Bangladesh has seen an alarming rise in deaths caused by lightning strikes in recent years, yet the government has failed to devise an effective plan to help reduce the risk.
The government declared lightning a major disaster after 217 people were killed by strikes in 2016 alone. So far this year, the Ministry of Disaster Management and Relief says 62 people have reportedly died, bringing to 1,174 the number of people killed by lightning since 2011.
Experts believe a lack of preventive measures is a major reason for the high death rate.
“People in urban areas are vulnerable to lightning as most buildings do not have a lightning prevention system, even though it is mandatory under Bangladesh National Building Code,” said Gawher Nayeem Wahra, director of Brac's Disaster Management and Climate Change programme.
People in urban areas are vulnerable to lightning as most buildings do not have a lightning prevention system, even though it is mandatory under Bangladesh National Building Code
“Some old buildings have metal rods or objects to divert lightning strikes, but most of the new buildings do not have such mechanisms,” he added.
It is the people living in the rural and haor areas, however, who are the most vulnerable to lightning strikes because of rapid deforestation.
“We are drastically cutting down large trees and making people more vulnerable to lightning,” said Gawher.
The Ministry of Disaster Management and Relief has undertaken a project to plant one million palm trees across Bangladesh, especially in haor areas in Sunamganj, Netrakona, Sylhet and Brahmanbaria, as a preventive measure.
“We have instructed each upazila administration to plant at least 2,500 trees in every upazila if the space is available,” said Abu Sayeed Mohammad Hashim, additional secretary at the ministry.
But these trees will take five to seven years to grow to their full height, and the government has no plans to prevent lightning-caused injuries and deaths for the interim period.
Gawher suggested that the government consider planting date palm trees as they grow faster than other palm trees.
Samarendra Karmaker, the former director of the Bangladesh Meteorological Department, said minute particles were to blame for the increase in the number of thunderstorms hitting Bangladesh.
“The amount of aerosol has increased in the air, which is why lightning strikes are more frequent now,” he said.
As thunderstorms are most common during the period of March-July and are usually the most powerful in the afternoon, Samarendra advised people – particularly those who work in open spaces – to be aware of this and to stay indoors for a couple of hours when a storm happens.
He also advocated very short-range weather forecasting using the ‘nowcasting’ method.
“People should get updates every hour when a thunderstorm occurs. The met office has good radar coverage; they can use it for nowcasting and help people stay safe,” he added.