Master of Advanced Studies
in Humanitarian Logistics and Management


Just Lying There: What to do with the Dead - E.S.

Challenges and difficulties associated with the planning of the dead body management after a major earthquake -  Case study of Dhaka, Bangladesh.

by Radislav Čičić



Short problem description and motivation

The challenges of managing the dead in the context of Bangladesh and specifically Dhaka city are enormous and would challenge any state. Overpopulation and lack of land and space are two of the main physical challenges which make planning and preparedness for response so difficult. Managing the dead post-disaster is documented (Cordner et al. 2016) via a set of guidelines, but this needs to be contextualized according to each country and context. Protocols for managing the dead need to ensure that the body is treated in a dignified way, and respect for the loss of the families, need to respect local laws and to limit the impact of trauma due to the experience of the event and the loss of loved ones.

Bangladesh is a disaster-prone country, be it cyclones, tsunamis or earthquakes and while Bangladesh has made tremendous progress in terms of saving lives due to cyclones, there is a risk that this success could cause the nation to forget about the need to continue to be prepared for and respond to the loss of life due to an earthquake. Here, the saving out of sight out of mind could apply here. The legal framework to prepare for and respond to natural disasters exists, but it needs to evolve and reflect the needs. Currently, the approach to the DM act and the SoD is more of less that these are blueprint documents. They are legally binding documents but they need to reflect the reality, or the government needs to facilitate the duty bearers in being prepared, equipped and responsive.


Short discussion of the approach

Research began by focusing on what information was available globally on managing the dead, focusing in its review to discuss it into the perspective of Bangladesh. The current legal framework for disaster preparedness which exists in Bangladesh was also considered. To further discuss the topic in the Bangladesh context, some key questions were defined for interviews with stakeholders in Dhaka. Then, the analysis is presented considering the international guidelines or good practice together with the responses by interviewees, resulting in some recommendations to address the dead body management in an earthquake scenario in Bangladesh.


Short description of findings

  • In short, when it comes to earthquake preparedness and mass fatality planning the current legal framework is not entirely fit for purpose. It needs to be reviewed and upgraded to reflect the practicalities of earthquake preparedness and specifically mass fatality planning and response. Consideration to be given whether or not a law to govern should be considered concerning the disposal of bodies post-disaster in large numbers for those who remain unclaimed.
  • Leadership and coordination are laid out clearly in the SoD, but in reality, this is not the case. Committees are reportedly not meeting, a lack of clarity on roles and responsibilities exists, while in some cases staff lacks training and capacity to handle the subject. While the hardware equipment remains a gap too.
  • Preplanning based on scenarios is a high recommendation made in the thesis. This will help bring a sense of reality to a situation which to some will never happen, or they are too scared to think about the implications of such a disaster.
  • Engagement of non-traditional actors such as religious leaders is essential in the pre-planning and post-disaster stage. The purpose would be to assist duty bearers in breaking the taboo surrounding discussions which need to take place in mass burials. Nothing that mass burials are the less preferred option, but in case of need or no other options being available then there may not be any other option. It should not be ruled out, and it should be put on the table to begin sooner rather than later to unpack the issues relating to mass burials in the context of Bangladesh.


Short contribution of the work toward addressing the problem

It was noticed that the discussions with stakeholders during the interviews allowed for same focused discussions on the issue and the implications some responded by saying that the points raised were important and very relevant that they would bring these up with their colleagues, organizations and the government in some instances. Therefore, the study allowed for some dialogue to take place and hopefully this will trickle through the various channels.

I am happy to share the findings and recommendations with stakeholders in Dhaka to ensure some follow up on points, also with donors and government interlocutors. This could be done by email, skype or in person should the funding be there.

Possible areas for future research could be to develop:

  • A mass fatality plan for Dhaka based on the 4 scenarios, based on good practice but targeting the local context. In conjunction to map out the plan.
  • Develop a set of key messages which could contribute towards a nationwide information campaign on earthquake preparedness in general but also focusing on some key messages which could support a possible mass fatality response.
  • Consider the possibilities and opportunities of engaging religious leaders on mass fatality planning in Bangladesh intending to further understanding how this could be improved, integrated into the planning, key messages developed which religious leaders could use to build the awareness of their communities.
  • Undertake a meta-review of research related to earthquakes in Bangladesh and mass fatality planning, coordination forums, various donor-funded programs on earthquake preparedness and response with a view towards capitalizing on these by incorporating in mass fatality planning. 


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