Saving lives from landslides

May 15, 2013

Mr.Azharul Islam, Md. Shahidullah and Ms. Anwara are nothing short of lifesavers

Over the last decade hundreds of people have died in landslides in Bangladesh, last year alone over 100 people perished in what could have been preventable tragedies. Ms. Anwara, Mr. Shahidullah and 57 other landslide volunteers around Bangladesh have taken it up upon themselves to reduce that number to zero and as it so often happens their work began in their own backyard.

Hailing from Mohajer Para in Cox’s Bazar, Ms. Anwara and Mr. Shahidullah, used loudspeakers to warn local people of heavy rainfall and potential landslides and instructed their neighbours to get ready and move to the nearest shelter. “We were on the road doing our rounds till 12 at night on 15 May, 2013 and luckily for us no untoward incident happened until the rain receded,” said Ms. Anwara .

Earlier that day, the Bangladesh Meteorological Office issued warning that landslides may occur due to heavy rainfall induced by the cyclonic storm Mahasen in Chittagong division’s hilly regions. Some residents in hilly areas of Cox’s Bazar and Teknaf received further details and more frequent updates from landslide volunteers who are part of the Comprehensive Disaster Management Programme (CDMP)-supported landslide early warning system.

Developed by CDMP with support from ADPC volunteers were provided with information regarding landslide and the related preparedness measures. Equipped with rain gauges to read and monitor daily rainfall they employed their skills to analyse precipitation thresholds in the case of heavy rainfall induced by cyclone and flood etc. Ms. Anwara added, “We were also trained to disseminate warnings when necessary. During monsoon season, such as in this May, we also monitored the rainfall on a regular basis.”

While the danger of landslides had been averted in May by the end of June, however, several days incessant downpour inundated Cox’s Bazar again. This time it rendered many people homeless and the rainwater showed shagging slope soils ready to turn into landslides anytime.

Ms. Anwara, Shahidullah and others were on their feet again doing the door-to-door visits to their neighbourhood and surrounding areas to warn people about the on-going heavy rainfall and the probable landslides that may follow. Overnight, some 50 people from 10 of the most exposed households heeded to the volunteers’ warning and evacuated to safe ground.

In one of those neighbourhoods, at around 2.30 pm, a sudden mudslides decimated four houses including that of Ms. Hasina. While Ms. Hasina may have been heartbroken over the loss of her home she was eternally grateful to the landslide volunteers who warned her just an hour prior to the landslide and saved both her and her husband’s lives.       

Several landslide incidents took places also in other places in Cox’s Bazar. The next day a chunk of earth fell on the house of Rezaul Karim in Saikatpara village, killing his four year old son Sakib and leaving his wife Taiyaba Begum seriously injured.

In Mohajer village where there were several incidents of landslides but luckily for them they were not in any danger as they have been warned by Anwara and Shahidullah and left for the designated shelters. The community-based landslide warning has managed to consistently save lives.

In tropical developing countries like Bangladesh rainfall triggered landslides pose a significant risk to vulnerable communities. More and more people are moving to urban areas and often only the steep slopes around cities are available for the poor to build their homes on. They create densely populated shanty towns on the hillsides with no formal infrastructure and with the constant risk of landslides. In reality, indiscriminate deforestation, hill cutting and unplanned human settlements are causing the series of landslides incidents in Chittagong, Cox’s bazar and other hilly adjacent areas. All along the hilly districts of Bandarban, Khagrachhari, Cox's Bazar and Rangamati trees are felled at random, instantly turning the soft soil of the hills extremely vulnerable to slides.

Under this scenario CDMP took various initiatives for reducing risks associated with landslides. The key thrust of CDMP II initiative focused on i) assessing the relative landslide hazards (identify the magnitude of landslide prone area), ii) exposure (who/what might be affected by landsides), iii) vulnerability (how badly will they be affected), iv) The potential effectiveness and cost of slope drainage as well as awareness raising as means of landslide risk reduction, this includes development of landslide volunteers of which currently there are 59.

Ms. Anwara is proud of her work, “I volunteer because it makes me feel good. I get to help my neighbours and maybe if I’m lucky save lives along the way,” she says. Her modesty belies the fact that with a little training and a lot of heart she and the other volunteers have managed to save lives, it’s not often that many of us can say that.