Wednesday, May 08, 2013

Bangladesh: Calamity planning in Bangladesh

Disaster readiness in Bangladesh
Photo: Contributor/IRIN. Improving disaster relief coordination is key

 Source: IRIN

DHAKA, 7 May 2013 (IRIN) - As Bangladesh armed forces retrieve bodies from the country’s worst ever industrial disaster, a garment factory collapse killing over 700, contingency planning is taking place for something worse - a long-predicted earthquake striking the mega-capital of Dhaka.

“We can’t have people just showing up with a shovel,” said Pete DeFelice, a disaster response exercise designer for the US Pacific Command (US armed forces stationed in Hawaii to promote regional security and disaster response in the Asia-Pacific), which is co-hosting a planning workshop from 5-14 May with the Bangladesh Armed Forces.

Government officers, armed forces and humanitarian organizations working in Bangladesh and other parts of the Asia-Pacific who may be among the first responders post-quake, are being presented with the following scenario: a 7.1 Richter scale earthquake 25km northwest of Dhaka, along the Modhupur Fault.

Loose sediment holding together much of the city caves in, leads to the collapse of 100,000 buildings; ATMs are ransacked, looting begins, mobile phone communications are down, and most of the city's hospitals and 1,000 clinics are damaged or destroyed.

Some 400,000 people have gathered at national sports stadiums (with another 150,000 camped out in front of the national parliament); 100,000 are pronounced dead in the earliest days; railway tracks throughout the city have buckled, twisted or are torn from their rail beds. The capital’s international airport cannot accept fixed-wing aircraft; none of the electronic navigation aids work and a nearby military airfield is closed due to cracks in the runway. Seaports are operating at half-capacity, and “tortuous, single lane detours” have reduced traffic by 95 percent.

The government declares a national state of calamity during the first 72 hours.

The workshop’s goal

The goal of the workshop, co-facilitated by the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, is to improve disaster relief coordination; lay out a “real estate” plan plotting humanitarian relief during such a mega-disaster; discuss forming a regional disaster coordination centre for South Asia (along the lines of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations’ Coordinating Centre for Humanitarian Assistance on disaster management); and answer questions on how foreign militaries can support the country as well as how the government can request international assistance.

While the country has a general National Disaster Management Plan, extending to the year 2015, and drafted its first earthquake contingency plan in 2009, these plans are largely “stove-pipe” plans developed by one ministry which are poorly disseminated and understood, DeFelice said.

In December 2009 the government created an inter-ministerial, multi-agency Earthquake Preparedness and Awareness Committee - enshrined in the country’s 2010 Standing Orders on Disaster - that was meant to meet twice a year to review preparedness and awareness.

As of 2013, the committee is still not operational.

On the workshop agenda is the need to boost airport and seaport capabilities to handle humanitarian relief. David Eisenberry, a major and air logistics expert with the US Air Force, said previous US military simulations of a Bangladesh quake left questions unanswered.

“People look to air power to get the job done, especially in the first part of the disaster response. How will the country schedule aircraft? How to distribute relief with few planes? How to manage air space?”

Civil-military relations

World Vision’s national coordinator for humanitarian emergency affairs in Bangladesh, Farhana Islam, said Bangladesh’s military would be key in an earthquake response. “We [NGOs] are more equipped to respond to rural disasters, but in recent years, it is the military here that has taken the lead and has the expertise to handle the growing number of urban crises.”

Col J.M. Emdadul Islam with the Bangladesh Armed Forces told IRIN even though the military has led annual earthquake simulation exercises in Dhaka since 2010, “preparation has no limit” and handling disaster relief in the densely populated mega-city would be, at best, “complicated”.

Four large earthquakes (measuring at least 8.0 on the Richter scale) have struck Bangladesh since 1897, with the most recent in 1950.

The US Pacific Command’s DeFelice acknowledged the challenges of bringing together NGOs and armed forces. “The military folks are trained to solve problems on their own. We are here to help the military stay in its own lane and not to occupy every lane [in disaster relief].”

Thirty-one countries participate in the Multinational Planning Augmentation Team, which was established in 2000 by the US Pacific Command to improve multi-nation military operations and coordination with aid groups to respond to crises in the Asia-Pacific.