Virtually every ancient mythological system included a deity who was fond of hurling lightning bolts at unfortunate humans. Concocting the notion of such violence-from-above certainly took little imagination on the folklorists’ parts, since lightning fatalities were commonplace in bygone times. In fact, as the chart above shows, it is not until quite recently that the American population has become urbanized enough to make lightning deaths a true rarity. The equation is fairly simple: the less time a nation’s people spend toiling in the fields, the less likely they are to be killed by lightning.
That axiom is cold comfort to countries that still experience high numbers of lightning-related fatalities and injuries, of course. A Nigerian tragedy recently made headlines, but it is Bangladesh that bears the brunt of the world’s misery here: a quarter of the 24,000 deaths attributed to lightning each year occur in the massive South Asian nation. (See how lightning stacks up against other natural disasters here.) Assuming that urbanization in Bangladesh and similarly afflicted countries continues apace, the problem should decrease over the decades. But in the meantime, is there a quick-and-easy solution to saving thousands of rural dwellers each year?
This is one of the rare instances in which my skepticism about public-education campaigns melts, and I see the wisdom in simply spreading the word about the dangers of electrical storms. As emphasized in this account of Cambodia’s recent bout with lightning, farm workers remain appallingly unaware of both the hazards of the phenomenon, as well as the appropriate ways to minimize their chances of getting hit. Perhaps there is a role for NGOs to play, by sponsoring the building of simple lightning-proof lean-tos where farmers can take refuge when caught out in the fields. (Anything beats hiding under a tree.) But the humble pamphlet or (give literacy rates) public lecture may be the real savior here.
More on historical trends in lightning fatalities here (PDF).