The victims of cyclone in Bangladesh are poorest among the poor. Their views about effective warning system “lacks credibility” to the concerned bodies.But it is a real bad news when the merchant mariners have slammed Bangladesh Meteorological Department (BMD) for suddenly raising the cyclone’s severity within an hour. It clearly demonstrates the BMD’s professional incompetence. Reuters provides the chilling details.
I was in Macau attending Mobile Asia 2007 when cyclone SIDR was brewing in the Bay of Bengal. BBC and CNN were updating its movement since November 12. To put a perspective to it, their weather commentators said SIDR’s intensity was similar to Katrina.
Both the international TV channels consistently mentioned Bangladesh being the very possible victim. Unlike in New Orleans, the international TV news crew did not physically report from the coastal area of Bangladesh. But the SIDR dominated their news and it gained prominence gradually.
This is not an attempt to point fingers. Let’s look at the harsh realities.
It is meaningless comparing hazards. Perfect statistics about the damages too are not available. With that in mind we see whatever the available information about some of the past hazards (may not be accurate) show that whenever it happened in a developing country, the number of casualties and displaced is significantly higher, compared to the financial damage reported.
These are some of the recent disasters with the impact (Information from Wikipedia).
• In 1991, a cyclone in Bangladesh killed 138,000 and left 10 million homeless. No reports about the financial loss.
• In 1995, Great Hanshin (Kobe) Earthquake in Japan killed 6,400 people and caused about USD 200 billion damages, 2.5% of Japan’s GDP at the time.
• In 2004, Dec the Asian tsunami killed 38,000 in Sri Lanka and resulted in a USD 1 billion damages.
• In 2005, Hurricane Katrina killed 1,600 – 1,800 but the financial losses were as high as USD 25-100 billion.
• In 2005, Kashmiri earthquake caused 80,000 – 100,000 deaths and financial loss was USD 5 billion.
• In 2006, May an earthquake in Java killed nearly 6,000. No information about the financial loss but 135,000 homes were reported damaged while 1.5 million left homeless.
See a pattern? In case of Kobe and Katrina the financial losses were significantly high, but the casualties are relatively less. In other cases it might be the opposite.
It is not scientific to draw conclusions but this can be an indication that developing country populations are more vulnerable to disasters – not necessarily they are poor, but less informed, less connected and the disaster management processes of their governments are not effective/efficient enough.
Bangladesh authorities say they have taken all possible steps. Otherwise, they claim, the casualties would have been millions. This might be partially true. But can we be complacent about it? Can we wait till the next disaster results in equally higher number of casualties?
I do not want to compare the numbers with those related to similar mishaps in the past. Of course Bangladesh has transformed since 1970 and 1991. The question is not whether the performance better compared to 1970 and 1991, but whether it is better or at least in par with what is elsewhere today. Should we treat SIDR and Katrina differently?
Let us not forget effective Disaster Management always boils down to few simple questions.
1. How fast the national authorities learn about the impending disaster?
2. How fast they can decide to issue a warning/alert or ignore (if there is no danger)?
3. How fast that message can be conveyed to the vulnerable communities?
4. What mechanisms are available to convey a warning/alert during the short period available?
5. How informed the communities are to take action on hearing the warning/alert?
6. Are there shelters (high grounds etc)available?
7. In the aftermath how quickly the victims be reached?
8. What mechanisms are there to provide immediate relief for victims?
9. Are there adequate resources to provide immediate relief?
10. If not what is the mechanism to find resources for relief?
Not all, but most of these point can be effectively addressed with the right ICT infrastructure and capacity building. So the conclusion is, unless these two activities are carried out effectively the communities continue to be vulnerable, no matter what the governments assure. Please do not take anything promised unless you do not see an effective communication infrastructure or informed and connected population.
For those who seek more information:
LIRNEasia’s Hazinfo project may be a guide for practitioners. Project information is available at http://lirneasia.net/projects/2006-07/evaluating-last-mile-hazard-information-dissemination-hazinfo
Even better, two parts of a video clip are available at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=riFafNpeM_M and http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wMjlj7dV5tQ&feature=related