Lightning strikes claimed the lives of nine people, including five from the same family, at Sirajganj’s Ullapara in the first week of September and experts think the loss of lives could have been avoided if there were lightning rods in the area.
Md Ujjal Hossain, the Upazila Nirbahi Officer or UNO, said the authorities had placed experimental lightning rods at Upazila’s Udhunia and Bara Pangashi Unions following the incident.
The government is focusing on containing the damage caused by lightning strikes in 15 other districts like Sirajganj, which is a hotspot for such incidents. The Ministry of Disaster Management and Relief has funds of Tk 190 million for this in the 2021-22 financial year, according to the Department of Disaster Management.
The project aims to set up 335 lightning rods and lightning insulation machines, known as lightning arresters, in 135 Upazilas across 15 districts.
In 2016, the government declared lightning a disaster taking its frequency in the country and the rate of deaths it causes into account.
Experts said although the months of March, April and May see a higher propensity for lightning strikes, the change of seasons may bring bolts down from the sky from May to September as well.
Lightning rods and other measures can keep everything within 100m of it safe. Md Atiqul Haque, the director general of the Department of Disaster Management, said those placed in different areas for testing are showing good results.
The ministry put Dhaka University’s Department of Meteorology in charge of the feasibility assessment of providing safety to people, animals, infrastructures, electrical establishments and machinery, among other things, from lightning strikes. They delivered a report in March this year.
Lightning strikes killed around 2,575 people in the decade between 2011 to 2021.
From 2018-2021, as many as 527 people died in 15 districts prone to lightning strikes.
About 93 percent of these deaths occur in rural areas, of which 86 percent happen in open spaces.
Lightning strikes kill around 200-300 people in the country every day on average.
Bangladesh is ranked fifth globally in terms of deaths caused by lightning strikes.
DISTRICTS PRONE TO LIGHTNING STRIKES
According to the report, Netrokona, Kishoreganj, Jamalpur, Mymensingh, Sunamganj, Habiganj, Rajshahi, Nawabganj, Pabna, Naogaon, Sirajganj, Bogura, Gaibandha, Lalmonirhat, Dinajpur districts are most prone to lightning strikes.
The Department of Disaster Management guided the officials every step of the way in determining the spots to place lightning rods and arresters, setting up IOT facilities, coordinating with the ministry, ensuring central monitoring and going through procurement.
WHY LIGHTNING OCCURS
Meteorologists say thunderstorms occur when cumulonimbus clouds form. With an anvil-shaped top, they are convective clouds or cloud systems that produce lightning, large hail, severe wind gusts, tornadoes, and heavy rainfall. Surface air is warmed by the sun-heated ground surface and rises; if sufficient atmospheric moisture is present, water droplets will condense as the air mass encounters cooler air at higher altitudes. The rapid cooling of the temperature stirs the surrounding air mass and creates thunderclouds.
Prof Towhida Rashid, chairman of DU’s meteorology department, said they had been carrying out the feasibility study with assistance from the ministry. They also recommended raising awareness and kickstarting forecasts in the zones prone to lightning strikes.
The lightning rods and arresters, she added, will provide safety for people within 100m diameter of its reach.
The frequency of lightning strikes has increased over the past few years and are expected to rise further in the future, Prof Rashid said. “The climate change-induced events are becoming extreme. Placing more arresters to prevent lightning strikes should be fruitful.”
She stressed the importance of “raising awareness and providing accurate forecasts”.
LIGHTNING RODS: These are made of copper, aluminium and other metals with very low electrical resistance. It allows high voltage electricity to reach the ground safely and smoothly. These 9-12m rods consist of GI pipe and copper wires.
LIGHTNING ARRESTERS: The devices will sit atop the lightning rods. They primarily draw lightning within a particular distance towards the rods and send them down through it. These devices will always remain active and will feature counters to display the number of lightning strikes they encounter.
The Department of Disaster Management chief Atiqul said the work will pay off only when lightning strikes the rods. “We’ve tried to show where to place them. If lightning strikes still cause deaths, it’ll be clear that the work was not effective. If no fatalities happen, we’ll know that it worked.”
“We’re getting reports from the field. We’ll be able to speak about the benefits once we get a full report after setting up the devices is complete in all the places.”
In Sirajganj, the authorities have set up 14 lightning arresters at vulnerable and crowded places in seven Upazilas, said Aktaruzzaman, the district’s relief and rehabilitation officer.
PALM TREES SCRAPPED AS GOVT PLANS TK 12BN PROJECT
The government had planned to plant 10 million doub palm trees across the country to save people from lightning strikes, but State Minister for Relief and Disaster Management Enamur Rahman said in May the programme was scrapped.
He said the government noticed after planting 3.8 million trees that the trees were dying due to a lack of care. “This is why we scrapped the programme. And it takes 30 to 40 years for a palm tree to grow up.”
Now the ministry wants to take up an around Tk 12 billion programme to set up lightning rods and arresters. It also proposed to build special sheds in the wetland Haor region.
Atiqul, DG of the Department of Disaster Management, said Dhaka University’s meteorology department conducted a feasibility study based on which a project in 15 selected districts will be taken.
The ministry sent the project proposal to the Planning Commission.
Atiqul, however, said the palm tree plantation project was not totally scrapped. “It has become a regular programme because we are prioritising lightning arresters now.”
He said the palm trees will be planted along the roads being developed under the Test Relief programme.
State Minister Enamur had earlier spoke of plans to raise awareness about lightning and launch an early warning system for mobile phones.
[Writing in English by Syed Mahmud Onindo; additional reporting by Israil Hossain Babu in Sirajganj]