Although Bangladesh last year added lightning to the list of natural disasters, there has not yet been any attempt either on the part of the government or any non-government organisation to launch mass awareness campaign on it. The decision to declare lightning as a natural calamity in fact came against the backdrop of a record number of deaths from it in 2016. Last year, the Disaster Management and Relief Minister had said the government was working out different preventive measures including an early warning system to minimise lightning-related deaths. None knows about any progress in this field. The government, however, has started giving financial assistance to families of the lightning victims as it does in case of storms, floods and river erosion. It distributed Tk 1.8 million among families of lightning victims last year. A directive was also issued to officials concerned to include those families, who are economically insolvent, under Vulnerable Group Feeding programmes.
Statistics published in newspapers quoting experts reveal that more than 400 were killed by lightning in 2016 alone while the figure was 186 in 2015, 210 in 2014 and 285 in 2013. Most lightning deaths usually occur during the months of March to July. India also saw a similar surge in lightning deaths, with 93 people killed just in only two days. The problem has prompted Bangladesh to add lightning strike to the country's list of official types of disasters, which includes floods, cyclones and storm surges, earthquakes, drought and riverbank erosion, among others.
Experts are of the view that "warmer conditions associated with climate change are causing more water evaporation from the land and ocean, increasing clouds and rainfall and the potential for lightning storms. It is a gigantic electrical spark travelling between cloud to cloud or cloud to earth and containing an average charge of three million to five million volts and a current of 30 kilo amperes with a speed of 220 km per hour."
April, May and June are the hottest months in Bangladesh and the moist air quickly rises upward to meet dry north-westerly winds to cool and form large storm clouds. Lightning occurs with all thunderstorms. Numerous cloud-to-ground lightning strokes in severe local storms pose a serious threat to people who are outdoors and may even injure people in homes. Physics and astronomy professor at Moreno Valley College in California Dipen Bhattacharya said, "Some specialists think that as the world warms up, we should expect more explosive lightning events rather than a gradual increase".
The Bangladesh Meteorological Department data show that over 1,600 people died from lightning in Bangladesh since 2010. According to a University of Berkeley study, lightning strikes are expected to increase by 12 per cent for every degree Celsius of warming, with a 50 per cent rise in lightning expected by the end of the century. According to Bangladesh's Met Office, prior to 1981, the country saw lightning strikes on an average nine days each May. Since that time, the country has seen strikes an average of 12 days each May.
Experts in Bangladesh attribute the rise in fatal lightning strikes to the country's population growth and deforestation, which has led to disappearance of many tall trees that earlier would have drawn lightning strikes. Now fatalities often involve farmers using metal farm equipment in open fields, or people standing near metal cell phone towers or electrical power towers. Some experts said they believed cell phone use also might be leading to more lightning fatalities, but other experts said that the link is unlikely. Lightning continues to kill people who take shelter under trees during storms.
In fact, rising global temperatures over the last century are driving a range of changing weather phenomenon, including stronger tropical cyclones, thunderstorms, floods, droughts and heat waves. The increased numbers of lightning strikes may be due to global warming but it needs further research to be confirmed, said one expert. But the United States, which once saw 200 to 300 lightning deaths a year, had managed to dramatically reduce that toll by making people aware of the risks of standing in open areas during thunderstorms.
Experts have recommended the following measures for mass awareness:
l People should take shelter immediately in a concrete building and farmers should flatten themselves to the soil when they meet any possibility of thunderstorm,
l The government should impose ban on cutting all kinds of tall trees. Initiatives should be taken to plant more and more tall trees like palm and coconuts,
l Every building should install lightning protection systems to save it from mechanical destruction caused by lightning effects,
l The government may call for installation of lightning protection system in rural areas, and
l During thunderstorm, there is no place which is absolutely safe from a lightning threat. But the people will have to avoid water, high ground, open spaces and all metal objects during such a calamity.
As the season of thunderstorms has already set in, lightning has begun taking its toll. Last week, three persons lost their lives in lightning strike in Sylhet. In another incident in Companyganj, both father and son died due to lightning strike. Another was killed in the sub-district while he was catching fish in a marshy land. Many lightning deaths are not usually reported in the media. The Ministry of Disaster Management should immediately launch an extensive mass awareness programme across the country. The upazila parishads and the union parishads, located at the grassroots, must be instructed to past attractive posters in marketplaces, educational institutions and other public places about do's and don'ts during thunderstorms.