Climate change: Bangladesh lashed by cyclones

Lebubunia village in Bangladesh has been rebuilt on the edge of a 3m-wide earthen embankment by the river Kobadak with huts made from bamboo to protect residents from saline water. -- PHOTO: ASIA NEWS NETWORK
Lebubunia village in Bangladesh has been rebuilt on the edge of a 3m-wide earthen embankment by the river Kobadak with huts made from bamboo to protect residents from saline water. -- PHOTO: ASIA NEWS NETWORK

DHAKA - Lebubunia village is a symbol of survival as it stands on the edge of a 3m-wide earthen wall by the river Kobadak.

It is also a reminder of the threat Bangladesh faces as a result of climate change. In 2009, a storm surge breached the embankment and swept away nearby houses. Mercifully, most of the villagers found safety in nearby cyclone shelters, thanks to an early warning system.

Most of the evacuees eventually got back to their old lives but for Mr Rustam Gazi and many others, there was nowhere to go - the land on which their houses once stood had been eroded by the river. Home is now one of many bamboo huts built by the government in the aftermath of the storm. "Four of us - me and my wife and two children - have been living in this hut for the last three years," he said.

"Our life is stuck on the embankment. It seems my grandson who was born on this embankment would have to spend his life like this if we do not move from here," said another villager, Mr Amirul, who goes by one name.

His hut is about 1.5m high. There is no furniture inside, only a woven mattress made of date leaves. "I had everything. A big house upon an acre of land, a shrimp farm," he said, pointing towards the river, nearly 46m away from the embankment.

Thousands from other villages living in 14 districts of the south-west coast live in danger of ending up in a similar plight - homes swept away by cyclones, land inundated by tidal waves.

"This is just one cyclone, but it has turned the whole area into a wasteland. Imagine what would happen when another major cyclone strikes the area," said Professor Ainun Nishat, a water resource engineer and one of the country's climate change scientists. "The salinity level in the water and soil of that particular area has reached the level of the Bay of Bengal. Nothing will grow until rainwater drains the salinity from the soil," he said.

In 2010, the International Climate Change Risk Assessments identified Bangladesh as the world's most vulnerable country to climate change and natural disasters. Its coastal belt covers more than 700km and is home to more than 30 million people.

It is also highly vulnerable to devastation by cyclones.

On Nov 12, 1970, a cyclone hit the coastal districts of Bangladesh. The official death toll was 170,000, but unofficial estimates were as high as 500,000.

In 2007, 5,000 people died from Cyclone Sidr while the death toll from Cyclone Aila in 2009 was less than 1,000. These figures show Bangladesh has improved its disaster management over the years. But cyclones are intensifying, exacting a huge cost.

The Global Climate Risk Index 2010 estimated that 8,241 people died each year from 244 cases of extreme weather conditions in Bangladesh, with damage amounting to over US$2 billion (S$2.5 billion) a year and gross domestic product loss of 1.81 per cent, for the period 1990 to 2008.

Facing repeated disasters like cyclones and storm surges, Bangladesh has invested over US$10 billion in the last 35 years on disaster risk management measures - both structural such as shelters and non-structural (early warning dissemination, awareness and disaster preparedness) to address the risks. Yet, there remain many other challenges, not least rising tide levels and the encroachment of the sea inland.

A salinity map survey conducted by Bangladesh researchers released in 2012 revealed around 1.05 million ha in the coastal area are suffering from salinity. This comprises around 15 per cent of the country's total land area.

The salt water has gradually intruded into rivers and seeped into large swathes of farmland, the study found. The salinity level in some areas was as high as 25 ppt (25g of salt dissolved in 1kg of soil or water). The seawater intrusion has put the health, livelihood and food security of millions of people living in coastal areas in jeopardy.

A study conducted by the Centre for Climate Change and Environmental Research of Brac University released last year showed one in every 10 people affected by Cyclone Aila from Satkhira district had no choice but to leave their ancestral homesteads.

Dr Saleemul Haque, a climate change scientist, noted that "what Bangladesh is facing today... other countries would face maybe 20 years later". How Bangladesh copes with the changes now can be instructive for the rest of the world, he added.


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