Over the years, Bangladesh has taken major strides to reduce the vulnerability of its people to disasters and climate change. And today, the country is at the forefront in managing disaster risks and building coastal resilience.
Let’s compare the impact of the Bhola Cyclone of 1970 to the far stronger Cyclone Sidr in 2007. The 1970 cyclone was then the deadliest in Bangladesh’s history, and one of the 10 deadliest natural disasters on record. Official documents indicate that over 300,000 lives were lost, and many believe the actual numbers could be far higher.
By contrast, Sidr was the strongest cyclone to ever make landfall in Bangladesh. This time, fewer than 3,500 people lost their lives. While tragic, this represents about 1% of the lives lost in 1970 or 3% of the nearly 140,000 lost lives in the 1991 cyclone.
The cyclones of 1970 and 1991 were unprecedented in scale. Yet, they steered the country into action.
Afghanistan is vulnerable to a number of natural hazards, including earthquakes, flooding, drought, landslides and avalanches, as well as hazards arising from human interaction. Among low income countries, Afghanistan is second only to Haiti in terms of the number of fatalities caused by natural disasters between 1980 and 2015. In the last few years, however, the Afghan Government has increasingly understood how the consequences of extreme weather events and disasters add to existing security risks. Severe and prolonged droughts, for instance, have increased food insecurity, causing on average $280 million in economic damage to agriculture each year. Natural disasters and climate-related shocks affect 59 percent of the population, concentrated in economically poorer regions, as opposed to security-related shocks (15 percent).
The availability of disaster risk information is particularly important for a fragile state like Afghanistan where 4 out of 5 people rely on natural resources for their livelihoods. To strengthen resilience, investments in Afghanistan need to incorporate information on natural hazards in their planning, design and implementation. To help support government efforts, the World Bank and the Global Facility for Disaster Reduction and Recovery (GFDRR), in close cooperation with the Afghanistan National Disaster Management Authority (ANDMA), recently produced a comprehensive multi-hazard assessment level and risk profile, documenting information on current and future risk from fluvial and flash floods, droughts, landslides, snow avalanches and seismic hazards. The main findings, methodology and expected outcomes were recently discussed and presented to the Disaster Risk Management community of practice within the World Bank Group. A number of takeaways from the discussion are presented below:
What is Afghanistan’s risk profile and vulnerability?
Flooding is the most frequent natural hazard historically, causing average annual damage estimated at $54 million; large flood episodes can cause over $500 million in damage
Historically, earthquakes have caused the most fatalities, killing more than 10,000 people since 1980
3 million people are at risk from very high or high landslide hazard
Droughts have affected 6.5 million people since 2000; an extreme drought could cause an estimated $3 billion in agricultural losses, and lead to severe food shortages across the country;
An estimated 10,000 km of roads (15 percent of all roads) are exposed to avalanches, including key transport routes like the Salang Pass
With a population of 160 million, Bangladesh is situated at the epicenter of some of the deadliest cyclones the world has ever experienced. Catastrophic events are the norm rather than the exception. A severe tropical cyclone can strike every 3 years and 25% of the land floods annually.
The network of the mighty Ganges-Brahmaputra-Meghna rivers makes its meandering journey through the delta into the Bay of Bengal forming the coast of Bangladesh.
The jagged coastline of Bangladesh spans hundreds of miles and is subject to multiple challenges: 62% of the coastal land has an elevation of up to 3 meters and 83% is up to 5 meters above sea level. These low-lying areas are highly vulnerable to natural hazards.
Earlier this year, I got a chance to see first-hand the challenges that this demanding landscape had brought onto the communities of a remote coastal village. What struck me most when speaking to members of this coastal community was their courage and resilience. Aware that a calamity can hit anytime, they struggle to protect their livelihoods affected by saltwater intrusion, and their own lives which are increasingly at risk due to rising sea levels, and exposure to more frequent and devastating storms and cyclones.
By 2050, the coastal population is projected to grow to 61 million people, whose livelihoods will increasingly be at risk due to the impact of climate change.
Triggered by climate change, seawater inundation could become a major problem for traditional agriculture. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Fifth Assessment Report (2014), climate-related declines in food productivity will impact livelihoods and exports and increase poverty. In Bangladesh, it is estimated that these factors would cause a net increase in poverty of 15% by 2030.
To mitigate against such risks, the government has been investing in strengthening the resilience of the coastal zone. Over the years, Bangladesh has become an example of how protective coastal infrastructure, together with social mobilization and community-based early warning systems, is helping to build resilience.
This blog is the first of a series on how Bangladesh has become a leader in coastal resilience.
While flying along the coast of Bangladesh earlier this year, I saw from the sky a vast, serene delta landscape, crisscrossed by innumerable rivers and contoured paddy fields.
Nonetheless, I was aware that this apparent quietude might well be the calm before a storm.
Indeed. the magnitude of threats faced by Bangladesh is unprecedented in terms of risk, exposure and vulnerability. And with a population of 160 million, the country is one of the world’s most disaster prone and vulnerable to tropical cyclones, storm surges, floods, a changing climate and even earthquakes.
However, the story of Bangladesh is one of resilience.
After the deadly cyclones of 1970 and 1991, which together resulted in the loss of at least half a million lives, the government of Bangladesh instituted disaster risk reduction policies and invested in infrastructure and community-based early warning systems to reduce risks from coastal hazards.
Over the years, these investments in cyclone preparedness and flood management helped save lives, reduce economic losses, and protect developmental gains. As a result, the government’s actions are globally cited as being proactive in investing in disaster risk management.
During the almost 4 years I spent in the World Bank office in Kabul, I experienced frequent earthquake tremors and saw the results of the significant reduction in winter snow, which severely impacts the water available for agriculture during spring and summer.
While limited in scope, my first-hand experience with natural disasters adds to the long list of recurring hazards afflicting Afghanistan. This list is unfortunately long and its impact destructive.
Flooding, historically the most frequent natural hazard, has caused an average $54 million in annual damages. Earthquakes have produced the most fatalities with 12,000 people killed since 1980, and droughts have affected at least 6.5 million people since 2000.
Climate change will only increase these risks and hazards may become more frequent and natural resources more scarce. Compounded with high levels of poverty and inadequate infrastructure, the Afghan population will likely become more vulnerable to disasters.
Risk information is critical to inform development planning, public policy and investments and over time strengthen the resilience of new and existing infrastructure to help save lives and livelihoods in Afghanistan.
The 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami – Triggering engagement in Disaster Risk Management (DRM)
In 2004 December, Sri Lanka faced the worst disaster in its history - the Indian Ocean Tsunami. More than 35,000 people lost their lives and around 5,000 people went missing. At the time of the Tsunami, Sri Lanka did not have a proper legal and institutional mechanism to manage disaster risk. In the aftermath of the catastrophe, the Government made very serious efforts to establish a mechanism to avoid dramatic loss of life in future disaster events.
Subsequently, the Disaster Management Act was passed and the National Council for Disaster Management, chaired by the President, was established. A Ministry of Disaster Management (MoDM) was created and charged with the disaster risk management (DRM) portfolio and the Disaster Management Centre (DMC) was established July 2005 to implement DRM programs across the country.
With these mechanisms in place, the Government began strengthening disaster preparedness, especially for tsunamis. Three pieces were put in place including: i) development of a tsunami early warning system; ii) implementation of awareness raising programs, from the grassroots to national levels; and, iii) regular evacuation drills were conducted in all coastal villages. The system has proven successful as the DMC issued Tsunami evacuation warnings in September 2007 and April 2014, which resulted in the safe evacuation of coastal communities.
“The forest is an integral part of my life and only source of income. We exploited it until we saw people killed in landslides in the neighboring areas. Gradually we became aware of the consequences of unplanned felling of trees. Now we protect our forest alongside the Forest Department. I own two hectares of forest land and they pay for its maintenance. I have earned a good amount after the first felling,” says a proud Sabbir, participant from a social forestry initiative of the Government of Bangladesh, Ukhiarghat, Cox’s Bazar.
The Government of Bangladesh initiated the Social Forestry programs with a view to meet the forest product requirements of the local population, reverse the process of ecological and climatic degradation through proper soil and water conservation, and also to improve the socioeconomic condition of the rural people.
Forests are the primary buffer against cyclones, storms and surges for over 16 million people living in the vulnerable coastal zone of Bangladesh. Over the last three decades, forests in Bangladesh have declined by 2.1% annually, accumulating to almost half of all forest cover, due to deforestation, illegal logging and harvesting, slash-and-burn agriculture, conversion into non-forestland for settlement, farming, recreation and industries. With the likely increased incidence and intensity of extreme cyclonic events, efforts must focus on reversing the decline in forests in order to adequately safeguard people against threats induced by climate change.
Losses due to disasters to human and physical capital are on the rise across the world. Over the past 30 years, total losses have tripled, amounting to $3.5 trillion. While the majority of these losses were experienced in OECD countries, the trend is increasingly moving towards losses in rapidly growing states.
In a sense, increasing risk and losses caused by disaster are the byproduct of a positive trend - strong development gains and economic growth. This is because disaster loss is a function of the amount of human and physical assets exposed to seismic or hydrometeorological hazards, and the level of vulnerability of the assets. The richer a country gets, the more assets it builds or acquires, and therefore the more losses it potentially faces.
Rapid development across South Asia signals the need to commit greater efforts to increase resilience to disaster and climate risk. It also requires governments to develop a strategy to both protect against events today and to develop strategies to address the losses of the future. This is a challenge somewhat unique to South Asia. The losses of today, predominantly rural flooding that impacts wide swaths of vulnerable populations, will begin to diminish in relative importance to the losses of the future.