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     Volume 6 Issue 45 | November 23, 2007 |

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Straight Talk

When Disaster Strikes

“It's not fair!” --- This is an age old reproach uttered by children when they feel they have been hard done by. Right now it is exactly how I am feeling. Bangladesh has forever been plagued by natural disasters and every time we try and recover from one, we are hit by yet another. The latest to leave death and devastation in its wake is Cyclone Sidr. Sitting here in London, all I can do is read about the havoc it has wreaked and all I can think is “it's just not fair”.

When you are far from your home, thousands of miles away, headlines such as “Still thousands missing; ships, aircrafts, copters join the search; hundreds of thousands homeless; over 2 lakh livestock killed” or “Red Crescent fears toll may cross 10,000”, can only make us grieve for our country. Whether the disasters are tropical cyclones, tidal surges, tornados, floods, droughts or even large-scale riverbank erosions, they all cause mass devastation on the lives and livelihoods of the indigenous population. On numerous occasions, we have heard how resilient Bangladeshis are in times of adversity; no matter how many times you knock us down, we still manage to pick ourselves off the ground and start all over again. But to be honest, to the fisherman who loses his home and his livelihood every time there is a cyclone or tidal surge, this is of no comfort and of no consequence.

I was actually horrified to see some of the figures for the natural disasters we have been witness to in the last 100 years. The famine in 1943 took the lives of a staggering 1,900,000 people. In November 1970, Bangladesh's coastal regions were devastated by a cyclone that killed more than 300,000 people and caused over $2.5 billion of property damage. The most recent cyclone of such magnitude to hit Bangladesh's coastline was in 1991 which killed over 138,000 people -- in turn making it one of the worst tropical storms in recorded history.

But even if we do not focus on just the death toll, we are constantly faced by the floods that seem to have become a recurrent nightmare for the Bangladeshi population. Whether it is the floods in 1988 or 1998 the number of people to be displaced and left destitute is thought-provoking. In 1988 the number rose to 73,000,000. I cannot even begin to imagine the pain and suffering endured by those affected. As can be expected, every time we are touched by natural disasters, there is widespread disruption in agricultural production and the country's economy is severely affected. For a country striving to keep its head above water, financially speaking, this has an almost crippling effect.

We know that Bangladesh is beleaguered by a multitude of natural disasters. Our country's predilection to natural calamities seems to be due to various environmental factors and our geographical location. Unfortunately, that is something that we are unable to change. But with technological advancements, we are now able to predict earthquakes, cyclones, floods etc. and it is the responsibility of the government to be prepared for the extreme weather that we are so familiar with and to do their best to strengthen the country's disaster management capabilities. It is very likely that a cyclone of the magnitude of Cyclone Sidr would probably have a much higher death toll had it occurred even a few years ago. The number of deaths which is still significantly lower than the human loss during natural disasters our country has seen in the past can be attributed to the effectiveness of the government's disaster preparations this time. Although in absolute terms the loss of lives reported is appalling.

We have just seen the tip of the iceberg in terms of suffering to follow in the wake of such a catastrophe. When I look at the pictures on my television screen, all I can see are desperate people in need of clean drinking water, food, medicine and shelter. I do not wish to sound like a scare monger or a pessimist but as we know from our previous experiences we must be prepared for the water borne diseases, diarrhoea, social dislocation, and many other issues that are part and parcel of the aftermath. There will once again be a painful and prolonged period of rehabilitation for the displaced and heartache and misery for those who have lost everything.

We belong to a country that knows pain and suffering all too well and it is distressing to know that there is nothing we can do to alleviate this distress apart from giving freely from our pockets. Even this seems so inadequate especially when I see the misery so visible in the faces of the victims and survivors of this cyclone. And once again I think to myself that the sad truth is that sometimes life is just not fair...

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