Death from the skies

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Frequency of lightning strikes throughout the world, based on data from NASA. (CityNoise)

The wedding ceremony of the daughter of Hossain Ali, of Shibganj upazila in Bangldesh’s northern district of Chapainawabganj, and the son of Shariful Islam aka Patu from the district’s Sadar upazila, had taken place amid great fanfare and joy last Sunday, the first day of the month of August. Not in the sense of overwhelming glitz and glamour, like some of the high-society weddings that take place in capital Dhaka. This, in the rural hinterland of the country, was an occasion for love and hearty celebrations. In line with tradition, the bride’s family took the groom to their house at the end of the night’s revelry.

As part of the very same tradition, three days later, on August 4, it was the turn of the groom’s family to go and bring back the married couple to start their conjugal life together in what would be their home. That morning, a large party including Patu, the groom’s father, set out for this purpose, travelling by boat from their village in Narayanpur. However, the boat was forced to dock at the Tellikhari Ferry Ghat on account of heavy rain, and they took shelter under a thatched shed there at around 12pm.

But not sooner had they fully undocked, and the tin-shed shelter they were in was struck by a bolt of lightning. Sixteen members of the travelling party of 21 were immediately killed on the spot. Several others were injured. Mamun, the groom, did take his bride home later that day. But along with her, he had to bring back the bodies of eight of his family members, including his father. Instead of the reception planned for that night, a stunned silence reigned over their village. The ephemeral nature of life had been brought home to them in the most tragic way possible, that no-one could have imagined.

Fire and brimstone

Even as it is increasingly recognised that Bangladesh has made remarkable strides in limiting the number of fatalities from floods and cyclones, lightning strikes have emerged to take their place as the deadliest natural disaster in Bangladesh, claiming well over 200 lives a year on average over the last decade. Generally this is attributed to the loss of natural defences and a lack of precautionary measures.

In particular, experts blame deforestation, worsening air pollution and global warming, climate variability, and the growing use of mobile and other technological devices for the increase in the frequency of lethal lightning strikes.

According to the Ministry of Disaster Management and Relief, a total 2,164 people died in lightning strikes in the country from 2011 to 2020. At least 216 people die every year on average in lightning strikes, more than floods, cyclones, and other natural calamities.

Studies say about 70% of the lightning strikes occur between April and June, and they advised everyone to move with caution during this time.

Md Rashim Molla, secretary general of Save the Society and Thunderstorm Awareness Forum, said a recent study found that at least 177 people, including 122 farmers, were killed and 47 others injured by lightning strikes across the country just between March 31 and June 7 this year.

The casualties were higher in Sunamganj, Netrokona, Kishoreganj and Gaibandha districts over the last one and a half months. “Most of those killed by lightning strikes were working in open fields or fishing. About 90% of the victims were men.”

Lightning incidences peak in Bangladesh during the March to June pre-monsoon season, when agricultural activity is also most intense, resulting in high fatalities among farmers, according to a study published in 2019 in the International Journal of Disaster Risk Reduction.

Of the 1,434 lightning-related deaths recorded in Bangladesh during 2013—2017, an average of 1.73 deaths per day occurred in the pre-monsoon season and 0.71 during the June—October monsoon, with small averages in other seasons, according to the study.

Rashim Molla said lightning has now turned into the deadliest natural disaster in the country. “The death toll from lightning strikes is much higher than that of cyclones, tidal surges, landslides and floods." People in rural areas, croplands, playgrounds, and open spaces are mainly falling victim to lightning strikes.

Prof Ainun Nishat, one of the country's leading environmentalists, said it seems the frequency of lightning strikes has increased in Bangladesh due to the rise in temperature caused by climate change. “But data relating to lightning strikes is not collected scientifically in our country. We should take steps for collecting solid data and carry out scientific studies in this regard.”

He noted that the overall temperature in the world is increasing gradually, as the planet warms. “The growing temperature due to climate change is causing more water evaporation from the land and ocean. It’s increasing black clouds with potential lightning storms."

Rashim Molla said climate change, deforestation, increased rain clouds, random set-up of mobile towers and increase in temperature across the globe are the main factors behind the unusual rise in thunderstorms. Besides, Rashim said a one-degree rise in temperature can cause the chances of thunderstorms to rise by 10%.

Gawher Nayeem Wahra, member secretary of the Disaster Forum, said the main reason behind the increase in lightning strikes is the lack of trees. “Thunderbolts attack the tallest thing in a field or open space without trees. People's knowledge on earthing is low. Houses that had earthing are gone now along with trees,” he observed.

Gawher said many people die on the spot after being hit by lightning strikes while others are injured and slowly die as there is no treatment for lightning burns.

Can you fight it?

Ainun Nishat said hotspots for the lightning strikes should be identified properly through scientific studies and effective steps need to be taken to protect people there. “People should be made aware that they shouldn’t be in the open field when black clouds gather in the sky.”

He said the government has taken a step to plant palm trees to lessen the casualties, but it takes at least 20 years to raise such trees to the necessary height. Nishat also said the Disaster Management Bureau has taken a step to install poles or lightning arresters in fields across the country, that he described as a good initiative.

Gawher Nayeem said the Disaster Management Bureau has focused on trees alongside roads, but steps are needed to protect those who work in the fields.

He said the planting of more trees is one of the solutions to save people from lightning strikes. “Lightning arresters should be set up so that they can catch the thunderbolts in the absence of trees. Many electric poles can be turned into arresters easily. Nepal has achieved great success using this.”

Rashim said the government can make people aware through mobile messaging 15-30 minutes before lightning starts striking in any particular area as part of an effective step to check casualties.

Disaster Management Ministry Secretary Mohammad Mohsin told our sister newsagency UNB that high population density and people’s lack of awareness are the main reasons behind the growing lightning casualties.

“There are many countries where the lightning frequency is much higher than Bangladesh but the causality is much lower due to less population density, strong warning systems and better awareness.”

He said they have already taken an initiative to plant palm trees as a long-term protection measure, as the number of taller trees such as date palm, betel nut, coconut and fan palm has declined.

As a short-term measure, Mohsin said, they are now planning to build concrete lightning shelters in haors, baors, beels as farmers and fishermen are the worst victims of the lightning strikes. “We have already built some such shelters in Meherpur’s Gagni upazila.”

Besides, he said, they are focusing on ensuring the installation of lightning arresters in every house to reduce the fatality from such a natural disaster.

The secretary said they are also developing an early warning system so that people can be aware half an hour before the possible lightning strikes: “We need to set up 723 detection stations across the country for developing the warning system. We are working on reducing the lightning fatalities and we’re taking various effective initiatives.”

He stressed to add however that people’s awareness is crucial to lessening the number of casualties.

Farmers’ woes

According to the 2019 study in the International Journal of Disaster Risk Reduction, the agriculture sector accounts for half of all lightning-related fatalities. Lightning fatalities were found to be most frequent in May, and especially during the mornings and afternoons, when farmers are most likely to be tending their fields.

Based on the 37.2 million strikes recorded during 2013—2017 by the Vaisala Global Lightning Dataset GLD360 network — which provides real-time lightning data for accurate and early detection and tracking of severe weather — lightning events were found most frequent in the northeast of the country from mid-April through early June at all hours of the day.

Lightning occurrences are at their lowest ebb during the monsoon and post-monsoon months, which happens to be when farming activities also decline, resulting in lower deaths especially between October to March.

The paper's authors however, say that government agencies have so far not taken adequate initiatives to gather data on lightning-related deaths and have generally considered them to be unimportant in a country known for frequent and large-scale natural disasters.

The Bangladesh government started collecting lightning-related data only after 89 people were killed by strikes on 12 – 13 May 2016. In June that year 79 people were killed by lightning bolts in neighbouring India, a country which records 2,000 such deaths on average, annually. In fact it was only then that the Bangladesh government took the step of categorising lightning as a natural disaster. 

Broad estimates suggest that some 24,000 lightning deaths occur annually across the world, but no efforts have been made to collate figures according to Vaisala.

Link to climate change

Climate change, particularly warming, can be taken to contribute considerably to the rise in lightning strikes, as it enhances both heat and moisture, the key components required for lightning. And there is increasing data to bear out this assumption.

According to the South Asia Lightning Report, 2020 by Earth Networks, a global weather intelligence agency, the region comprising West Bengal in India and Bangladesh, or ‘transboundary Bengal’, is the most vulnerable in South Asia to lethal lightning strikes. Earth Networks has put in place an extensive system that constantly monitors lightning strikes through thousands of sensors.

West Bengal, along with Bangladesh, received 2 million cloud-to-ground lightning bolts during 2020. Cloud-to-ground strikes are the most commonly known type of lightning, and the most dangerous. Apart from this kind, the others most known to us are cloud-to-air, and cloud-to-cloud strikes.

Overall, 57 million lightning strikes were recorded in India, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka together in 2020. Around one-fourth were cloud-to-ground strikes. India received about 39.6 million, a whopping 70 percent of the total number in the region. The country also received nearly 89 percent of all the lethal cloud-to-ground strikes in the world.

 In Bangladesh, about a third or 1 million of the total 3 million lightning bolts were ground strikes. Rajshahi, Khulna, Dhaka and Rangpur districts received the most (over 0.1 million each) cloud-to-ground strikes in the country.

Remarkably, only 4 percent of Sri Lanka’s 14.5 million lightning pulses were ground strikes, an unusually low figure according to experts.

Between April 2020 and March 2021, around 18.5 million lightning strikes were recorded in India, which was a 34 percent increase from the 13.8 million strikes between April 2019 and March 2020.

“Heat waves cater to more thunderstorms, which, in turn trigger more lightning strikes. Bengal delta has been traditionally affected by the lightning strikes mainly during kalbaishakhi winds (norwesters). But the number has increased in recent years,” KJ Ramesh, a former director general of India’s Meteorological Department, told Down To Earth magazine in July.

The Bengal delta, encompassing the Indian state of West Bengal and Bangladesh, is one of the most vulnerable regions for climatic impacts, with high sea-surface water temperatures and cyclones. Lightning is just a "corollary,” scientists say.

A 2015 California University study had projected that an increase in average global temperatures by 1ºC would increase the frequency of lightning by 12 percent.

A regional problem

India suffered 1,697 deaths due to lightning in 2020, according to the Annual Lightning Report 2020-21 — part of the ‘Lightning Resilient India Campaign 2019-22’. It is a joint initiative by Climate Resilient Observing Systems Promotion Council, India Meteorological Department, the Union Ministry of Earth Sciences, Indian Institute of tropical Meteorology, Indian Meteorological Society and World Vision India.

During the last decade (2011-20), India recorded a total of 2,600 deaths a year on an average. Which is much higher than Bangladesh’s total of 2160 for the same period, but once adjusted for population differences, not all that much more. And the formation of the kind of joint initiative as the Lightning Resilient India campaign reflects an advanced awareness that they will surely be looking to spread throughout society in the days ahead.

Given the emphasis on lack of awareness in Bangladesh placed by the experts, Bangladeshis would do well to emulate such initiatives, since fatalities are on the up in Bangladesh as well. A total of 3086 lightning-related fatalities were recorded in Bangladesh from 1990 to June 2016 – a 26-year period, which works out to an average of 118 deaths per year. Compare that to the 216 deaths per year recorded over the last decade, a part of which overlaps with the earlier figure. Out of 3086 deaths, the overwhelming majority had died (1225 persons) whilst carrying out farming activities, followed by deaths within a house (737 persons). Some 332 people died while returning home or walking/resting or wandering in the homestead, whereas 233 perished while fishing, boating and bathing in a waterbody.

The location of lightning fatalities, according to district, indicated that all 64 districts had lightning casualties during the study period (1990-2016) however six districts (Sunamganj, Netrokona, Kishoreganj, Brahmanbaria, Cox’s Bazar and Chapainawabganj) experienced the highest causalities, ranging from 164 to 258.

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