Dramatic Drop in Bangladesh Deaths Shows Value of Linking Satellites, UN-Backed Group Says

Wednesday, November 21st 2007, 6:11 pm
By: News On 6

GENEVA (AP) -- Improvements to a global network of early warning systems helped save many lives in Bangladesh last week when a powerful cyclone pummeled the country's southwestern coast, an intergovernmental group said Wednesday.

The government's official death toll Wednesday stood at 3,167, with 1,724 people missing. Though the Bangladesh Red Crescent Society has suggested the final figure could be around 10,000.

But the toll could have been much higher if authorities had not used weather alerts to get people into emergency shelters in time, said Jose Achache, director of the 73-nation Group on Earth Observations, a new body working to link the world's weather satellites.

``Bangladesh has a long history of major cyclones that have killed tens and even hundreds of thousands of people,'' said Achache, whose two-year-old organization is outside the United Nations but receives U.N. support.

While last week's deaths were ``certainly dreadful,'' he said, the death toll could have been much higher and showed there has been a significant improvement in preparedness.

``We have now the observing capability and the modeling capability to observe the formation of the tropical storm, and its transformation into a hurricane,'' he said, adding that scientists also can analyze a storm to ``predict the evolution of its intensity and to predict its trajectory, and where and when it's going to be landing.''

However, serious problems remain in coordinating, interpreting and relaying the raw data currently being collected.

This was pointed up by Hassan Mashriqui of Louisiana State University. The Bangladesh-born hurricane expert said he acted on his own to warn authorities in his homeland where the storm would hit based on his own calculations.

He told The Associated Press that he was informed that his forecast raised the ``highest possible red flag'' with Bangladesh authorities.

Three similar storms that have hit Bangladesh during the past 40 years demonstrate the strides that have been made in disaster preparedness, Achache said.

A cyclone that hit the Bangladesh coast in 1970 killed 300,000 people, he said. Forecasting and disaster preparedness around the world improved significantly over the next two decades, and the death toll when the next major storm hit in 1991 was less than half that figure, with 140,000 people killed.

The United States, European Union, China and Russia already are making information available to developing countries from their satellites and are using the same standards so that systems can work together. But much more work will need to be done to create a global earth observation system.

``Essentially we are trying to network all the observing systems of the planet that have been put in place by different nations and organizations over the past 20 years and which will continue to be put in place,'' Achache said. ``These observing systems do not work in a coordinated way and there's a tremendous loss of efficiency.''