Weeks after cyclone, deadly landslides bury Bangladesh’s vulnerable

Rescuers prepare to pull out the dead body of a victim after Tuesday's massive landslide in Rangamati district, Bangladesh. Rescuers struggled to reach villages hit by massive landslides that have killed more than a hundred people. (AP Photo)

Just two weeks after Cyclone Mora swept through South Asia, heavy monsoon rains triggered the most deadly landslides in Bangladesh’s recent history yesterday. At least 156 people have died, including four soldiers during a rescue operation.

However, officials warn that number could rise as rescuers reach cut-off areas.

The consecutive disasters concentrated their forces on southeastern Bangladesh. Communities are still struggling to recover from Cyclone Mora, which killed nine people and damaged or destroyed more than 50,000 homes in the districts of Chittagong, Bandarban and Cox’s Bazar. Landslides hit those same three districts, as well as neighboring Rangamati and Khagrachari.

“Southeast Bangladesh is facing the full onslaught of the monsoon season,” Azmat Ulla, head of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies’ Bangladesh office, said in press release. “We are dealing with back-to-back disasters at the moment, and the volunteers of the Bangladesh Red Crescent are out in force, helping these stricken communities.”

In addition to landslides, the heavy rains flooded low-lying areas, damaging roads and communications infrastructure. Some remote communities consequently remain cut off from rescuers and without water, electricity and food supplies, according to the U.N. resident coordinator for Bangladesh.

“On top of losing their homes and few possessions, many people have also lost their food stocks,” Ulla said. “We need to ensure that people have a roof over their heads and sufficient nutritious food. Access to clean water and sanitation is also crucial to stop the spread of diseases.”

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According to the World Bank, the affected areas are among the regions of the country that are not only most vulnerable to climate change, but that also have the highest concentrations of the poor, including subsistence farmers, the rural landless, fishing communities and even refugees.

Cox’s Bazar on the coast, for example, is now home to thousands of Muslim Rohingya refugees from neighboring Myanmar. When Cyclone Mora tore through their makeshift settlements, they were among the hardest hit communities with about 150,000 people affected. But just as they began to recover from that disaster, fresh landslides killed two people in Cox’s Bazar today.

Although heavy rainfall during monsoon season and natural erosion have been known to trigger landslides in the affected areas, the U.N. resident coordinator noted that “human intervention, including deforestation and the flattening of hillsides for construction, may have contributed to making the region more vulnerable to mudslides.”

Now that the death toll has exceeded that of the 2007 landslides, local experts are urging the government to take more drastic preventative measures, such as preventing deforestation, filling cracks in hills with cement, building canals and relocating homes from the base of hills.

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After the 2007 landslides, the government had plans to relocate people from vulnerable areas, but residents were unwilling to move, Disaster Management Minister Mofazzal Hossain Chowdhury said at a press conference on Tuesday, according to bdnews24.com.

Local officials said they ran into the same problem this time, as people refused to leave their “shanty-like” homes despite early warnings to evacuate.

“The government must take the initiative,” Syed Humayun Akhter, professor of geology at Dhaka University told bdnews24.com. “It is time to develop a master plan, especially for landslides. … Man-made disasters can only be avoided by people making proper plans and implementing them. We must prepare in the same way that we did after the Rana Plaza disaster or for earthquakes so that rescue efforts after such landslides are successful.”

Rescue teams are taking advantage of the brief respite from the rain today to accelerate efforts, but forecasts predict more rains accompanied by strong winds throughout the week.

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Joanne Lu

Joanne Lu is a South Carolina-based writer and editor dedicated to global development, poverty alleviation and social justice. After a year in Rwanda, she now covers the Asia-Pacific and economics. Find her on Twitter @joannelu or email joanne@humanosphere.com.