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Floods

Bangladesh

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01. Cox's Bazar

Perched precariously atop sandy hills, and across steep valleys, more than 700,000 people live in the most densely populated refugee camp in the world. Having fled deadly violence in Myanmar’s Rakhine state, they face a new threat - monsoon and cyclones.

Families like Nur Alam and his 4-year-old grandson Ibrahim, and Nur al Saba and her 6-year-old grandson, have been living in tents for months in Cox’s Bazar’s mega camp. Everyone is helping each other as best they can. But they rely on humanitarian support for food, health care and shelter.

Bangladesh has long been vulnerable to annual monsoon and cyclones. But the steepness of the slopes and overcrowding in the temporary settlements mean the level of vulnerability is acute regardless of rainfall levels. Even before cyclone and monsoon seasons arrive, serious erosion and land slippage under the stress of so many shelters and families crammed into the region, threaten lives.

Hundreds of camp residents are stepping up to volunteer to reduce the threat. Bangladesh Red Crescent is training community members in disaster mitigation, first aid, early warning systems, and other lifesaving skills. Empowering people with knowledge and skills to address and respond to the threat is critical.

For now, brief pre-monsoon downpours in the camps have caused relatively minor disruption and provided children like these small boys, wading across the puddles that appeared outside their homes last week, with somewhere new to play. But they are also a warning shot on what is to come when the monsoon season proper begins shortly.

"The monsoon brings fear of landslides. I want to live the rest of my life as a free person without anxiety."

The vulnerability of Cox’s Bazar to climatic events has significantly increased with the large influx of forcibly displaced people. To date, rains have damaged critical infrastructure including roads, community centres, schools and health clinics.

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Bangladesh is one of the most vulnerable countries to the impact of climate change, and scientists predict global warming will bring more floods, and aggravate the impact of tropical cyclones, with ever-higher storm surges as sea levels rise, posing immense threats to the densely populated coastal areas.

700,000

The number of displaced people

Having fled violence in Rakhine state, people are now living in a crowded and severely exposed camp in Bangladesh's Cox's Bazar. Cyclone preparedness training is critical to preserving life.

500

The number of community volunteers

That's people living in the camp at Cox's Bazar who have become volunteers are now trained by Bangladesh Red Crescent and equipped to respond to monsoon and extreme weather events.

80%

of all disaster displacement was in Asia

In the last 10 years, more than 80% of all disaster displacement was in Asia, because of mega-disasters such as the Typhoon Haiyan and the 2017 monsoon season which affected 42 million people in India, Bangladesh, Nepal and Sri Lanka.

02. Bangladesh, floods and adaptation

Bangladesh is one of the most vulnerable countries to the impact of climate change, and scientists predict global warming will bring more floods, and aggravate the impact of tropical cyclones, with ever-higher storm surges as sea levels rise, posing immense threats to the densely populated coastal areas. Despite these rising risks, Bangladesh has in fact huge progress over the last 40 years, rolling back the impacts of climate-related disaster on communities – especially the cyclones that routinely pummel its Bay of Bengal coastline.

The ability of Red Crescent and other community volunteers to quickly move people out of harm’s way has long been the stuff of risk-reduction legend. Last year, fewer than ten people were reported to have died as a direct result of Cyclone Mora; a lower toll than Roanu the year before (although that is not completely comparing like with like, of course) and Komen the year before that. And this is no way compares to the death toll in cyclones like Bhola in 1970, which claimed at least 300,000 lives.

But cyclones are predictable; they can be seen from space; and as often as not they move in a straight line before making landfall, generating odds for first-responders to bet with. But this year there was another factor in the South Asian monsoon that caused an overall loss of life in Bangladesh significantly greater than 2016 and 2015 put together: very intense rainfall.

03. Science says

This is precisely what science tells us: that climate change is not only bringing higher sea levels, aggravating coastal risk in low-lying countries like Bangladesh, but also more intense rainfall. Scientists working with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), looking at data for India, have presented evidence that the frequency of atypically heavy precipitation is already increasing. While sea levels steadily rise, rainfall in South Asia could also be entering a ‘new normal’ as a result of climate change.

The chief humanitarian consequence of climate change for Bangladesh in 2017 was as dismaying as it was unpredictable. Landslides linked to the exceptionally heavy rain took the lives of some 150 people in several hilly parts of the country. This is exactly the kind of deadly threat refugees living at Cox’s Bazar face.

Individual landslides are all-but impossible to forecast in precise locations, making it much harder to get people and assets to safety. We know the risk is there, and rising, but it’s difficult to warn people days or even hours in advance, as we can, to some extent, with coastal storms.

For now, what we do know is generally where landslide risk exists. And we can do more to address those risks, including better use of land and planning of settlements, challenging though that is amid great population density and stark poverty. In the future better observations and more advanced models, combining rainfall with local conditions, may provide pinpoint assessments of risk accurate enough to make evacuations ‘rational’.

My hunch? Bangladeshis will find a way through this spike in the danger they face; and will, once again, set an example for the world in how to beat the rising risks of climate change. Science stands ready to assist.

Words: Maarten van Aalst. Director of the Red Cross Red Crescent Climate Centre. A version of this blog was originally published on prevention web.

04. Response

Since August 2017, owing to the deteriorating humanitarian situation in the northern areas of Rakhine State, Myanmar, hundreds of thousands of women, children and men – have crossed into Bangladesh. These vulnerable people, the newly arrived and those living in Cox’s Bazaar since last year, have no access to income sources and struggle to provide for the minimum levels of food and other essential needs required for survival. This is one of the largest and most complex crises in the region in decades.

The Bangladesh Red Crescent Society and IFRC response will provide 200,000 displaced people with support in medical health, mental health and psychosocial support, gender and protection, shelter, relief items, water, sanitation and hygiene, food security, and livelihoods.

An emergency appeal has been launched seeking 33 million Swiss francs to support the Bangladesh Red Crescent Society in its response.