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Bangladesh: Dialling into disaster risk reduction

9 October 2011

DHAKA,, 7 October 2011 (IRIN) - Bangladesh’s high-growth mobile phone sector is buying into disaster risk reduction, and the cyclone-affected costal region stands to gain most, say government officials, aid workers and private sector sources.

By the beginning of 2012, the Disaster Management Bureau (DMB) will team up with the country’s largest mobile phone provider Grameenphone, and state-run mobile phone company Teletalk, to provide early warnings for cyclones and floods to all 14 coastal districts.

“We identified mobile phones as an effective medium for disaster risk reduction in Bangladesh since the number of people using mobile phones in rural areas of the country is increasing,” Ahsan Zakir, director-general of the DMB, told IRIN.

On a separate project, Airtel, another private mobile operator, has teamed up with the Campaign for Sustainable Rural Livelihoods (CSRL), the Center for Global Change (CGC) and two international NGOs, Oxfam and CARE, to provide early weather warnings to fishermen at sea using the company’s global positioning system (GPS).

Exposed to earthquakes, storms, floods, droughts and sea level rise, Bangladesh was ranked the sixth most vulnerable country to disaster in the World Risk Report 2011, released in September.

An August 2011 report by the Bangladesh Telecommunication Regulatory Commission (BTRC) estimated more than half of Bangladesh’s 140 million people are now using mobile phones.

Ripe for exploitation

Bangladesh was described as a high-growth mobile phone market in a recent study by Business Monitor International, which also said 75 percent of the country’s population lives in rural, disaster-prone areas - an ideal environment in which to exploit the potential of mobile phones to mitigate disasters.

“In general rural people are vulnerable to disaster, therefore with such a demographic background in the country we believe Grameenphone would be able to help Bangladeshis better prepare for disaster through its technology,” said Kazi Monirul Kabir, spokesman for Grameenphone.

However, the terms and conditions for alerting people are yet to be finalized, say officials from Grameenphone and DMB.

According to DMB, thousands of people are integrated into the government’s disaster management committees spread across the district, sub-districts and union level. "Once the terms are finalized with mobile phone companies we will be able to send SMS to the members of such committees who can then alert people well ahead of threatening flood levels and cyclones," DMB’s Zakir explained.

A cell broadcasting system will flash an automatic warning message about a potential disaster to a subscriber’s handset. The messages will flash automatically on the screen of mobile phone sets, instead of going to message boxes. This way, a user does not even need to push a button to see the alert.

DMB successfully piloted these techniques in Sirajgang and Cox’s Bazar districts in 2010.

Fishing sector should benefit

While such techniques are primarily aimed at those living in coastal areas, the Airtel-Oxfam-CSRL-Care-CGC project is also designed to alert fishermen at sea by relaying voice warning messages using Airtel’s network of 14 coastal towers, capable of reaching people as far off the coast as 82km.

Chief Executive Officer of Airtel Bangladesh Chris Tobit said: “The fishing sector is a very important part of Bangladesh's economy, and creating a safe environment for our fishermen is an extension of our brand value.”

Initially, the GPS-based warning system will be disseminated to 50 fishermen on a pilot basis, starting next year.

According to a CGC study, 160,000 households in Bangladesh depend on fisheries for an income and many of those families have lost husbands, sons and brothers to cyclones or other rough weather while at sea.

“Once this project is implemented in a large scale the sea-going fishermen will be notified 48 hours ahead of a rough sea event through repeated voice message,” said Ahsan Uddin Ahmed, climate scientist and CGC head.

Gareth Price Jones, Oxfam’s country director in the Bangladesh, said: “With fisher folk facing not only increased intensity of storms in the Bay of Bengal, but also drastically increasing frequency due to oceanic warming, these systems are an absolute necessity.”

Barek Majhi, a fisherman from the southern district of Barguna, lost two boats in a cyclone in 2007 and his home in another. He is hopeful these initiatives will prevent such calamities in the future.

"If I could have known via my mobile phone that within 24 hours a cyclone would hit me, I could have saved my boats in 2007," Barek Majhi said, adding, "advanced warning of cyclones through mobile phone will be very handy.”