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OP-ED: Is there a way to help the millions of climate refugees?

  • Published at 06:57 pm September 11th, 2020
web-flood-khulna
Dhaka Tribune

How the armed forces can help with disaster management

It is a sad reality that we are being ceaselessly battered by nature, producing millions of climate refugees in the country. Helpless people watching their farmland with crops, homesteads, schools, markets, roads, and bridges being devoured by swollen rivers and water bodies have become common scenes these days. 

In the comfort our living rooms, we often see remains of corrugated roof houses and meagre belongings, along with cows and goats, being carried to apparent safety on boats and the shoulders of villagers. Journalists brave the fury of rising water levels to reach some of the hapless victims to get their reaction. It is very common to hear the victims complain regarding certain dikes and embankments not being repaired in time, nobody coming to help them during their time of distress, and the like. 

When it comes to responsible persons of the administration, they come up with statistics covering relief items and cash delivered, the number of families provided shelter, and other relevant details. We also come across spokespersons of responsible agencies telling us that they have already asked for required funds for the repair or construction of a particular dike or embankment or river dredging, and that they are hopeful that the sooner they get the allotment, work will be done to lessen the sufferings of people. 

It is evident that solutions are not handy, and we have no way to escape these sufferings anytime soon. By now we have made our mark as a resilient nation against natural calamities of various sorts. This we did by virtue of our infrastructure to handle disasters built over the last few decades, both physical and procedural, in terms of SOPs, tasking and involvement of various agencies, enhanced response capacity, and, above everything, our brave people. 

Our armed forces have been playing a vital role in this regard from our very inception as a sovereign state. Disaster management gets due priority in their training and preparedness to generate timely and appropriate responses, to provide succour to the afflicted people whenever the need arises. 

It is relevant to recall here that following the devastating cyclone of November 1970, the failure of the Pakistani rulers to take any measure to manage the aftermath of the devastation was cruel and unpardonable. None of the national leaders and top administration paid even a visit, let alone allocate resources to help the people when dead bodies kept floating up, even after a fortnight of the tragic event. 

Following instances of such blatant neglect, it became of paramount importance for our armed forces to attach due priority and build their capacity with utmost seriousness. Integration of the armed forces into the very system of disaster management -- along with other concerned ministries and government agencies providing them the right kind of assets and methodical training and due exposure both at home and abroad -- has honed their capability and made them an indispensible part of the system. 

Our armed forces can be proud of their role and participation in effectively dealing with disasters and mitigating the suffering of the masses. They kept the marks of their excellence not only in the country, but also beyond our borders where their responses had been spectacular because of their skill and dedication. 

The participation of armed forces had been mainly confined to post-disaster management, relief and rescue, mitigation, and rehabilitation. Over the years, their capacity in generating response has grown due to enhanced training, modern equipment, transportation capacity, communication equipment, special gadgets, and the capacity to render life-saving medical care. 

One of the finest and most well-orchestrated disaster management operations carried out by the Bangladesh armed forces was following Cyclone Sidr in 2007, where the country witnessed the largest ever relief and rescue operation, also participated in by around 3,500 US marines. This particular operation saw tremendous cooperation within government bodies, NGOs, and social organizations both home and abroad. 

It is time to deliberate upon enhanced participation of the armed forces so that they play a more active role in disaster management, focusing on aid to climate refugees. The following areas need to be explored:

  • Integration of armed forces in planning, including mapping of disaster-prone areas, to get early warning of inundation, river erosion
  • Taking stock of vital resources such as water crafts of various capacities to be utilized for transportation of affected persons and their belongings in areas likely to be affected by flood
  • Prior survey of dikes, embankments to ascertain their strength and weaknesses in withstanding likely onslaught of flood water
  • Earmarking newly ushered chars, islands, or shoals to ascertain their habitability, building of infrastructure to provide emergency shelter, or allotment to victims who have already lost their home
  • Implementation of river training projects and dredging, reparation of polders, dikes, etc in coordination with concerned organizations
  • Carrying out aerial and on-ground surveys of river routes to ascertain changing nature of water bodies
  • Liaison with local civil administration and community leaders to learn about local requirements and priorities well in advance to be able to chalk out effective preventive and rescue measures to save life and property 
  • Coordinating with government bodies dealing with water resources development, the haor development board, and ministries concerned 

Because of climate change, we are witnessing floods, tidal surges, and other calamities multiple times in a season. This is a matter of survival for a sizeable part of our population. 

Once we are already in the midst of floods or tidal surges, there is little more that we can do. We have to be pro-active in our stance and do whatever we need well in advance. 

Hence, we need to utilize all assets, including the armed forces. 

Brig Gen Qazi Abidus Samad (retd) is a freelance contributor who had been involved in coordinating large scale disaster management operations. He can be reached via email: [email protected]

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