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OP-ED: A disaster waiting to happen

  • Published at 01:30 am June 19th, 2021

What does it take to be a real role model in disaster management?

This was immediately after cyclone Sidr had hit Bangladesh November 2007. At the Armed Forced Division Prime Minister’s Office, Admiral Keating, the chief of US Pacific Command, was being briefed on the aftermath of the cyclone, the loss and damage caused, and the subsequent rescue and relief operations underway. 

The admiral interrupted in the briefing, when he was told that more than 1,200 people were missing. He wanted to clarify what he had heard and how it was possible that so many human lives were unaccounted for. To him, it was unthinkable, because he had not lived in the reality of Bangladesh. 

It has been a long time since then, and Bangladesh has made remarkable progress in disaster management over the last few decades. Experts opine that significant success in the modality of disaster management in the country has happened due to the formulation of extensive policy guidelines at appropriate levels, elaborate infrastructural improvements across the country based on the experience of realities on the ground, a pragmatic set of SOPs and guidelines, and, above everything, the resilience of our people. 

Some even go further and claim that Bangladesh has become a “role model” in managing disasters, and these achievements are a result of our volunteerism, an effective early warning system, comprehensive legal and institutional framework, a vibrant NGO sector, a community-based decision-making system, strong donor support, and strong government commitment throughout.

To its credit, Bangladesh now chairs the Climate Vulnerable Forum (CVF) and the Vulnerable Twenty (V20) Group of Ministers of Finance of the 48 states that constitute the international body for climate threatened nations. 

Bangladesh has an approach towards disaster management called “total disaster management,” which includes prevention, preparedness, response, recovery, mitigation, and rehabilitation. 

The highest body we have at the national level is NDMC, chaired by the honourable PM herself. This has an extensive network across the country, which includes 2,000 committees at the district, upazila, and union levels.

Subjects like disaster management and climate vulnerability have been introduced in leading universities. We have excellent academics educating us on disaster management and climate change issues, providing leadership at the national level, and even crossing the boundary into the international arena. This is something to be proud of, but it is important to ascertain as to how much we have been able to translate that education to alleviate the suffering of the masses. 

The common effects of disaster we come across are the flushing of agricultural land, damaging of homesteads, washing away of fishponds, rendering of drinking water undrinkable, and the intrusion of salinity. These all have both short and long-term implications, needing our response on the ground. 

At this point in time, we need to ask some hard questions. Is disaster management a real priority? If we can finance mega projects such as Padma Bridge ourselves, why can’t we protect the coastal areas that so frequently are being ravaged? 

Is it a lack of resources, a lack of focus, a lack of good governance, or a combination of all these? What will it take for us to be truly helpful to the unfortunate people of Dapok, Koira, Satkhira? 

We talk about resilience -- how did that actually happen? How much is the government’s involvement in achieving this? We hear a lot about community involvement and local response and local knowledge. How do we see all these contributing and shaping our achievements in the fields of disaster management? 

There has been a lot of emphasis on the aspect of good governance so far, as it relates to the success with handling disaster. This will entail a reliable system of risk assessment, proper prioritization of projects, planning, supervision, accountability, and timebound implementation of those to save people’s lives and livelihoods, leading to mitigation, protection, relief, and rehabilitation in affected areas, all as part of a comprehensive plan. 

Some recent statistics are rather disturbing. From 2009 to 2019, 16 coastal districts in the country had an allotment of Tk19,000 crore for mitigation of disaster management programs. Khulna, Satkhira, Patuakhali, and Borguna are prominent among those. Experts say that with this allotment, it was possible to construct 4,700km of dam, 1,000km of geo-bag dam, and 200km block-made dam. 

We also have the Bangladesh Climate Trust Fund (BCTF). A report published in a leading Bangla daily said that it had prioritized urban areas instead of actual disaster-affected areas. Out of this allotment, a sum of Tk33cr was spent on foreign tours. 

A TIB report talks about embezzlement of 54% of the Tk68 crore allotted. These are clear indicators of a serious lack of effective monitoring and governance over a vital issue. 

While there are indications that things are going wrong at so many places, we do not have many instances where the authorities concerned have been prosecuted according to the Disaster Management Act 2012, which has a provision for punitive measures if someone fails to perform disaster management related duties. These could be individuals holding important public offices or public representatives who are required to deliver, prevent, and mitigate disasters and their effects.  

It is high time that we select the most vulnerable areas incessantly battered by disasters, and plan and implement some robust projects of dams and dikes and thus help the people of those areas and elsewhere to live with confidence. This is the least we need to do to live up to our image of a role model in disaster management amongst the community of nations.

Brig Gen Qazi Abidus Samad, ndc, psc (Retd) is a freelance contributor.

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