Tuesday, March 31, 2009

The emergency of emergences

It has become apparent that it is difficult to analyze the emergency of a natural disaster within the complex emergences (pre-existing trends and tendencies) of a less economically developed country like Bangladesh. There is only a little gap between the problematic consequences of the emergency and that of the emergences. A more economically developed country can deal with a disaster in a more isolated manner since it can, relatively, get a much higher priority. Note that we consider yearly floods, winds and monsoon rains part of the emergences more than emergencies. Until now, we have looked at the impacts of the 1991 disaster in Chittagong city and district. This made it possible to analyze the long-term effects of a disaster and get an insight in the emergences.

There have been numerous responses to the cyclone by the government and NGO's. Spatial redevelopment has been planned to some extent, related directly to disaster prevention, but formal plans are hard to realize or can have adverse effects. For instance, the government has pointed out locations where building is not permitted unless buildings leave open the first floor. This makes the areas less profitable for developers, so that informal settlements take over the land where formal settlements are restricted. The question we are facing, thus, is how to understand the complexity of the issue of post-natural disaster redevelopment, if it has such an informal character. One intriguing formal project by the government, on the other hand, is the planting of mangrove forests along the coastal zone (up to 300 meters in width). This will decrease the wind speeds of a cyclone.

We have had difficulties to accurately research the first phase of aid after the 1991 cyclone, because it is such a long time ago. One thing we did conclude, however, is the lack of proper infrastructure. There is one proper tarmac road that runs from Dhaka to Chittagong and Cox's Bazaar. But as soon as you take a turn away from the road, the small embankment roads will not let you drive faster than walking speed, if at all. A lot of roads are made of bricks... and the lack of them. It makes us wonder how the first phase post-disaster aid can be executed properly. Those living in remote areas will be extremely vulnerable, after losing everything (including tube wells) and being cut off from the aid. Aid may be possible by boat. Still it is interesting that relatively little is done about these roads. Could NGO's be more involved also with the upgrading of roads, as it will enhance the first phase of post-disaster aid? With flooding, roads tend to get damaged, so that repair works seem to be a yearly process. The damage of cyclones and floods on the infrastructure, as well as the modality of aid transport, is something we can further investigate in the Sidr effected regions.

This leads us to the following question as well: where is the boundary between the task of the government and that of the NGO's in a country where there is relatively little governmental funding? NGO's obviously prefer to deal with people directly: sad faces attract money, happy faces justify the spent money. However, the pre-disaster problem of infrastructure also becomes a problem in the post-disaster setting. Does proper infrastructure not give the people opportunities, as well as a quicker aid during disaster response? Note that we do not blame NGO's for their work! Rather, we are interested to look at the role that the NGO's can have within the Bangladesh government.

Cyclone shelters can save the lives of many people. Awareness programs make sure people move to these shelters. Raised lands (killas) can save the people's livestock. But when the people return, the first urgent issues seem to be the lack of proper sanitation and drinking water. After that, the people will be concerned with their livelihood: did the cattle survive, where is the boat, how are the crops, is the garment factory closed, what to do as a rickshaw puller? And after that, spatial redevelopment is often informal.

This is why our research has, until now, very much focused on the first two issues as described above. We will narrow down our research more towards the short-term effects when we get to the Sidr (2007 cyclone) effected region. Due to the research in the emergences and long-term effects of the cyclones, we aim on understanding the short-term emergencies based on this.

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