Syed Mehdi Momin
Lightning is one of the most beautiful natural phenomena and at the same time it is one of the deadliest. In a country where scores of people die each year because of floods, cyclones and other climatic events, lightning related death toll also paints a grim picture. As the atmosphere warms as a result of climate change, and holds more moisture, deadly lightning strikes are happening more frequently than before. And Bangladesh being a hot and humid place dangers are more.
Also, the very location of this country makes it highly susceptible to thunderstorms. Humid and warm winds come from the Bay of Bengal and the Indian Ocean and from the Himalayas- which is located to the north of Bangladesh– very cold winds come and the combination of hot and cold winds creates a favorable environment for thunderstorms and resultant lightning strikes.
Five years back in 2016 as many as eighty people were killed by lighting strikes in one particularly lethal stormy day. In 2019, 360 people were killed by the phenomenon. In 2020 though the figure came down to around a couple of hundred. However, there is little room for complacency as there are reasons to believe that not all lightning related deaths are reported. This year too there have been several lightning related deaths and the number is likely to increase as June promises to be full of thundershowers. Amidst the deaths the plight of the injured often is given less importance. People injured by thunderbolts are, more often than not, maimed for life.
Lightning strikes was declared a natural calamity in May, 2016. Lightning protection measures are now part of the country’s national disaster management plan and its National Building Code but unfortunately, we see little effective actions being taken to minimiselightning fatalities.Awareness about its danger is limited. Generally, people just don’t know how to act in the midst of a thunderstorm.
The situation is particularly serious in the greater Mymensingh and Sylhet haor regions and the northern districts. These are the areas where the highest fatalities are reported.However,the urban areas are hardly immune from thunderstrikes. Just a few days back three people were killed from lightning strikes in the capital itself.
The main problem with lightning, like earthquakes, is that it cannot be easily predicted, which makes it all the more challenging to issue timely warnings.Everything happens in a second or two, from trigger to strike. And it is hard to say where it will be triggered. A cloud can be huge, sometimes covering kilometres at a stretch but which part of the cloud the trigger for lightning will occur is next to impossible.
Steps to prevent deaths caused by lightning still remain a low-priority area for the government, as the extent of the fatalities are usually under-reported, unlike headline-grabbing death tolls in the case of cyclones or floods.
Numerous lightning related deaths was the norm in the West a couple of centuries ago. They were brought down to one-tenth of the original by making people aware of the phenomenon of lightning and the methods to protect oneself and one’s property during lightning activity.
Scarcity of palm tree is one of the main reasons for the increase of lightning or thunderbolt-related deaths. Earlier, thunderbolts used to fall on tall trees–mostly palm trees. Lightning is a kind of electricity. Naturally the thunderbolt used to go down to the ground through the trees. After lightning was declared a natural calamity in 2016 there have been palm tree plantation drives. However, we need to wait for a few more years to see the results.
The precautions to be taken regarding lightning depend on whether one is indoors or outdoors. Buildings can be protected with lightning conductors and electrical equipment can be protected using surge protection devices. But people need to take extra cautious when there is a raging thunderstorm–– keeping away from electrical equipment including wired phones, TVs, etc. not touching two points separated by a distance on the floor or wall, not opening any water taps, not going to open areas, etc.
Precautions to be taken if outdoors are elaborate – but the most ideal thing is to get back indoors quickly. If one must go out wearing rubber shoes is advised. A common idea that mobile phones are risky to use during lightning activity is wrong. Mobile and cordless phones are in fact the only phones that are safe to use when there is lightning activity. In Bangladesh most thunderbolt fatalities occur in open places and farmlands. When there is a raging thunderstorm going on and you are caught outside it is best to get as low to the ground as possible; you just do not want to be the tallest thing around in a thunderstorm. If you are out at pond, river or lake and you hear thunder beginning to roll in, seek shelter immediately. Water bodies can be particularly dangerous and thundershowers are hardly ideal times for swimming.
At present above all else, intensive awareness campaigns in the districts that have high fatality rates are the real answer to this problem. At least as long as the palm trees grow to their full heights.
Syed Mehdi Momin is Senior Assistant Editor at The Business Post