'Fingerprint' of the climate crisis in flooding that has left a third of Bangladesh under water

‘This is a one in 20-year flood event that we are having now for the fifth time in the last two decades’

Louise Boyle
New York
Friday 31 July 2020 20:34 BST
Children carrying tiffin boxes through a flooded street in Dhaka, Bangladesh last week
Children carrying tiffin boxes through a flooded street in Dhaka, Bangladesh last week (EPA/MONIRUL ALAM)

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Around a third of Bangladesh is underwater due to recent catastrophic flooding and the climate crisis has played a role in the devastation, according to experts.

The widespread flooding, which has displaced millions of vulnerable people and caused more than 100 deaths, follows the deadly super-cyclone Amphan which hit the region in May.

The catastrophes bear witness to the fundamental imbalance of the climate emergency: That developing countries like Bangladesh, which have historically contributed little to the pollution driving increased temperatures and rising sea levels, will suffer the greatest impacts.

Dr Saleemul Huq, director of the International Centre for Climate Change and Development (ICCCAD) in Bangladesh, told The Independent that the "fingerprint" of climate change could be seen in the magnitude of the recent disasters.

"I think that this is definitely linked to climate change," Dr Huq said. "This is a one in 20-year flood event that we are having now for the fifth time in the last 20 years.

"The events didn't happen because of climate change but they are definitely more intense because we've interfered with the climate system."

In May, super-cyclone Amphan tore through coastal areas of Bangladesh, a low-lying, heavily-populated country of 162 million people, along with neighbouring regions of India. The cyclone killed more than 100 people and impacted at least 1 million, according to the United Nations, wiping out villages and essential infrastructure with the cost of damage estimated at $11.5 billion.

Torrential monsoon rains this month have compounded the suffering, sending water rushing from hilly areas and causing dangerously high water levels in two of Bangladesh's major rivers, the Brahmaputra and the Meghna.

The Bangladesh Directorate General of Health Services said this week that 129 people had died in the floods, according to a report in the Dhaka Tribune. More than 100 Bangladeshis, mostly children, had drowned while other deaths were attributed to water-borne diseases. More than 3.3 million people had been impacted the flooding and a third of the total are children, according to UNICEF.

Millions of Bangladeshis have little in the way of resources to fall back on, in a country where one in five people live below the poverty line and the average wage is less than $5 a day.

Across India, Bangladesh and Nepal, some 550 people have died and millions more have been displaced from their homes, said the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.

Although Bangladesh is regularly hit by flooding, the coronavirus pandemic is further complicating the response. Jagan Chapagain, secretary general of the IFRC, told AP that South Asia could face a humanitarian crisis.

“People in Bangladesh, India and Nepal are sandwiched in a triple disaster of flooding, the coronavirus and an associated socioeconomic crisis of loss of livelihoods and jobs,” he said. “Flooding of farmlands and destruction of crops can push millions of people, already badly impacted by Covid-19, further into poverty.”

Dr Huq pointed to the direct impacts that global heating had in intensifying Amphan into a super-cyclone in the Bay of Bengal. "Sea surface temperature aggravates the cyclone and makes it more intense," he said.

The impact of the climate crisis on flooding is more complicated but studies have shown that monsoon rains are increasingly unpredictable and rivers are rising to higher levels than in the past.

A monsoon climate change assessment by the American Meteorological Society in June found that “continued global warming and urbanisation over the past century has already caused a significant rise in the intensity and frequency of extreme rainfall events in all monsoon regions”.

While discussing the need for early warning systems to boost resilience to disasters, World Meteorological Organisation Secretary-General Petteri Taalas noted this week that “climate change is increasing the risk of extreme rainfall events, flooding and coastal inundation”.

Dr Huq wrote this week that “it is now apparent that the year 2020 is clearly the year in which the impact of climate change can be identified in both Cyclone Amphan that hit Bangladesh and India a few months ago, as well as the current flooding which is affecting millions of people as well as crops and property”.

Bangladesh is widely-recognised as one of the most climate-vulnerable countries on the planet with impacts expected to intensify in the coming decades. The number of Bangladeshis displaced by the climate crisis could reach 13.3 million by 2050, according to a 2018 World Bank report.

The recent disasters bring into sharp focus the ongoing calls from developing countries to their wealthier counterparts to address the inequities, the so-called “loss and damage” of the climate crisis.

A study in June found that 10 per cent of the world’s most affluent people are responsible for between 25 and 43 per cent of environmental impact. In contrast, the world’s bottom 10 per cent income earners exert only around 3–5% of environmental impact.

Dr Huq, a lead author of the chapter on Adaptation and Sustainable Development in the third assessment report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), said that “loss and damage” was recognised under the UN convention on climate change but remained a deeply political issue and a “taboo” subject in the developed world.

"We are now seeing inevitable loss and damage that is no longer natural but is manmade," he said. "Under the framework, vulnerable developing countries have been demanding some financial mechanism or funding to be made available, to compensate the victims of climate change."

He said that the UK in particular could no longer avoid the issue as the host of the next UN Climate Change Conference, known as COP26, in Glasgow in November 2021.

"I think that they're going to have to deal with it now," Dr Huq said. "It's inevitable, it's happening and it's attributable. They can't avoid talking about it."

Contributing wire reports

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