Social sector development and capacity enhancement will suffer a setback.
Therefore, risk reduction through development is not an expenditure; it should be considered as an investment to sustain the development achievements. It is time to reinterpret the development process and risk reduction understanding. We should transform our consumption and production process. Rethinking about water, environment, ecology, waste management, natural resource use, energy use, infrastructure building, agricultural practices and urbanisation is also urgently required. Otherwise, our development may be at risk from even moderate shocks. These are not directly connected with the the magnitude of an earthquake or flood or fault lines, but rather with inequality, non-inclusive growth and power structures.
The consequences of disasters are very high in low human development countries. That is why low human development and disaster consequences are interlinked. To make progress in sustained development, we must, first and foremost, focus on human development aspects.
Disaster is “failed development”
Present discourse on disaster management identifies disaster as failed development. Failed development means that the development process does not incorporate present and future risk. Risk, if disregarded in the development process, will not be mitigated. Proper development protects people from all kinds of threats. Disaster consequences will be extensive and wide due to unplanned and short-sighted considerations. If a building, hospital, school, bridge, or road collapses, it is the failure of development. We must consider that we want development to improve the quality of life. But if it is unwisely planned, it will bring more miseries than before. We need new ideas and attitudes and ready to redefine the development. All development efforts, initiatives and investment need to be risk-informed and guided by the principle of sustainability.
Risk is the function of three variables: hazard, vulnerability and capacity. Development process may have less significant role in reshaping the consequences of many hazards, such as earthquakes. Development has a wider and significant role in reducing vulnerability. The development process must examine the process – whether it is generating vulnerability or not. It is agreed that development gains mean that vulnerability is reduced. On the other hand, development gains mean capacity development and improved resilience of the society and economy. Therefore, development means risk (present and potential) reduced through vulnerability reduction and capacity enhancement. This reduction initiative to prioritise hazard considers the sensitivity of the sector, like food production and exposure to threats like cyclone, salinity and earthquake. All sectors may not be equally sensitive and all communities or segments of the population may not equally exposed. Development priority should target the exposed poor and disadvantaged population, because the burden of disaster is unequal. The poor and disadvantaged are impacted more severely. Growth has to be inclusive. Otherwise, it cannot be beneficial to all and can create a condition of fragility. In such a situation, a small shock may invite great loss.
The World Economic Forum (WEF) has identified five obstacles to economic development this year. These are income inequality, climate change, increasing polarisation of societies, cyber-attacks and increase of the elderly population. These are either the underlying risk factors or are the result of disasters. Therefore, we can say the challenge towards achieving the SDGs is how to manage risk through collaborative efforts of government organisations, NGOs, and the private sector, to reshape their development pathway.
Urbanisation has to be redefined. Nearly thirty percent of our people are living in urban areas, and this is rising rapidly. Public and private investments are located in and around cities making urban areas the centre of growth. But if it is mostly unplanned, this can be the death trap. Recent experiences justify the statement.
Risk perception of all actors is not favourable for sustainability. We value the present outcome, ignoring future devastating consequences. This risk perception needs to be reoriented. We have to identify the factors of perception formation and try to transform those.
Disaster risk reduction is considered as a public sector responsibility, overlooking the role of the private sector. It will be the most difficult part to motivate the private sector to develop a self-regulation culture.
Ensuring people's participation at all levels in a meaningful way is a complex task. The dynamics of underlying factors are very complex to ensure the participation in the form of a decentralised system.
In the country's planning process, disaster risk should be considered not as a time killing exercise but as a necessary element. It should not be done overnight; recognition of the issues and steady steps are expected. There is no dearth of rules and regulation, but the level, quality, attitude and support from the society are also necessary. There are more than a hundred laws and rules to regulate the construction sector, but we know there is a of lack of implementation. This is the outcome of social, economic and power dynamics. Every member of society has to support, collaborate and help for achieving change.
Firstly, we must consider the number of people and the land we have. Due to river erosion and other factors, the land is shrinking by nearly one percent per year, whereas the population is increasing by 2.2 million. In such a context, we have to protect the land to feed the people. The food we eat is not sufficiently available and the sources are very limited. The land for housing, industry, and infrastructure is decreasing too. Erosion, top soil loss, land degraded by salinity, drought etc. are the causes of reduced productivity. Development process to protect land and its health is necessary.
Secondly, livelihood should be the major priority. Still, nearly 60 percent of our people's livelihood is dependent on agriculture and agriculture is sensitive to climate change.
Thirdly, urban development is to be regulated appropriately. A non-compromising attitude is needed urgently. A collaborative approach is a precondition for the public sector, private sector, and community and people to come to a platform to safeguard our gains.
Fourthly, assessing the risk (present and future) is essential for understanding the underlying risk factors. Technically sound human resource has no alternative. The education system has to be more risk-informative and instrumental to develop a resilient nation.
Fifthly, institutions need to be built on the principles of efficiency and effectiveness. We need a network of institutions for research, response, and preparedness. The regulation needs to be updated to fulfil the need of the time. Accountability, resource availability, selection of target groups, and prioritising of activities have to be ensured. According to the Sendai Framework, these are under the pillar of risk governance.
Sixthly, we must keep our eyes on epidemiological aspects. Disease patterns are changing rapidly. More deaths are now related with life styles. Viruses like Ebola can make the society and its economy dysfunctional. We must be aware and prepared for any biological disaster. It is not only limited to human beings, but may extend to livestocks, birds, crops or plants.
We need to diversify the investment (public and private) locations. Presently all our investment and production facilities, natural resource, are located in the east and north eastern parts of the country, which is a comparatively risky zone for earthquakes. West and southwest regions can be considered for future investment efforts. It requires appropriate facility and infrastructure. Entrepreneurship development is a vital factor in such drives. In addition to investment destinations, fiscal resilience has to be improved by appropriate and acceptable measures.
Being a model country, Bangladesh has to set the example in achieving the SDGs. The beginning is important. The three global interlinked frameworks (SFA, SDG and UNFCC) have started to work together. This is the time to assess how one affects the other and to take appropriate steps to make the life happier for our next generation in an unpredictable global socio-political environment. We need solid consensus, strong commitment, and partnership among all actors, small or big.
The writer is a Leading Disaster Management Specialist and Former National Project Director of Comprehensive Disaster Management Programme (CDMP) in Bangladesh.