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Spotlight 1 on Bangladesh

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The 1988 floods were not particularly deadly—although they claimed 2,440 lives that year— but they affected Dhaka, the capital, galvanizing the government (and donors) into action. The 1989 Flood Action Plan dusted off the 1964 proposals for embankments along the entire length of the river, but donors balked at the staggering cost, prompting additional studies. Millions living between the river and the planned embankments would remain exposed. Resettlement was impossible: many were fishermen needing ready access to the river, and these unprotected farmers and fishermen found advocates at home and abroad to voice their concerns.

. . . to cost-effective measures As doubts over the embankments’ merits grew, there was a thoughtful search for better alternatives that took account of the delta’s complex hydrology and agronomy. The World Bank 1971 study’s benefits of underground aquifers for drinking (reduced water-borne diseases) and irrigation began to be appreciated. The 1987 National Water Plan had estimated underground aquifers’ capacity at 69 billion cubic meters, but a more careful estimate in 1991 raised it to 78 billion. The declining water table was found to be localized around Dhaka, which drew water from wells for its growing city population; so restrictions on drilling for irrigation were lifted elsewhere. Tube wells proliferated, especially after private agricultural investment was deregulated and import tariffs (on pumps and the like) were lowered. Agriculture was transformed: low-yielding varieties in the aus and aman cultivation gave way to high-yielding (irrigated) varieties that rose from 14 percent higher yield in 1973 to 54 percent higher yield by 1993. But there were also unexpected setbacks. In some areas, tubewells led to arsenic poisoning when the substrate’s naturally occurring minerals leached into the water. A remedial program to test and treat potable water was begun. But the merits of groundwater use and agriculture’s reduced vulnerability were apparent after the severe 1998 floods: rice harvests that were expected to fall by 11 percent actually rose by 5.6 percent. After the 1970 cyclone and independence, and building on the early cyclone shelter construction that started in the late 1960s, the government, in partnership with the Bangladesh Red Crescent Society, established the Cyclone Preparedness Program in 1972. Working with local communities, a system appropriate to the area was developed to transmit hazard warnings— radio broadcasts complemented by flags of various colors, hoisted for all to see. People were taught what they signified, and what to do. Cyclone shelters began to go up in the late 1960s, and the livestock refuges in the early 1970s. But after 138,000 people died in the April 1991 eastern coastal zone cyclone, the Multipurpose Cyclone Shelter Project began to increase the number of shelters. Each district’s deputy commissioner chaired a disaster management committee that included local representatives, both elected and from nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). The May 1997 cyclone, of similar magnitude, claimed 111 lives—far fewer than the cyclone in 1970. But a cyclone’s severity is not the only determinant of fatalities, just as lives saved are not automatically the result of shelters built. Other factors matter. In 1970, large numbers of migrant workers were in the area for the harvest, and the 1997 cyclone struck the less densely populated hilly districts of Chittagong. How many people are exposed depends on the place, the season, and even the time of day. Better preparedness has helped, and cyclone shelters have reduced cyclone risks for millions. More remains to be done: shelters have space for about 2.8 million people, or 7 percent of the coastal area’s population, but many shelters are not functional. The government has built 2,133 shelters and 200 livestock refuges in 15 of the 19 coastal districts, but the estimates of those

Profile for World Bank Group Publications

Natural Hazards, UnNatural Disasters: The Economics of Effective Prevention  

Earthquakes, droughts, floods, and storms are natural hazards, but unnatural disasters are the deaths and damages that result from human act...

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