Nelson Mandela said, "I never lose. I either win or learn". The present crisis, emerged from invisible enemy "novel coronavirus (Covid-19)," also provides same opportunities for us.
Of course, in the midst of corona-led economic fallout, health crisis and ever-increasing negative impacts to people's wellbeing, a sense of pessimism exists all around. And this is not a one-off event – natural, climate induced and man-made disasters along with pandemics are likely to occur at different frequencies and scales in the foreseeable future. However, a disaster also provides ample opportunities to learn and leeway to build back better. We, therefore, need to read the situation well to seize the opportunities.
This opinion piece mainly weighs up some of the national level disasters that have helped Bangladesh to enhance resilience and improve on safety aspects.
The country, for instance, has encountered disasters, both natural and climate change induced ones, over the years. The recent cyclone Amphan, which is claimed to be the strongest since the SIDR of 2007, has affected thousands of people while damaging roads and other essential infrastructures.
However, much more damage could have been inflicted upon the coastal communities had we not been better prepared following the two back to back devastating cyclones, namely, SIDR and AILA, which struck Bangladesh in 2007 & 2009 respectively. These two cyclones dramatically changed the coastal areas, affecting from livelihoods to basic need, such as, access to clean water.
In the aftermath of the climate induced disaster AILA, the government was in a triple whammy – one thing was to fulfill the immediate needs to save lives, the second thing was to design and support a recovery pathway for the affected people to make transition to new normal and finally, the government felt the urgency to enhance resilience of coastal communities to face climate induced disasters in future but in a better way.
While road to resilience, after cyclone AILA, is still ongoing, the government, with support from local and international agencies, has constructed more climate resilient life-saving infrastructures, such as cyclone shelters, supported installation of solar powered water supply systems for the communities, rebuilt roads etc.
The cyclone shelters, for example, have helped coastal people battle the perils of Amphan. In addition to these, a project is currently being implemented at coastal areas, supported by the Green Climate Fund, to enhance adaptive capacity of the communities that are still vulnerable as a consequence of climate change induced salinity intrusion and related impacts on drinking water and livelihoods.
Once completed, the project, which hinges on a community-based approach, is likely to support the most vulnerable people, especially the women and girls, who are currently entrusted with the responsibilities to fetch water from several kilometers away from their homes. The project would, furthermore, address the harmful impacts on the livelihoods vis-à-vis agriculture, against the present state where it turns out that the yield is much lower in the absence of fresh water.
Bangladesh also experiences severe floods, almost every year, which occasionally lead to loss of shelters and livelihoods. Additionally, public infrastructures are damaged, creating economic burden on the government. To this end, the lessons drawn from years of sufferings coupled with government interventions have developed our capacities, both at local and national levels, to lessen damages that arise from floods.
As far as management of natural disasters is concerned, Bangladesh carves out as one of the top nations in the world. However, floods, as claimed by experts and revealed in the World Water Development Report 2020, are becoming more dangerous due to climate change. The current flood is yet another reminder in that vein. And we can't take these warnings lightly rather we need to be well prepared.
At national level, we may include the improvement on occupational health and safety (OHS) to the list of successes where we have conscientiously undertaken initiatives to alter the business-as-usual trend following disasters, such as infernos at industry level. While OHS aspect is still work in progress, it is much better in many factories now than before.
From global perspective, our collective failure to spearhead a better rebuilding process in post-global financial crisis era is quite noticeable. In the end, we have a world that is more vulnerable to climate change and fragile in a pandemic like Covid-19.
The world that we have, today, is more unequal than ever before. As we have observed last several months, the issue of equity has resurfaced. For instance, the basic measures, as of now, to circumvent Covid-19 are to wear a mask and wash hands as frequently as possible. And these bring some poignant facts in front of us – 40 percent of the global population or three billion people, according to the UN Water, live without basic handwashing facilities, i.e., soap and water, at home. What raises the alarm more is, millions of people, according to some ballpark estimates, would fall back to poverty, reversing the achievements of last several years on poverty alleviation.
In Bangladesh, many have already lost their jobs. While savings have allowed some people to ride out the crisis and keep their families afloat, others have returned to their ancestral homes with no sign of getting new jobs in the immediate future.
Be that as it may, for all practical purposes, post-corona recovery shall not direct us to business-as-usual. And this is the opportunity perhaps, once in a generation, to build back better.
Moreover, if we consider the post-corona recovery only from economic angle and thereby hinge on short-sighted and simplistic solutions, these would eventually neglect many real-life features, be it health and safety aspects of communities or the impending human induced climate adversaries, limiting the effectiveness of policy interventions. We can't let us to be too far from reality and let this Covid-19 pandemic go wasted, when it clearly demonstrates how fragile the global comminutes are.
Therefore, as we move forward, the approach to recovery for us and global communities shall be such that helps build our resilience to address physical, social, environmental, and economic vulnerabilities and shocks associated to the disasters. And of course, the aspiration to build back better shall not be vaguely specified. Rather, the approach to build back better shall be fair, inclusive, and environmentally sound and offer economic prospects in long term.
Shafiqul Alam is a Humboldt Scholar and an environmental economist. He is currently a Senior Advisor in an International Agency.