Bangladesh, the most vulnerable country in the world to the impact of natural disasters is also a leader in emergency preparedness and disaster response, particularly for cyclones, tidal surges and floods. This was achieved through 25 years of effort, which was catalyzed through two devastating cyclones, one in 1970 and 1991 that caused the deaths of approximately 500,000 and 300,000 people respectively. Part of what makes Bangladesh so strong at cyclone preparedness and response is the fact that major cyclones seem to hit Bangladesh every 3-4 years. Recurrence of this frequency is quite unique.
On the other hand, major seismic events that lead to major losses occur infrequently. Cities like Dhaka and Kathmandu, which are susceptible to major earthquakes, haven’t experienced a major shake in more than a generation. Unfortunately, a lack of frequency often leads to complacency amongst governments and citizens. Even more problematic is the very rapid accumulation of assets and population in urban environments in South Asia, including Dhaka.
Walking through the streets of Dhaka paints a picture of a city with significant structural vulnerabilities – where poor construction standards, lack of enforcement, and poor maintenance turn many buildings into potential hazards. When a building in Savar collapsed in April 2013 – killing over 1,100 people and injuring thousands more – it was a wakeup call for Bangladesh. The collapse was not triggered by an earthquake, it was the result of catastrophic structural failures, but it was a glimpse into what could happen in the event of a major earthquake.
I will never forget October 8, 2005, a day that changed my life forever as it did for hundreds of thousands of Pakistanis.
I remember my house shaking violently like never before and my instinctive reaction to get myself and my family to safety outside the house. This was an earthquake that felt distinctly different from others. Things were shaking and moving too much and for too long. When we started seeing plumes of smoke rising from where a high rise apartment building had once stood, we knew this was really bad. Watching the terrified look of affected people on TV shook me inside and forced me to think about difference I could make. When I went back to my job and my life, the question kept nagging at me. When I was presented with the opportunity to work on the earthquake reconstruction project for the World Bank, I took it and have never looked back.
So many feelings and thoughts as I watch and digest the earthquake in Chile…some of them very relevant to understanding the importance of disaster preparedness in South Asia, a region that is exposed to so many natural shocks.
Immediate feelings of admiration and pride. The incredible reaction from Michele Bachelet as the leader of the whole country: less than an hour after the earthquake at the center to manage disasters, gathering the facts, coming out to tell the people of Chile what was happening, and taking a helicopter to the worst affected areas. She was not dramatic. Quite knowledgeable, deferring to the experts on things she didn’t understand, and empathic throughout. Not looking down on people, not overly reassuring, but holding. One felt glad to have her as a President in this moment; sure she would do the right thing. No ego and the right tone.
As the newly appointed (and first) World Bank Representative to Bhutan, my first month on the job has been challenging. A magnitude 6.3 earthquake with an epicenter in eastern Bhutan struck on September 21. There were 12 fatalities, including a mother breast-feeding her infant daughter by the hearth in their stone-walled kitchen. While there was fortunately relatively little loss of life, there was considerable damage to houses, schools, health clinics, temples, religious monuments and roads. In Bhutan's mountainous terrain, many affected villages are several hours walk away, so the provision of relief supplies and carrying out reconstruction is difficult.
In collaboration with the Office of the UN Resident Coordinator in Bhutan, Claire Van der Vaeren, who took up her assignment in Bhutan in June, the World Bank fielded a team of disaster experts. Claire and I accompanied the team of six (four from the UN, two from the Bank) to the eastern districts ("dzongkhags") of Mongar and Tashigang. The drive from Thimphu -- Bhutan's capital city of 100,000 people -- to the affected villages in Mongar takes two days.