Don Beit in his article "The Coming Storm" published in the June 2011 National Geographic Magazine suggested that "Rather than pitying Bangladesh, we may end up learning from her example". This was proposed with reference to the wide ranging climate change adaptation measures undertaken by Bangladesh. The largest delta in the world formed by the mighty rivers: the Ganges, Brahmaputra and Meghna, Bangladesh is one of the most disaster prone and climate vulnerable country in the world. About 68 per cent of the country is vulnerable to flood. It has experienced 219 natural disasters between 1980 and 2008, causing over $17 billion in economic loss. We incur about 1.8 per cent of GDP loss every year due to natural disasters. An estimated 14 per cent of our GDP is exposed to such natural calamities. By 2050, about 70 million of our population are likely to be affected annually by floods, 8 million by drought; up to 8 per cent of the low-lying areas of Bangladesh may become permanently inundated. Bangladesh prepared the National Plan of Action in 2005. The Climate Change Strategy and Action Plan was prepared in September 2009 based on six "pillars for actions": food security, comprehensive disaster management, infrastructure, health, low carbon development etc. Bangladesh follows the current concept of total disaster management under Sendai Framework which includes prevention, preparedness, response, recovery, mitigation, rehabilitation and disaster management funding. Bangladesh played very important role in climate diplomacy during the 2009 Copenhagen Climate Summit (COP15) and other subsequent COP meetings.
Global policy planners argue that if the world's wealthy countries do not take action on addressing the causes of climate change, "Bangladesh will enter its endgame". From 1970-2019, cyclonic storms have been the most frequent disasters affecting Bangladesh, followed by floods. The remaining disasters include landslides, droughts, river bank erosions, epidemics, earthquakes etc. Each of the Bengal hurricanes of 1582 and 1876 killed .02 million people. The August-September 1988 flood affected 89, 0000 sq km, killing 1517 persons. Ten years later, another devastating flood inundated .01 million sq km in 53 districts causing 918 loss of lives. Severe droughts occurred in Bangladesh in 1957, 1972 and 1979. Highly seismic belts and fault zones border Bangladesh on 3 sides, causing great vulnerability to earthquake.
The Hyogo Framework for Action asserts that sustainable development, poverty reduction, good governance and disaster risk reduction (DRR) have mutually supportive objectives. Good governance ensures efficiency, transparency and accountability of the DRR-related activities. Public servants, parliamentarians, private sector, civil society and the media have to manage and reduce disaster related risks with transparency in accountability. Transparent governance structure ensures institutionalisation of DRR as an underlying principle of sustainable development. The Disaster Management Act, 2012 (DM Act) of Bangladesh is one of the most comprehensive of its type in the developing world. The Act specifies the duties and responsibilities of relevant Ministries/ Divisions of the Government and provides for establishment of high-level National Disaster Management Council (NDMC) headed by the Prime Minister and other committees at local levels. The D M Act 2012 provides for criminal penalty of Tk. .05 million or jail term for 3 months if a person fails to perform disaster management related duties or disobeys emergency instructions of the authorities. Prior to the enactment of this law, the Standing Order on Disaster (SOD) of 1997 was considered the "Bible of Disaster Management" in Bangladesh. The Disaster Management Policy, 2015 provides detailed guidance about community-based risk reduction, rapid response management and rehabilitation activities etc. The relevant rules are being framed to fully operationalise the Act. The Ministry of Disaster Management and Relief (MoDMR) has now published the Standing Order on Disaster (SOD), 2019 in view of the lessons learnt from the Rooppur Nuclear Power Plant operations and the devastating Nepalese earthquake of 2015.
UNDP and other UN Bodies, global multilateral financial institutions, International and national NGOs, bilateral donors, humanitarian organisations have been supporting Bangladesh's disaster-related activities since our independence. BRAC, the world's largest NGO, having programmes in 10 other countries of Asia and Africa helped the most vulnerable people during Haiti earthquake (2010), Pakistan flash floods (2010), Sri Lanka Tsunami (2004), Sierra Leone/Liberia Ebola crisis (2014-16) etc.
Bangladesh has relatively well managed the COVID-19 pandemic crisis. We have been efficiently managing the 1.2 million persecuted Myanmar Rohingya citizens (750,000 new arrivals since 2017 Rohingya exodus). The Refugee Relief and Repatriation Commissioner (RRRC) in Cox's Bazaar, under the directions from the MoDMR, coordinates all Rohingya related activities with cooperation from other Ministries and Divisions. The COVID-19 pandemic has been so efficiently handled in the Rohingya camps that only 7 persons have died so far there. Compared to many other countries, the number of infected persons and death toll is also relatively low in Bangladesh.
The most remarkable measure of Bangladesh's success in disaster management is the significant reduction in the loss of lives due to natural disasters. Historically, hundreds of thousands of deaths were recorded in a single event. With the exception of the violent cyclones of 1970 and 1991, death tolls have been steadily decreasing since the 1970s. While Bhola cyclone of November, 1970 killed more than half a million people, the 29 April 1991 hurricane killed relatively less people (one hundred fifty thousand). SIDR (2007) and AILA (2009) killed 3,500 and 150 respectively). Death toll in the 260 km speed Amphan (2020) was only 20. Bangladesh's success in cyclone management has been appreciated by the global community. The reasons for such success include the comprehensive Standing Order on Disaster (SOD) and the subsequent Disaster Management Act. GO-NGO-CSO cooperation is excellent in Bangladesh. Lessons learnt from the previous decades has led to a national risk reduction agenda and formulation of the Comprehensive Disaster Management Programme (CDMP).
The following Figure 1 illustrates that Bangladesh has incredibly succeeded in reducing the loss of lives due to flood and cyclone from 1970-2010:
Bangladesh's strong coordination network stretches from the high-powered National Disaster Management Council (NDMC) chaired by the Prime Minister down to a network of over 2000 District, Upazila and Union level disaster committees, line Ministries and donor partners. Cooperation between Government, INGOs, NGOs, Civil Society Organisations, community leaders, development partners and UN Bodies have been effectively strengthened. Cyclone Nargis which hit Myanmar on May 02, 2008 was almost similar to Hurricane SIDR in severity, which had earlier hit southern Bangladesh on November 15, 2007. While we had 3,500 deaths from SIDR, Myanmar had lost 140,000 lives from Nargis. Multipurpose Accessible Rescue Boats are being arranged and National Emergency Operation Centre (NEOC) for earthquake is being established. More multipurpose Cyclone Shelter Centres and Mujib Killas are also constructed for saving lives and livelihoods of people.
Bangladesh's ecology is extremely fragile and precariously poised. We have gained remarkable resilience and experience in disaster management, climate change mitigation, adaptation and nature-based solutions. Bangladesh delta area is inherently dynamic in nature: water is a force that gives life but also sometimes takes it away. The factors which make Bangladesh a 'role model' in managing disasters are our volunteerism, effective early warning system, comprehensive legal and institutional framework, vibrant NGO sector, community based decision-making system, strong donor support and above all strong government commitment. Our Planning Commission has taken initiatives to mainstream poverty-environment-climate-change and disaster risk reduction into budgetary and development planning process. Bangladesh Delta Plan 2100 aims to ensure safety from floods and climate change disasters and good governance for efficient management of land/water resources. Though Bangladesh has gained remarkable success in disaster management, we must not be complacent; national consensus-building along with increased budgetary allocations are essential to fight natural calamities and ensure sustainable development in future.
Md. Abdul Karim is former Principal Secretary to the Prime Minister.