Extreme weather and how to save lives

Extreme weather and how to save lives
A flooded road in Dhaka, Bangladesh on June 19, 2017. Editorial credit: Sk Hasan Ali / Shutterstock.com

Dr Bapon Fakhruddin is a natural hazards specialist and a world leading ‘early warning’ system designer for extreme weather events.

Born and raised in Bangladesh, he’s currently helping to design life-saving systems for both Tonga and Samoa. We did a Q&A with him and here’s what he had to say…

What drives you to do your job?

My childhood memories are brimming with natural disaster events. I grew up on the extensive and low-lying coastline of Bangladesh, where the people there were – and still are - incredibly vulnerable to the effects of flooding. The floods, along with droughts and cyclones, happened frequently, and killed many of my family members before I was even born. From an early age I felt passionate about making communities more resilient to extreme weather events.

How ‘extreme’ was extreme weather?

A staggering 500,000 people were killed in the 1970 Bhola cyclone. It was one of the deadliest natural disaster events ever recorded. When I was 9 years old, I witnessed the flood of 1988 that submerged about 60% of the land and forced 28 million people out of their homes. Officials estimated that between 1.5 and 3 million tonnes of rice crop were destroyed, representing over 50% of our national rice production!

I later observed the 1991 Bangladesh cyclone, it killed more than 138,000 people. The floods of 2004 put 50% of the country’s landmass under water, 30 million people were made homeless and 100,000 people became ill as a result of contaminated drinking water.

So what did you do?

In 2001 after University, I started my first job as an operational forecaster for the Flood Forecasting and Warning Centre in Bangladesh. I produced early warnings for flooding events nationwide. At the time, I knew something wasn’t quite working; we were preoccupied with the science and we weren’t effectively relating it to the people.

We all need to internalise risk in order to make sense of it. You can’t just say “a strong wind at 200km per hour is coming”, you need to say “the wind coming is so strong, houses will be blown away”.

So that’s what I did. I connected the science to the people in a way that would resonate with them. And I told people what could be done about the weather events that were coming. This is an integral part of an ‘impact based early warning system’.

I’ve since designed these early warning systems for more than 25 countries in Asia and the Pacific including Thailand, Sri Lanka, the Maldives, Fiji and – of course – Bangladesh.

What about Tonga and Samoa?

By 2021 they will also have early warning systems. They will be able to predict extreme weather events and provide the vital ‘what we can do about it’ information.

Tonkin + Taylor have partnered with Deltares, Bureau of Meteorology and GeoScience, KVA Consult in Samoa and ITS Pacific in Tonga to design and implement the systems. Work has already started and together, we’re vastly improving the capability of Tonga and Samoa’s meteorological departments.

The initial phase of work includes an assessment of their current forecasting system and the design of a new and improved system. We’ll then supervise the installation of a new system implementation. Interpreting the data we get will be the easy bit, converting it into usable language and creating customised communication tools for local communities, to convey to them the impact and risk – that’s the tricky, but oh-so crucial part!

How will this save lives?

Communities that are vulnerable to the effects of extreme weather events, will soon be armed with crucial information; they will know what is going to happen and what they should do about it. This knowledge will put them in a position to make life-saving decisions.

Because knowing that a cyclone is coming in 48 hours and understanding where to move you and your family, to avoid being inside a house that might be knocked down, is – quite literally – the difference between living and dying.

To find out more about Bapon, visit his page here.