Political instability undermines disaster preparedness in Bangladesh

Ongoing political instability in Bangladesh is undermining disaster preparedness efforts, experts warn. From January to April 2013, opposition parties have enforced 18 nationwide strikes throughout Bangladesh, with even more enforced at the regional and district level, according to security analysts.

“Due to consecutive strikes, our collective ability as a humanitarian community to meet, plan, implement or monitor development has become limited,” Gerson Brandao, humanitarian affairs adviser to the office of the UN resident coordinator in Bangladesh, told IRIN. He noted that field visits have been postponed, which limits humanitarian groups’ ability support to local partners.

Strikers’ demands include: the release of jailed opposition leaders; the cancellation of a state-appointed International Crimes Tribunal investigating war crimes by collaborators during the 1971 war of independence; and the reinstatement of a care-taker government system to run the country’s next national poll, scheduled for 2014.

When a strike is called, there is typically a total shut down of civilian vehicles on the road. And if any vehicles are seen on the street, opposition activist vandalize or set fire to them.

“I am worried that in the event of a major disaster - as it’s likely, given we are in the middle of the cyclone season - the capacity of development partners to complement the assistance provided by the government to disaster-affected people will be to some extent reduced,” Brandao said.

According to the Asian Disaster Preparedness Center, Bangladesh is ranked one of the most disaster-prone countries in the world, with cyclones striking coastal regions almost every year.

More than two-thirds of the country’s 64 districts are prone to natural disasters, including cyclones, floods, landslides, tornadoes and drought.

Development work interrupted

Meanwhile, the ongoing political turmoil is taking its toll on development work.

“Strikes do delay the implementation of activities we funded. For instance, cash-based transfers are not implemented during strikes. And usually INGOs [international NGOs] and UN partners are not able to use their vehicles on those days, which means their programmes come to a halt, and monitoring cannot be done," said Olivier Brouant, head of office of the European Commission’s humanitarian arm (ECHO) in Dhaka.

ECHO is one the largest donors in Bangladesh, providing 30.65 million euros to address humanitarian needs in 2012 and 2013, and 3.65 million euros for disaster risk reduction projects in 2013 and 2014.

To cope with the strikes, Plan International in Bangladesh has changed its working pattern.

“We have shifted some of our event-based activities to the weekends, and to make up working days lost in strikes for the staff who still cannot come to the office on a hartal (local word for strike) day, they are now working on weekends or making up time by working late,” Elena Ahmed, deputy country director for Plan International in Bangladesh. 

According to Gareth Price-Jones, country director for Oxfam, the situation is manageable. But he added: “We are worried for the future, though, and with other NGOs and the UN, we are reminding all actors of the protected status of humanitarian work under international law, which should enable us to keep working even if the situation worsens.”