Devastating floods in Bangladesh have displaced millions of people and left vast swathes of land inundated, with state officials in the hardest-hit Sylhet district calling it the worst flooding in over one hundred years.
Experts say the disaster hitting Bangladesh and northeastern India, in which at least 59 people have died so far, is a timely reminder of the damage already being wrought by extreme weather events exacerbated by the climate crisis.
Enamur Rahman, Bangladesh’s junior minister for disaster and relief, said on Monday that hundreds of thousands of people have been evacuated in the Sunamganj and Sylhet districts, and about four million people have been marooned in the area, the United News of Bangladesh agency reported.
People in the northeastern region have been entirely cut off from the rest of the country by failed communication lines. Schools have been converted into makeshift shelters and on Friday, the army was deployed to help people reach these facilities. Even so, there are many reports of emergency workers struggling to reach those affected.
Officials are warning that the country is facing a massive humanitarian crisis, following severe flooding earlier this year that left millions of people displaced.
Bangladesh, a densely populated nation of 160 million people, is low-lying and is more likely to experience natural disasters such as floods and cyclones, made worse by climate change.
It is home to several major rivers including the Brahmaputra Jamuna, Surma, and the Kushiyara, all of which have been rising simultaneously due to a constant downpour which may continue for some time.
There have been repeated warnings that the frequency and severity of extreme weather events in the region will rise due to climate change. According to the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), about 17 per cent of people in Bangladesh will need to be relocated over the next decade if global warming persists at the present rate.
According to Dr Anjal Prakash, a research director at the Hyderabad-based Bharti Institute of Public Policy who has also been working in Bangladesh for over a decade, the warning signs have been very clear that “these extreme weather events are going to be on the rise”.
“This is unprecedented, but not unpredictable,” says Dr Prakash, “because as the climate is getting warmer and warmer, we would see that the incidents are more common in the future.”
While a specific weather event can’t be attributed entirely to climate change, experts say there is a strong connection between climate change and early monsoon rains and excessive flash floods.
“Studies have shown that the Himalayan region’s rainfall patterns have been changing, leading to unpredictable weather,” says Dr Prakash, who was also a lead author on the IPCC’s Fifth Assessment Report published in 2014.
“Due to climate change, a wetter climate has been predicted for this region. However, the rainfall variability means that the seasons‘ rainfall may happen in 2-3 high rainfall events while the rest of the days would be a dry spell,” he adds.
The early arrival of flash floods in Bangladesh left farmers in turmoil as the country’s main rice crop was only half-ripe when the rainfall began in April.
According to professor AKM Saiful Islam of the Institute of Water and Flood Management (IWFM) in Bangladesh, farmers in the region could not harvest the half-ripe produce even if they wished to because of the lack of sunlight and days of relentless rain, and they did not have access to mechanised rice driers. As a result, thousands of hectares of boro (summer rice) fields were damaged.
Experts say the impacts of such an event, both in terms of displacement of the population and agricultural losses, will result in a substantial hit to GDP for countries like Bangladesh as these disasters become more frequent.
“The losses will almost certainly increase inequality, as the poorest people will be worst affected,” said Dr Saleemul Huq, director of the International Centre for Climate Change and Development (ICCCAD). “Moreover, these floods are occurring in both Bangladesh as well as India, and thus the cross-border impacts will be severe.”
While every year there are demands to improve the response to such disasters, limited resources make the process of improving civic infrastructure or dredging rivers a challenge for the country.
“One can plan for a normal monsoon and a little harsher monsoon,” says Dr Prakash, “but you can’t plan something that is unprecedented. The people in these places are highly vulnerable and it is something that is beyond planning.”
The devastating situation in Bangladesh emerged just as the mid-year UN climate talks in Bonn wrapped up last week after a disappointing fortnight of negotiations relating to the issue of loss and damage.
Alex Scott, lead climate diplomacy expert at the E3G think tank, described talks as “divorced from reality” given the extreme weather impacts in 2022 so far and IPCC science reports.
While the talks, involving nearly 200 countries, were aimed at making some progress on long-term climate finance, analysts say they ended with little progress on the matter.
“At a time when vulnerable countries are facing terrifying consequences, what we have here in Bonn is a betrayal of vulnerable communities and countries,” said Mohamed Adow, the director of Power Shift Africa, on Thursday.
“It is disgraceful that rich countries are not treating loss and damage and climate finance with the seriousness they deserve.”
The disappointing session in Bonn comes right after a climate-induced heatwave across South Asia – and just five months before the annual Cop27 climate summit begins in Egypt, where the issue of adaptation finance will again be on the table.