DHAKA, Bangladesh - Sitting where three tectonic plates meet, Bangladesh is one of the most active seismic regions in the world. The 2021 Disaster Response Exercise and Exchange (DREE) Oct. 26-28 focused on the dual disasters of earthquake management during a pandemic.
More than 300 representatives of 147 organizations and nearly 30 countries participated in this year's three-day conference and tabletop exercise. Attendees included representatives from government, non-government agencies and the military — represented for the United States by the Oregon National Guard, Bangladesh's partner under the Defense Department's State Partnership Program.
"Bangladesh is one of the most disaster-prone countries in the world, and in the past, cyclones and floods affected our country severely, and many lives were lost," said Brigadier General Md Golam Faruque, director, Bangladesh Military Operations Army Headquarters, during the opening of DREE 2021. "Over the years, our nation has made significant progress in the preparations in the face of disaster management and has been recognized worldwide."
The Bhola Cyclone of 1970, before Bangladesh's independence in 1972, still ranks as the deadliest tropical cyclone ever recorded and one of the world's deadliest natural disasters, claiming over 500,000 lives.
"The nation has made critical changes over the past 50 years with cyclone shelters and investments in other protective infrastructure projects and preparedness measures," said Farugue.
Abdullah Al Arif, deputy secretary, Ministry of Disaster Management and Relief, emphasized this during his presentation, noting people in Asia and the Pacific region are "four times more at risk than those in Africa and 25 times more than in Europe or North America to environmental adversities."
The DREE concentrated on earthquake preparedness, as Bangladesh is vulnerable to seismic activity of the Indian, Eurasian and Burmese plates. Al Arif said an earthquake of 7.0 magnitude or higher around Dhaka City would require immediate international assistance, with more than 50% of the buildings in danger of collapsing.
"The government of Bangladesh has made significant achievements in earthquake management such as guideline regulations, risk identification, community building and engagement of volunteers," he said, "We should continue to work as a 'whole of society approach,' towards building an earthquake-resilient nation."
Dr. Md Enamur Rahman, state minister for disaster management and relief, said during super-cyclone Amphan in 2020, 2.4 million people were evacuated to many of these cyclone shelters in just one day despite mitigation procedures for the COVID-19 pandemic.
"Larger-scale disasters like earthquakes are due to the country's location and history of devastating events," he said, noting that nearly 50 earthquakes on a smaller scale have occurred in the region the past six years. "This reminds us to make the necessary enhancements for response and risk reduction."
One of the fundamental objectives of the annual DREE meetings is to learn from recent disaster response efforts and share best practices.
Richard Ragan, the World Food Program (WFP) director for Bangladesh, addressed readiness as a key factor with the recent 7.8 magnitude earthquake that struck neighboring Nepal in April 2015.
The WFP established a humanitarian staging area just one month before the earthquake next to Kathmandu airport in Nepal. Regan said this helped survivors receive emergency supplies much faster.
"We saw how essential this was for the movement of supplies in and out of the country," he said, noting each nation in the region has different constraints. "In creating humanitarian staging areas for earthquakes, we are doing the same thing in Bangladesh by preposition supplies near the airport."
This year's DREE, the 10th annual engagement between the government of Bangladesh and the U.S. Army Pacific, was smaller due in part to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Oregon Air National Guard Chief Master Sgt. Denise Phillips talked about gender and vulnerable populations during a pandemic and said she came away motivated about the future for women in Bangladesh.
"The biggest takeaway for me was the conversations that took place with younger people after the presentation and question-and-answer session," she said. "The effects of the pandemic have created economic stress in families, especially toward women, but I found that there are real pathways of change and pathways of hope with this next generation.
"These younger people are eager to make a difference," she said. "Helping to open that dialogue for future leaders who want to be part of effecting change was inspiring on many levels. This was a meaningful opportunity to allow them to open up and also not feel alone."
On the second day, attendees split into 13 groups for a tabletop exercise based on a 6.8 earthquake scenario in Dhaka city.
On the final day of DREE 2021, Nathan Rodgers from the Institute for Security Governance in the United States led an after-action review of the presentations and the tabletop exercise.
"When we talk about benefits for events like the DREE, we talk a great deal about building trust, or the expression we like to keep in mind is, 'You cannot surge trust' in times of an emergency, it has to be already established," he said.
The feedback session also highlighted citizen preparedness, military and civilian partnerships and learning from best practices.
"There is a common understanding among the emergency management community that being out in front of any situation is vital," Rodgers said. "You have to determine whether you are 'going through it or growing through it.' "
A formal closing ceremony allowed attendees to highlight the importance of meeting face-to-face again for this year's DREE.
"Exercises like DREE reflect real-world disaster scenarios and offer valuable opportunities to improve civilian and military cooperation," said Earl R. Miller, U.S. ambassador to the People's Republic of Bangladesh.
"For over five decades now, the United States has been committed to supporting Bangladesh, and I am really proud of these joint efforts, especially over the past two years, because ultimately, they help save lives."