Coping with Natural Disaster

December 19, 2007


Tahmina Shafique reveals how the intensity and frequency of extreme weather events like floods and cyclones are on the rise in Bangladesh, and it is now a scientific fact that climate change is the culprit

As the storm gathers in the distant dark sky, Mojirun Khatun looks at what used to be her home – a little bamboo shack on the edges of the river Jamuna in Gaibandha. Hardly anything is left. The flood has robbed her of whatever belongings she had, even the kitchen utensils. All she is left with is a little polythene bag and the dry bread in it. Nature has never been kind to her. In the past ten years, Mojirun Khatun, now 45, has moved from one char (silt shoal) to the other. ‘Every time there was a storm or flood, I had to move out. I have so far lived in 30 different chars in my life,’ she says. ‘My family has suffered greatly but we have never given up, although it has become so much more difficult in recent years.’
   Floods and storms are regular phenomenon in Bangladesh. Every year the country, which is almost the size of the US state of Ohio but has a population of 150 million, is visited by flood and storm of varying intensity. In the past few years, there seems to have been an increase in both their intensity and frequency. Hot on the heels of back-to-back floods, cyclone Sidr hit the south-western coast, accompanied by a tidal bore. As of November 21, the official death figure stood at 3,167, with hundreds of people still missing in 15 coastal districts. Hundreds of thousands of people have been made homeless. Telecommunications and electricity supply were disrupted for at least 36 hours after the cyclone made its landfall.
   Storms batter Bangladesh each year causing hundreds of deaths. Cyclone Bhola, perhaps the deadliest tropical cyclone ever recorded, hit the Ganges Delta in November 1970 leaving up to half a million people dead. Another powerful storm killed over 100,000 people in 1991. In between 1961 and 1998, Bangladesh has seen more than 30 cyclones. And then there have been frequent floods – eight major floods in the same period. In 1998, more than half of Bangladesh’s surface area was flooded, affecting over 30 million people. More recently, in 2004, floods inundated 38 per cent of the country, killing over 800 people, destroying three quarters of the standing crop and leaving 10 million people homeless.
   ‘The last two decades have witnessed abnormally frequent and intense flooding,’ points out Dr Ainun Nishat, country representative of the International Union for Conservation of Nature in Bangladesh. ‘This year, flooding continued for a longer period of time. One of the major symptoms of climate change – more concentrated rainfall in fewer days – was also observed. This year the country experienced 300.5 millimetres of rainfall and it took months for the water to recede. Moreover, we saw flooding in three phases, which is extremely unusual.’
   He says ongoing warnings concerning the impact of global warming and the previous claims have been strongly established in the 2007 report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change – the UN taskforce on global warming. The report says: ‘Warming of the climate system is unequivocal; most of the observed increase in globally averaged temperatures since the mid-20th century is very likely due to the observed increase in anthropogenic (human) greenhouse gas concentrations; and anthropogenic warming and sea level rise would continue for centuries due to the timescales associated with climate processes and feedbacks, even if greenhouse gas concentrations were to be stabilised.’
   ‘The link between climate change and Bangladesh’s natural disasters is proving to be extremely robust,’ says Dr Saleemul Huq, an IPCC scientist and director of the London-based International Institute for Environment and Development. ‘Floods of the magnitude Bangladesh has been experiencing recently have historically occurred at most once every 20 years.’
   In the past two decades, Bangladesh has experienced five floods of such magnitude, indicating a five-fold rise in frequency.
   ‘If we analyse the Met Office data in the last 30 years the total rainfall has not changed. However, the number of days with heavy rainfall has increased and hence the concentrated rainfall has gone up – one of the affirmations of the existence of global warming,’ points out Dr Mozaharul Alam, a research fellow at the Bangladesh Centre for Advanced Studies. ‘Now, it is expected that the phenomenon of flooding along with tidal waves, cyclones and erratic weather behaviour will increase.’
   While the central and southern regions of the country are prone to frequent floods, the north-western region, which is already prone to drought, is likely to experience a slow desertification, say researchers. ‘Due to the erratic weather, even during the monsoon months, while some parts are hit by flood, others are experiencing drought. While this year saw three peaks of flooding, last year we also saw droughts in the north-western regions, culminating in a mild and short-lived winter,’ says Atiq Rahman, the BCAS executive director.
   A significant number of people live on an elevation of less than 3 feet (1 metre) above sea level and inhabit the flat banks of the rivers Ganges and Brahmaputra. While it is expected that average global rainfall will increase as a result of global warming, not every point on the planet would experience greater rainfall. Evaporation and precipitation occur at different places, and while wet regions could receive even more rainfall if the planet warms, drier regions may have even more acute shortages of water as evaporation is accelerated in those areas. The Sahel, for example, has become drier over the past several decades, accelerating desertification and placing an even greater premium on already-stretched water supplies.
   Experts further point out that the most profoundly damaging impact of climate change in Bangladesh will take the form of salinity intrusion and droughts along with flood – all of which will drastically affect crop productivity, food security and livelihood. ‘We will face increased riverbank erosion, a rise in the level of seawater and the lack of freshwater in the coastal zones. The prognosis is more extreme floods in a country already devastated by them; less food for a country in which half our children already don’t have enough to eat; and less clean water for a country where waterborne diseases are already responsible for 24 per cent of all deaths,’ says Atiq.
   Contributing to this prognosis is the gradual recession of the country’s seafront, causing saltwater to enter further inland, thereby making large tracts of agricultural land unsuitable for crops and resulting in undrinkable ground and surface water. ‘The salinity increase will not only impoverish coastal populations, but the accompanying water-logging inside areas lined with embankments is going to become a long-term problem,’ Nishat says. Experts say this phenomenon is already discernable in Bangladesh, particularly along the coastal belt.
   Global temperature data indicates that earth’s surface temperature has risen by between 0.4 and 0.8 degrees Celsius, whereas the sea level has risen by 0.10 to 0.25 metres, all within the past 100 years. Experts believe this is the largest change in global temperatures in the last 1,000 years. This has increasingly dire consequences for Bangladesh. According to the UN Environment Programme, a 1-metre rise in sea levels could displace over 17 million people — roughly 15 per cent of the total population.
   Some of these consequences are already visible. Three primary ways in which extreme weather events are manifested in Bangladesh include increasing frequency of cyclones and storm surges, droughts and flash floods in hilly regions. Such phenomena can have a severe impact on agriculture – for example, in Manikganj, floods and water-logging this year have damaged the entire crop of aman rice, one of the staples of the Bangladeshi diet. This has severe implications on the livelihood and food production in the entire country, and is estimated to affect between 5 and 7 million people. In addition, it is estimated that climate change can result in the displacement of approximately 13 crore people across the country.
   The Kyoto Protocol, one of the earliest global initiatives to counter global warming, is now in doubt, as the funding of the programme has been halted indefinitely. In this context, it is now necessary for countries to develop their own strategies to adapt to climate change that results from global warming.
   ‘Adaptation’ can mean anything from building dams to experimenting with crop varieties for better harvests. ‘In Bangladesh, we are preparing the national adaptation plan of action which will be a detailed blueprint of how we will respond and adapt to these changes in climate patterns,’ says Nishat. However, Mozahar points out that, for the success of any strategies for adaptation, it is necessary to generate information that is relevant to the agriculture industry. This requires intensive capacity building initiatives for all stakeholders. ‘Bangladesh needs to be more responsive to the erratic behaviour of climate change.’
   Nishat concurs with this need for capacity building. ‘In addition to stronger capacity, Bangladesh needs more funds to adapt the protocols. Global warming and the resulting climate change are both very important global issues.’
   As Bangladesh strives to achieve its Millennium Development Goals, climate change and extreme weather events have become increasingly pertinent in the development agenda, especially since they impact livelihoods and food security of the poor by causing severe damage to agriculture, the life blood of the poorest. For millions of individuals like Mojirun across the country, an effective strategy to mitigate the effects of climate change is a prerequisite to ensuring their survival and sustainability in the face of such adversity.

One comment

  1. very useful write-up. but still we have many fundamental understanding on the impact of climate change due. I hope this article will inspire. K

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