Chittagong — Emergency workers in Bangladesh on Thursday stepped up the search for victims of the country’s worst ever landslides, with mounting claims that the disaster was made worse by unchecked development.
Rescuers found two more bodies, including that of a woman apparently washed away, taking the death toll from floods and landslides across southeast Bangladesh to 154.
"We think she was washed away by strong currents during Tuesday’s landslides," local fire chief Didarul Alam said. "We have stepped up our rescue work in the five worst affected spots. But it’s a huge struggle to dig through [1.2m] of mud. Also villagers were not sure where the bodies were buried."
Emergency workers also found the body of a soldier missing since Tuesday, army spokesperson Rashidul Hasan said.
The landslides were the deadliest in the country’s history, eclipsing the previous highest death toll of 127 a decade ago.
Bijoy Giri Chakma, an elected tribal leader in the hardest-hit district of Rangamati, said the landslides were the worst he had ever seen, and blamed unplanned construction and the large-scale cutting of trees for the scale of the disaster.
"Trees have been felled indiscriminately, which loosens the soil. A lot of these hills are now completely barren," said Chakma.
His views chimed with those of local rights activists.
"The disaster is man-made. But there is a tendency to blame nature for this," said Sheepa Hafiza, head of the rights group Ain o Salish Kendra, at a news briefing on Wednesday.
Authorities say hundreds of homes were buried by mud and rubble sent cascading down hillsides after monsoon rains dumped 343mm of water on the southeast of the country in just 24 hours.
Disaster Management Department chief Reaz Ahmed said teams had begun to assess the full extent of the damage left by two days of incessant rains in the Chittagong hills, which cover one-tenth of the country’s landmass. Authorities have opened 18 shelters in the worst-hit hill districts, where 4,500 people have been evacuated.
The monsoon rains came two weeks after Cyclone Mora smashed into Bangladesh’s southeast, killing at least eight people and damaging tens of thousands of homes.
South Asia is frequently hit by flooding and landslides in the summer with the arrival of the annual monsoon rains.
More than 200 people were killed in Sri Lanka in May when the monsoon triggered landslides and the worst flooding the island has seen in well over a decade.