In southwestern Bangladesh, recent large-scale water-logging - stagnant flood water that fails to recede - threatens agriculture and public health for years to come. It is a crisis in the making, highlighting the risks slow-onset natural disasters pose to poor countries, and how ill-prepared officials are to respond - even with ample early warning.
“At first glance, one would expect that, the slower the onset of a disaster, the better prepared we should be to mitigate its impacts,” UN Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Disaster Risk Reduction Margareta Wahlström told IRIN. “What we often find, instead, is that we [are] far too late to react.”
Last year, residents in Thailand had months of flood warnings, beginning in July 2011, as flooding upcountry triggered by a tropical storm slowly wound its way south. Flooding persisted in some areas until mid-January 2012. But even with ample warning, the disaster killed at least 628 people, affected more than 13 million people and damaged 20,000sqkm of farmland.
Warnings not heeded
Khurshid Alam, former head of livelihoods and disaster reduction at ActionAid’s office in Bangladesh, said slow-onset disasters receive less media attention and are less dramatic than flash floods or cyclones. “The persistent water-logging of the Satkhira region in the country’s southwest is currently the most significant slow-onset disaster plaguing the country.”
Unlike a flash flood, whose effects can be fatal immediately, it can take years of warnings before slow-onset disasters - such as droughts, riverine erosion, coral bleaching and increasing soil and water salination - turn deadly.
The problem is that warnings are not always heeded, said Wahlström. “Given the collective experience of responding to drought emergencies over the last 50 years, it is surprising that, once again last year, the world was caught short in its response to a drought-fuelled famine in the Horn of Africa and in the western Sahel, which was predicted well in advance. The lives and livelihoods of millions were at stake, but the warnings were not acted on.”
Photo: Anne Isabelle Leclercq/IRIN
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Governments, donors and aid groups, conditioned to responding to rapid-onset disasters, need to become more flexible in responding to early warnings, advised Wahlström. This is especially true in Asia, one of the most natural-disaster prone areas in the world, with more fatalities attributed to natural hazards between 1975 and 2011 than anywhere else in the world.
Urban areas require particular attention. The UN Office for Disaster Risk Reduction estimates the number of people in East Asia living in the flood plains of urban areas may reach 67 million by 2060.
More than two-thirds of the world’s urban population now live in low- and middle-income countries, and nearly one billion of them - mostly in Asia - reside in slums.
Slum dwellers worldwide - a population growing by 25 million annually, according to UN Human Settlements Programme (UN-HABITAT) - are more likely to encounter chronic disasters than other urban areas.
“The unpredictability of these events - for example, water-logging in flood-prone areas - makes it difficult to set triggers for response,” said Gerson Brandao, humanitarian affairs advisor for the UN Resident Coordinator’s office in Bangladesh.
Water-logging causes increased salination in croplands, and affects not only rural farms but also the peri-urban and urban areas where agriculture is increasingly practiced. It also increases the risk of waterborne disease. “Water-logging isn’t simply a bad flooding but a continuous hazard,” Brandao continued.
In Bangladesh shrinking wetlands, which have traditionally helped drain flood water, have worsened water-logging in recent years.
A 2011 study commissioned by the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) on slow-onset disasters warned, “If livelihoods are not restored or strengthened between events [caused by a chronic hazard]… then smaller and smaller hazards can push households over the edge, resulting in a vicious cycle.”
Bangladesh’s yearly drought, and the resulting food shortage, known locally as ‘monga’, is another slow-onset disaster, said Alam. The country’s annual droughts affect up to 2.3 million of the country’s 8.4 million cultivable hectares, hitting farmers mostly in the northwest, according to the government, which says increasingly erratic weather is affecting crop cycles.
In 2010, Bangladesh had 47,447mm of total rainfall. In 2011, rainfall levels increased by 40 percent. In southwestern Bangladesh, 2011 flood water did not recede as usual, compromising shelter, medical care, and access to food and income for more than one million people.
But even without increased rainfall, this area - where three major river systems meet - is already at high risk of flooding, Shahadat Hossain Mahmud, the government’s rural risk reduction specialist at the Ministry of Disaster Management and Relief, told IRIN.
“These [river] systems all bring in a large amount of silt…so the river banks flood even with a little rainfall.”
The government’s Tidal River Management project aims to divert water to shallow lakes, repair a number of flood embankments and earth dykes, and dredge river beds, said Abdul Latif Khan, of the disaster management ministry.
As a natural-disaster prone country that is extremely vulnerable to climate change effects, Bangladesh’s best hope is to cope, said Hossain.