Natural disasters in Bangladesh and the losses accruing as a result have increased in recent years due to the adverse impacts of climate change. In fact, Bangladesh occupied seventh position in global ranking and stood third among the countries most hit by natural disasters, according to the Global Climate Risk Index-2020 prepared by 'Germanwatch' based on natural disasters during the period 1999-2018. Around 35 million people in the coastal region and 6.50 million in the char (shoals) areas of the country are constantly at risk due to cyclones, tidal surges, salinity and river erosions. Moreover, losses to properties and infrastructures are gradually on the rise due to weaknesses in disaster responses, fragile embankments and inadequate maintenance. People living in the coastal areas have been severely affected by recent disasters including the super-cyclone 'Amphan' that struck Bangladesh in May 2020. These disasters caused widespread losses to lives and properties. But deficiencies in good governance in the area of disaster management have been posing a big challenge to minimising losses caused by disasters in a sustainable manner.
In this backdrop, the Bangladesh Chapter of Transparency International (TIB) has recently released a report titled 'Challenges to Good Governance in Tackling Disasters and Way Forward: Recent Experiences including the Cyclone Amphan'. Its objectives included a review of pledges, laws, policies and orders related to disaster management; strengths and weaknesses of programs adopted for tackling five recent disasters including the cyclone 'Amphan'; and recommending measures for tackling the challenges to good governance in disaster management based on findings from the study.
The international treaties to which Bangladesh is a signatory include the Paris Climate Change Agreement 2015 and the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction (2015-30). Under the former, the industrially developed nations pledged to compensate the poorer countries for losses and damages due to disasters resulting from climate change under the Warsaw International Mechanism, alongside funding for adaptation and mitigation. But Bangladesh has demonstrated a dearth of capacity in preparing reports and eliciting required funds for the purpose from international sources. Similarly, although the Sendai Framework calls for transparency in the implementation of disaster-related programs, Bangladesh lacks structured guidelines on disseminating information at the national and local levels.
The legal and policy framework for disaster management in Bangladesh includes the Disaster Management Act 2012, National Disaster Management Policy 2015, Cyclone Shelter Construction, Maintenance and Management Policy 2011, and Standing Orders on Disaster 2019. But the law does not stipulate specialised qualifications for the concerned director general, as a result of which leadership weaknesses are observed in the functioning of disaster management department. Besides, although section 12(1) of the Act provides for establishment of a National Disaster Management Research and Training Institute, no such organization has been set up till now resulting in paucity of research-based information on disasters. The disaster management policy calls for modernising the signalling system, but that has not been done yet although the old system heightens the risks of losses in lives and properties. Besides, no initiative has been taken for preparing an online database of relevant reports and documents on disaster management although the policy made such a recommendation six years ago.
The cyclone shelters policy was framed for proper construction and management of shelters as well as their usage. Although the policy calls for environmental impact assessment of shelter sites, exceptions are observed in many cases resulting in their collapse due to river erosion. Besides, despite the policy stipulating application of Geographic Information System (GIS) technology for selecting sites - that is not always complied with. Rather, there are instances of straying from the policy by abusing political and administrative powers in order to advance the unethical interests of influential quarters. The local people are also not involved in the management of shelters as stipulated by the policy.
The standing orders on disaster are aimed at fixing individual and institutional responsibilities for tackling disasters. Although the orders provide guidelines for construction and maintenance of disaster-resilient structures like shelters, roads and embankments, those are not properly followed in practice. Gaps are also found in adherence to modern and timely methods for disseminating cautionary and safety messages in accordance with the orders. Besides, deficiencies are observed in delivery of services like food, water, sanitation, healthcare and security in the shelters, and corruption and irregularities frequently occur in relief cum rehabilitation programs. Overall, the disaster management efforts are constrained by lack of transparency, capacity, accountability, participation and coordination, as well as prevalence of corruption.
TIB opines that effective steps are lacking for bringing to account the defaulting individuals and institutions despite exacerbation of economic losses and people's sufferings owing to corruption in the construction and maintenance of disaster-resilient infrastructures. Estimates of the actual tally of losses, requirements for relief, and coordinated action plans for rehabilitation remain deficient due to lack of capacity of local government bodies and lax inter-organizational coordination.
The TIB recommendations include updating the signalling system and dissemination of publicity materials in a language comprehensible to the common people; timely delivery of forecasts and warnings by according priority to more risk-prone areas; and transparent running of relief and rehabilitation measures by attaching more importance to people and locations in imminent danger.
Besides, all information related to relief and rehabilitation should be kept open for public view through local and national portals, and disaster preparedness should be maintained by keeping in mind the disaster risks through effective participation of local level committees, volunteer groups and relevant stakeholders. Sufficient number of area-wise shelters should be ensured based on locations that can also cater to the special needs of women, children, the aged, and the handicapped. The shelters should ensure adequate provision of food, water, as well as sanitation and healthcare; and disaster-resilient sustainable infrastructures should be built, repaired and renovated through a participatory process by involving the affected population. Most importantly, accountability has to be ensured for curbing corruption, irregularities and wastages in all matters related to disaster management.
Dr Helal Uddin Ahmed is a retired Additional Secretary and former Editor of Bangladesh Quarterly.