As Sri Lanka reels from its most devastating floods since 2003, Bangladesh has sounded its highest storm danger warning. Following heavy rains that triggered flooding and landslides in Sri Lanka, Cyclone Mora is set to make landfall on the Bangladesh coast.
Up to three million people are in the path of the cyclone, and a tenth of that number have been evacuated. For many Bangladeshis, it’s nothing abnormal. Almost every year, the mangrove-nation is impacted by severe tropical storms. Sri Lanka too suffered flooding the previous year, a problem alleviated by the deforestation of hilly slopes by cash crop cultivation.
With climate change expected to increase the occurrence of natural disasters, how have the two countries prepared themselves for tackling them?
The frequency of flooding and poor quality of infrastructure in Dhaka was so severe that the Economist Intelligence Unit ranked it the second least liveable city in the word in 2014.
Since 1988, Bangladesh has adopted a Flood Action Plan to deal with severe flooding. In later years, this extended on to a Dhaka Action Plan – for the city’s problems had grown too big to ignore. The lack of adequate drainage facilities mean that even a medium rainfall can result in flooding.
In some cases, like during Eid, 2016, blood mingled with floodwater to create the sight of a city drowning in rivers of blood.
The country has been building elevated cyclone shelters since 1985. When the early warning for Cyclone Mora had been dispatched, more than 1,000 shelters were put to use to evacuate those affected. Early warning technologies have made it easier to foresee and plan for cyclones in advance. Regional cooperation has also helped, India chairs the regional integrated multi-hazard early warning system (RIMES).
It’s estimated that for every dollar spent on disaster mitigation in Bangladesh, the returns are between $8-500 in a ten year period. With this in mind, the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (UNESCP) helped set up the RIMES in the region, developing flood forecasting and working with the Bangladesh Meteorological Department.
But a top-level approach isn’t everything. Bangladeshis have developed several indigenous methods for predicting as well as mitigating the effects of floods. In some of the country’s poorest communities, it’s known that heavy rains usually follow if the winds blow from the South East to the North West. Other indicators include the colour of clouds and rivers (darker equals higher chance of flooding). Interestingly, when ants come out of the ground with their food, or several frogs cry out at once together, it’s seen as a sure sign that flooding is incoming.
When it comes to dealing with floods, protecting livelihoods is sometimes seen as more important than protecting themselves. So animal shelters are among the first to be scaffolded and raised above the ground.
The National Building Research Organization (NBRO) is the government body in charge of studying and mitigating the effects of landslides, which tend to kill the most people in the aftermath of a flood. With much of Sri Lanka located in hilly terrains, the need for good building practises is imperative.
Since 1920, Sri Lanka has faced the problem of coastal erosion – alleviated by the clearing of mangroves. With the rise of cash crop cultivation, soil erosion became a problem of the interior areas as well. In 2008, the NBRO estimated that four-fifths of landslides were caused by human activity such as improper construction on unstable land, particularly in flood-susceptible areas.
Sri Lanka’s challenge with dealing with disaster is primarily one of spending and rebuilding. Since the termination of the nation’s 26-year-long civil war in 2009, the country has had to spend extensively on redevelopment and resettlement. To boost the economy, several mega-projects were started with Chinese funding. This later led the island nation into a debt trap. Up to 95 percent of state finances were engaged in loan repayment, leaving little left for government spending.
When the island was inundated by rains in 2016, the flooding caused $2 billion worth of damage. This year’s impact could be even greater, as the rains are the largest seen since the catastrophic 2003 flood.
When disaster strikes, it’s usually followed by significant international support. Money, aid, logistics and food comes in from across the world – helped in part by Sri Lanka’s status as a middle power with few enemies. India, Russia, China and the United States alike join hands in mitigation efforts.
Being the nearest neighbour, India is usually the first-responder, putting to use the National Disaster Response Force, which USAID called the world’s largest dedicated force for such missions. This year, India dispatched two Navy ships, INS Kirch and INS Shardul bearing relief materials to Sri Lanka. A third ship, INS Jalashwa, is also on the way.
All of the country’s major river systems are covered by flood forecasting programmes. Sri Lanka has been exploring policy options in advance, just a month before the floods, the Asian Disaster Preparedness Center released a handout for flood mitigation in metro Columbo. Among the suggestions included building of a canal to divert the run-off from extreme weather.
Following the 2016 floods, Finance Minister Ravi Karunanayake had suggested stringent new building codes be put in place to prevent construction in unsafe areas. This year’s experience revealed a paucity in reserves of life-jackets – a problem soon to be rectified.
The inevitability of climate related disaster in Bangladesh and Sri Lanka will require long-term solutions. The Netherlands has been a pioneer in responding to natural disasters with technology – from building sea-walls following the 1953 flooding to mooting ‘floating’ houses to prepare for rising sea levels. The defences adopted after 1953 meant that the country suffered no serious flood ever since.
In South Asia, an opportunity arises for finding a lasting solution to a permanent problem.
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