The lesson from Bangladesh

Published: Sunday 31 July 1994

When the cyclone slammed into Bangladesh on April 29 earlier this year, the anxiety in many quarters of the world was especially heightened in anticipation of huge fatalities. Exactly to the day 3 years ago, a similar ill wind had left more than 150,000 dead in its wake. It is a matter of some significance, therefore, that the toll this year was finally estimated to be just 223. Both the government of Bangladesh as well the large number of national and international NGOs, who for long have been involved in mitigating the effects of the cyclones which rack that country almost annually, have credited the remarkably reduced figures to the active involvement of vast sections of the population in recent disaster management planning.

In this particular aspect, Bangladesh is offering a vital lesson to other countries. Disaster management is a young science. All over, and especially in the West, it is conceived with an intrinsic, overwhelming reliance on modern technology. Affected people, even when saved from natural disasters in large numbers, are often envisaged largely as passive recipients of the benefits of high-tech. The US experience with numerous cyclones in Florida is a ready example of this approach. It is expensive and works fine for those who can afford it. But the inability of several developing countries to afford the total replication of disaster management as conceived in the developed countries has made largescale loss of human life an inevitable aspect of their knowledge of natural calamities.

It is not as if technology did not have a role in Bangladesh's better handling of the cyclone this year. Satellite data from other countries fed constantly to the Bangladesh Space Research and Remote Sensing Organisation enabled the Dhaka-based Storm Warning Centre to predict the cyclone's course 2 full days in advance. Television and radio broadcasts were, therefore, repeated so many more times over that their message was taken seriously by the population in the coastal areas.

But the crucial factor that led to much fewer Bangladeshi fatalities this year was the community-based evacuation actions in response to the warning provided by technology. More important, these were not the products of instinct but the result of rigorous mass training on how to respond to natural disasters -- drills carried out all over Bangladesh since 1991. Intrinsic to these drills has been the recognition of the role of traditional community leadership and encouragement to the voluntary acceptance of civic responsibility.

Although other nations have yet again been liberal with cyclone relief assistance, the immediate safety of lives and short-term succour were largely through the actions of the people of Bangladesh themselves. Popular participation can enable poor countries to sustain the survival of the weaker sections of their populations as well as cope successfully with mass emergencies. This is the incontrovertible message from Bangladesh.

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