In 1989, the United Nations observed the first International Day for Disaster Risk Reduction on October 13 to promote a global culture of risk-awareness and disaster reduction. This year’s theme focuses on one of the seven targets of the “Sendai Seven” campaign: reducing disaster damage to critical infrastructure and disruption of basic services.
The world in 2018 had to face 315 natural disasters with 11,804 deaths, over 68 million people affected and USD 131.7 billion in economic losses. Asia suffered the highest impact and accounted for 45 percent of disaster events, 80 percent of deaths and 76 percent of people affected. Among those disasters, earthquakes were the deadliest (45 percent of deaths), followed by flooding (24 percent) and storms (28 percent).
The “Asia-Pacific Disaster Report 2019” revealed that the annual economic loss due to disasters cost the region nearly USD 675 billion, about 2.4 percent of its gross domestic product. According to Armida Alisjahbana, the head of UN-ESCAP (United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific), the region’s countries cannot achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by 2030 if their people are not protected from disasters. Around the transboundary river basins of South and South-East Asia—home to hundreds of millions—poverty, hunger and under-nourishment are coupled with intensifying floods that alternate with prolonged droughts. The fragile environments are converging with critical socioeconomic vulnerabilities with disastrous consequences across the region.
Bangladesh is one of the most vulnerable countries in the world, constantly battling with multiple threats—such as on June 11, when there were lightning, fire, nor’wester, landslide, flash flood, waterlogging, building collapse, boat capsize, bridge collapse, riverbank erosion and flood.
The “Asia Pacific Disaster Report 2019” (UN-ESCAP) gives a grim picture of how disaster-prone Bangladesh is. Its population are subjected to recurrent annual flooding. Cyclones and associated storm surges and floods have led to almost all of the nearly 520,000 natural disaster-related deaths in the last 40 years, economic damage notwithstanding. Cyclone Sidr in 2007 cost an estimated USD 1.7 billion in damages and losses. What’s more, the country’s extreme vulnerability to hydro-meteorological hazards, including storm-induced tidal flooding, is likely to increase due to climate change. According to the Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics (2015), about 13 percent households and 12.64 percent of the population live in disaster-prone areas of the country.
Between 1980 and 2008, Bangladesh experienced 219 natural disasters. The geographical location, land characteristics, multiplicity of rivers, coastal morphology and the monsoon climate render Bangladesh highly vulnerable to natural disasters. Bangladesh suffers from floods, cyclones, storm surges, riverbank erosion, earthquakes, droughts, salinity intrusion, fires and tsunamis. Cyclones in 1970, 1991, 2007, 2009 and 2019 killed 364,000, 136,000, 3,363, 190 and 14 people due to various cyclone induced causes.
However, Bangladesh is also known as one of the most resilient countries. Despite the regular and devastating events, the country manages to attain significant progress in almost all sectors. Now the challenge is mainstreaming the disaster risk reduction into development interventions.
Local governments should consider natural hazards in the respective areas for any rural infrastructure. Each and every village/char should have the bare minimum of a raised plinth with cattle sheds as flood shelters and or cyclone shelters. A monitoring mechanism is needed to ensure that rural housing follows standard guidelines of disaster management.
Unfortunately, severe inequalities between low-and high-income countries persist, with the lowest-income countries bearing the greatest relative cost of disasters. Human losses and asset losses relative to gross domestic product tend to be higher in countries with the least capacity to prepare, finance and respond to disasters and climate change. The obligation and opportunities to address inequalities in terms of disaster needs to be incorporated into future diplomatic agendas.
Reducing risks must start with understanding the reality of the people most affected—to take initiative with multi-stakeholder’s participation. Disaster risk management, response and climate change adaptation are never stand-alone actions. Many individuals need to be pro-active for a common goal, as a collective safeguard against disaster. Besides, people in areas where there is risk of multiple hazards often face discrimination based on gender, age, ethnicity, religion and other differences. The Community Initiated Disaster Risk Reduction (CIDRR) approach can be a gateway if civil societies are instrumental in blending local and global knowledge.
As independent actors, NGOs and the private sector along with civil society can foster the community’s engagement with the government’s framework. Though NGOs and private sectors are characterised by a diverse range of capacities and scopes, a platform like Global Network for Disaster Reduction (GNDR) is essential. This network should ensure that the local voice to be heard at the national, regional and global levels. This network can initiate dialogue and build bridges among countries in the region. One of the most extensive such example is the Ganges-Brahmaputra-Meghna river basin shared by Bangladesh, Bhutan, Nepal and India. A vibrant national civil society platform on disaster reduction with NGOs and private sectors can strengthen advocacy to make governments and the international community be more responsive to the felt need. The solution for risk reduction or climate change adaptation can’t be an external prescription or imposition but rather spontaneous local initiative—which can be improvised with global expertise and experiences. The government can also explore and support local solutions beyond big projects like embankments.
The Standing Order on Disaster (SOD) in Bangladesh has defined roles at all administrative levels in the country, with spaces to accommodate local innovation and actions. But many stakeholders remain unaware about this “way-forward”. However, two significant gaps in addressing the risk reduction remain big challenges. One, the gap between preparedness and emergency response which can be minimised with the help of forecasts. And the other between disaster response-rehabilitation and resilience. “Transition Funding” can be a unique way forward towards resilience—by enhancing economic ability, ensuring social safety net and access to market through poverty mapping.
Forward momentum in disaster reduction by the GO-NGOs at site, the major challenge here is accessing humanitarian funds immediately. The procedures and protocols to get access at the local level remain an obstacle to optimise the use of resources so that they reach people immediately. When forecasting indicates floods, rescue boats and water-sanitation facilities are the immediate priority within a few hours. If local government holds adequate funds and if local NGOs have access to immediate funding, it can reduce crises significantly. The START Fund in Bangladesh has demonstrated how access to humanitarian funds by local organisations within 48 hours can make a big difference. The government and other UN/International agencies can actively think about this idea and to review how “humanitarian funding complexities” can be reduced.
Kazi Amdadul Hoque, Director-Strategic Planning and Head of Climate Change Adaptation and Disaster Management, Friendship, Bangladesh.