PHOTOGRAPH BY DIN M SHIBLY
Water is one of the most crucial elements of human civilization and indeed the other name of life. As much as it is needed for humans to survive, water is also a threat to all forms of life alongside. The growing occurrences of extreme weather conditions have increased the risks of water-related disasters, both regarding their frequency and severity which led to the loss of a uncountable number of lives and assets in countries across the world. Societies and economies have also been exposed to vulnerability from the damaging effects of the disasters.
Natural hazards are inevitable; but unsustainable consumption, ill-advised human activity, and human greed can both create and accelerate the impact of water-related calamities. These water threats have been increasing over the years with climate change and human activities, in all parts of the world.
The Fourth Assessment Report (AR4) of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) predicted that 60%-70% of the global impacts of climate change could be reflected via these water-led disasters. The World Water Development Report (2015) stated, “The world will face a 40 percent ‘Global Water Deficit’ by 2030”.
It has been observed that the climate change induced, water-related catastrophes include various forms of floods, cyclones, tidal surge, droughts, erratic rainfall, snowfall, river bank erosion, landslides, rapid melting of glaciers, polar ice caps and, ice sheets in Greenland. All of these are frequently happening all over the world with cumulative intensity. Water bodies have also changed their size and shape with due course of time. On the other hand, the human-made water disasters, i.e., over-extraction of groundwater, pollution of rivers, lakes, wetlands and groundwater, loss of water-based ecosystem services, the flow of debris are also increasing rapidly. Earthquake-induced Tsunami is a natural calamity, which has no relation to climate change but it could create a devastating impact on lives something similar to what was witnessed during 2011 in Japan.
Such examples of water-related climate extreme events are many and widespread across different countries in the world. The recent unpredictable flooding of Uttarakhand in India (named also as the Himalayan Tsunami in 2013), severe floods in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Indian Kashmir, Arunachal, Darjeeling, Assam, Punjab, West Bengal, Chennai, Myanmar, Vietnam, Nepal, China, England and France, Queensland and Brisbane of Australia, Brazil and Thailand; are also few examples to be noted.
In 2017, the Ganges –Brahmaputra – Meghna basin experienced devastating floods due to heavy rainfall. Severe monsoon flooding has killed nearly 700 people across India in recent weeks as monsoon rain submerged roads, damaged electricity networks and triggered lethal lightning storms. The rainfall had caused “the worst flood of the century,” according to the experts.
The recent floods in Germany and Southern Europe, droughts and floods in different regions of Australia, thermal stress in France; a deluge of flooding in New Zealand, tornado in Washington are also few instances of climatic impacts on the progressing world. While typhoon Yolanda, hitting the Philippines and most recent cyclone Pam in Vanuatu Islands in the Pacific were of the highest velocity (over 250 km/hour) experienced by the communities in their history. Hurricane Sandy affected the east coast of USA in 2012, and the damage estimate ranged from $60b to $100b for this single event. Hurricane Katrina affecting the gulf coast of USA exposed the social vulnerability, lack of preparedness and discriminating approaches to social governance of the most powerful and richest country in the world – USA. The recent Hurricane Harvey, Irma, Max in the Gulf of Mexico, Hurricane Jose in US East Coast also caused severe devastation. All these hurricanes happened within a month.
The mega cyclones Sidr (2007) and Aila (2009) in Bangladesh and Nargis (2008) in Myanmar and the severe Cyclonic Storm Mora (May 2017) are examples of a few strong tropical ones that caused widespread impacts across Sri Lanka, Andaman and Nicobar Islands, Bangladesh, Myanmar and Northeast India. Typhoon in the Philippines in 2012, Hurricane Mathu in Haiti in 2016 are also examples of cyclone and storm surge.
The disaster of Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant in Fukushima, Japan was initiated primarily by the tsunami following the Tōhoku earthquake on 11 March 2011, which created a severe nuclear contamination of groundwater across the coast of Japan. As a result, more than 36% of the children in Fukushima prefecture were exposed to abnormal growths in their thyroid glands and other cancers. In addition, this Tsunami brought destruction and killed 15,894, injured 6,152 and 2,562 people went missing.
In the recent years, a severe drought affected the entire East African region and was said to be the worst in 60 years. It caused a severe food crisis across Somalia, Djibouti, Ethiopia, and Kenya that threatened the livelihood of 9.5 million people. Many refugees from southern Somalia fled to neighboring Kenya and Ethiopia, where crowded, unsanitary conditions together with severe malnutrition led to a large number of deaths. Other countries in East Africa, including Sudan, South Sudan and parts of Uganda, were also affected by another food crisis. Lately, western and southern states of India are also facing severe and prolonged drought and severe problems in food production, which has increased the suicidal rate to the highest in their history.
Probably the greatest tragedy of climate change is that the magnitude of the impact of climate-related extreme events is stacked against the poor and vulnerable societies.
In 2017, almost 154 Upazilas and 27 districts came under the influence of the flood, gradually inundating new areas. Furthermore, 60 lakh people were victimized, and death tolls reached over 100, with 5.5 lakh housing lost and 5000 hectors of cropland damaged.”
It can be inferred that the water-related disasters in Bangladesh can be categorized into four broader categories, i.e. (a) too much water, (b) too little water, (c) wrong types of water (d) wrong timing of water.
(A) TOO MUCH WATER
Floods, cyclones, and tidal surges, landslides, etc. falls into the category of too much water.
Heavy rainfall during the tropical rainy season can lead to monsoon floods, which affect rivers and occur as flash flooding. In the 19th century, six major floods were recorded in 1842, 1858, 1871, 1875, 1885 and 1892. Another 18 major floods occurred in the 20th century among which the ones in 1951, 1987 and 1988 were of catastrophic nature.
The frequency, severity, and intensity of floods have been enhanced rapidly in the recent years. In 2004, Bangladesh experienced another severe flood as similar to those in 1988 and 1998 when two-thirds of the country went under water. In 2005, non-stop rainfall and water from upstream of India caused flash floods in the north and north-western districts of Bangladesh. In 2007, major flooding occurred across wider South Asia, affecting not only Bangladesh but also parts of India, Bhutan, and Pakistan. In 2008, it affected many areas of the 20 northern and central districts out of the 64 ones in the country. In 2009, Cyclone Aila hit the southern parts of Bangladesh and caused a huge tidal surge and flooding. In 2010, landslides and floods were triggered by heavy rainfall in south-eastern part of the country. In 2011, total 17 districts were affected due to flooding. Moreover, in 2012, flash floods and landslides in Bangladesh were set off by the heaviest five-day torrential downpour in years.
2013’s flood was not a severe one, but its duration in the southwest, particularly in the districts of Satkhira and Khulna was prolonged, due to slow drainage or very low carrying capacity of rivers. In 2014, continuous rainfall in north and northeastern districts of Bangladesh included Nilphamari, Lalmonirhat, Kurigram, Rangpur, Gaibandha, Jamalpur, Sirajganj, Sunamjong and Sylhet. The scenario was no less in 2015, and torrential rains have set off flash floods and landslides in the low-lying areas in the south-eastern districts of Cox’ Bazar, Bandarban, and Chittagong. During that of 2016, seven districts were affected namely Kurigram, Bogra, Sirajganj, Jamalpur, Nilphamari, Lalmonirhat, and Sunamganj.
In 2017, almost 154 Upazilas and 27 districts came under the influence of the flood, gradually inundating new areas. Furthermore, 60 lakh people were victimized, and death tolls reached over 100, with 5.5 lakh housing lost and 5000 hectors of cropland damaged. This appears as one of the most devastating floods in near history. Such disasters also result in riverbank erosion, which has a severe impact on human lives and livelihoods. Along with death and loss of assets, scarcity of clean water, food, medicine, and fuel can also be observed in the economy.
CYCLONES AND TIDAL SURGES
At present day Bangladesh, due to the rapid change in climate and its unique geographic location, frequently suffers from devastating tropical cyclones. The funnel-shaped northern portion of the Bay of Bengal amplifies the storm surge resulting tropical cyclones that affects thousands of people. Some of the most devastating natural disasters in the recorded history with high casualties were tropical cyclones that hit the region now comprising present-day Bangladesh.
The flashback of cyclone history reveals that Bangladesh has experienced about 54 mega cyclones in the past 400 years during 1582 to 1990. Surprisingly, in the next 25 years from 1991 to 2017, another 18 mega cyclones took place, which revealed an alarming threat over Bangladesh in the form of rapidly increasing frequency of such disasters.
The 1991 cyclone was among the deadliest tropical ones on record. On the night of April 29, 1991, it struck the Chittagong district of the country’s southeastern region with winds of around 250 km/h (155 mph). The storm forced a 6-metre (20 ft) surge inland over a wide area, killing at least 138,000 people and leaving as many as 10 million homeless.
In 1994, a severe cyclonic storm hit the coastal islands near Cox’s Bazar and killed 400 people and 8,000 cattle. In 1995, another one of a similar magnitude hit the coastal islands near Cox’s Bazar and the death toll reached to 650 people and 17,000 cattle as a whole. In 1997, two cyclones hit the coastal islands and chars near the districts of Chittagong, Cox’s Bazar, Noakhali and Bhola and 126 lives were lost.
In 2007, Cyclone Akash hit the south of Chittagong, and 14 people were killed with damages amounting to $982 million. Also, Cyclone Sidr made landfall on southern Bangladesh, causing over 3,500 deaths and severe damage. In 2008, Cyclone Rashmi ruined the coast of Bangladesh and killed 15 people and damaged thousands of homes. In 2009, Cyclone Bijli had a minor influence on the country causing very little damage apart from the loss of some houses and crop fields. A major cyclone Aila also attacked 15 districts of the southwestern part of Bangladesh offshore killed about 150 persons and destroyed 2 lacs houses and 3 lacs acres of cultivated land and crops.
In 2013, Cyclone Viyaru, formerly known as Cyclonic Storm Mahasen, hit near Chittagong which resulted in the death of 17 people died and affected nearly 1.3 million across the country. Losses to crops exceeded $5.14 million. In 2015, Cyclone Komen led to landfall near Chittagong where 510,000 houses got destroyed, and many residents lost their source of income as 667,221 acres (270,000 ha) of crop fields were drowned. The floods killed 132 people, of which at least 39 were directly related to Komen. In 2016, Cyclone Roanu resulted in the landslide near Chittagong, killing around 26 people. About 40,000 homesteads and business houses along with food storage and seasonal crops were also damaged. Livestock, including fish and shrimp firms, were swept away. Also, the remnants of Tropical Storm Dianmu affected Bangladesh, with not much damage or deaths being reported.
In 2017, Cyclone Mora made heavy rainfall, which led a massive landslide on Bandarban, Rangamai, Khagrachari and Chittagong districts with 152 death tolls. A multitude of tropical cyclone warnings and watches were issued for much of southern Bangladesh and the districts of Northeast India. Strong winds and storm surge battered buildings and destroyed farmlands across Chittagong, Cox’s Bazar, and Rangamati, with at least 20,000 houses damaged in refugee camps for Rohingya Muslims who were displaced by conflict in neighboring Myanmar.
HEAVY RAINFALL AND LANDSLIDE
Landslide is a regular geologic hazard in Bangladesh, mainly in Chittagong division, the southeastern part of the country. The landslide caused death to more than 700 people in Bangladesh until 2017, including a loss of hundreds of houses and millions of dollars of properties.
Most of the landslides happened after heavy rainfall. Heavy monsoon rainfall intensified by strong storm from the Bay of Bengal (BOB) caused an abnormal precipitation in the area caused the referred landslide. The combined effect of rainfall and hill cutting induced slope instability that triggered the landslide in Chittagong.
On 12 June 2017, heavy monsoon rain generated a series of landslides and floods in Rangamati, Chittagong, and Bandarban – three hilly districts of Bangladesh – and killed at least 152 people. In 2014, at least 23 people were killed in and around the port city of Chittagong, 36 in Bandarban, 38 in the coastal district of Cox’s Bazar near the Myanmar border and leaving roughly 100 missing.
In 2008, a landslide took place in the early morning killing 11 people of the Lalkhan Bazaar of Chittagong district. The landslide of 11 June 2007 in Chittagong caused deaths of 135 people, affecting 1.5million people of the region. In 2000, at least 13 people were killed and 20 injured in landslide incidents on the Chittagong University campus and other parts of Chittagong city. The incident was caused due to the deluge of mud and water that swamped various part of the port city amid torrential rain. In 1999, two big landslides happened, one in Bandarban and the other one in Chittagong respectively claiming the lives of 17 people. Heavy and incessant rainfall at that time was one of the main causes of sliding.
(B) TOO LITTLE WATER
Too little water causes drought which creates an acute crisis of drinking water and negative impacts on crop production, biodiversity, human and animal health, etc.
Drought is the most formidable disaster frequently reoccurring in most regions of Bangladesh. It is a natural slow onset hazard, which is unnoticeable and enhanced due to the onslaught of global climate change. It is characterized by the long periods of dryness and shortage of water supply cumulatively affecting adversely on the socioeconomic development of the people and their properties.
This drought-prone region consists of broader areas of the Barind Tract, which covers most parts of the greater Dinajpur, Rangpur, Pabna, Rajshahi, Chapai Nawabganj, Bogra, Joypurhat, and Naogaon districts. After the Northwestern region being severe drought affected, Southwestern part of Bangladesh is also facing drought impacts. Rainfall is comparatively less in Barind Tract than the other parts of the country. Almost every five years, Bangladesh is affected by the major countrywide droughts, but the frequency is shortening recently. However, local droughts occur regularly and affect crop production. The agricultural drought, linked to soil moisture scarcity, occurs at different stages of crop growth, development, and reproduction. Monsoon failure often brings famine to the affected regions, and as a result, crop production reduces drastically.
Chronology of droughts of historical significance reveals that within the history of 200 years from 1791 to 1991, Bangladesh experienced 24 severe droughts. These affected different parts of Bangladesh including Jessore, Dhaka, Bogra, Sundarbans, northern and northwestern Bangladesh. The 1973 drought, one of the severest in the present century was responsible for the 1974 famine in northern Bangladesh.
(C) WRONG TYPES OF WATER
Wrong types of water include water pollution, sea level rise, deeper penetration of saline water and Arsenic; which are also the example of some of the slow onset water disasters in Bangladesh. These do not destruct the infrastructure or housing like Cyclones, flood or riverbank erosion immensely, but create a significant threat to lives and livelihoods including health and environmental hazards.
Water pollution is a manmade slow on set disaster. Surface water occurs in oceans, rivers, lakes, ponds, and floodplains. It has been the source of water supply since the dawn of civilization. However, intense human activities have been polluting these readily available sources.
Surface water used to be the primary source of water supply in Bangladesh, but it is no longer the case. Surface water in Bangladesh is extensively polluted by sources such as industrial and urban wastes, agrochemicals and sewerage wastes and seawater intrusion. The Buriganga River is a typical example of serious surface water contamination. Agrochemicals are extensively used in the country causing surface water pollution. Due to the withdrawal of water from the Ganges by the Farakka Dam, seawater intrudes a long way inside the coastline, which causes river water pollution by salinity.
Although groundwater is not directly exposed to surface polluting activities, numerous natural and anthropogenic activities cause groundwater pollution. Some physical, chemical and biochemical (and microbiological) processes cause alteration of groundwater properties either by addition of new elements, ions, compounds or by increasing the existing concentrations. Before the discovery of arsenic contamination in Bangladesh, groundwater used to be considered a safer source of drinking water. Many anthropogenic and natural sources also pollute groundwater in Bangladesh. The most widespread anthropogenic sources are the infiltration of industrial and urban wastes disposed on the ground or in surface water bodies. In addition, intrusion or infiltration of saline water contaminates groundwater. Extensive use of agrochemicals can lead to groundwater pollution. Leaking sewers, septic tanks, pit latrines, etc. also cause groundwater pollution.
“Some of the most devastating natural disasters in the recorded history with high casualties were tropical cyclones that hit the region now comprising present-day Bangladesh.”
SEA LEVEL RISE AND DEEPER PENETRATION OF SALINE WATER
The coastal area of the Ganges delta in Bangladesh is characterized by tides and salinity from the Bay of Bengal. Salinity intrusion due to a reduction of freshwater flow from upstream, salinization of groundwater and fluctuation of soil salinity are the major concerns of the coastal areas in the country. The higher salinity levels have adverse impacts on agriculture, aquaculture, and domestic and industrial use of water and so. The present temporal and spatial variation of salinity is likely to deteriorate further as a consequence of the external drivers of change.
River salinity, groundwater salinity and soil salinity of coastal areas of Bangladesh including Khulna, Barisal, and Chittagong divisions are also increasing gradually. Almost 13 districts are already severely affected by salinity intuition. It is damaging the soil fertility, declining crop production, creating an acute crisis of drinking water and having a rigorous and adverse effect on biodiversity and livelihood respectively. As a result, a large number of population form the affected area are gradually shifting their habitation into the other areas including the mega cities. Forced migration and displacements are occurring due to sea level rise and salinity intrusion, as a slow onset water disaster in Bangladesh.
Arsenic contamination of groundwater in Bangladesh is now considered the world’s largest case of water pollution. Recent findings show that about 20 million people in Bangladesh are using tube-wells contaminated with arsenic over the permissible level (>50 ppb). Total 61 districts are affected out of 64 and 270 Upazilas out of 464. The contaminated tube wells are roughly 1.5 million.
(D) WRONG TIMING OF WATER
Erratic rainfall and flash floods are the examples of wrong timing of water.
This year in 2017 the monsoon comes earlier than as usual, and as a result, Haor crops and fishes demolished instantly due to flash flood. Long monsoon this year and heavy rainfall cause floods in majority parts of Bangladesh. Late monsoon or less rainfall causes drought and heat waves which affect crop production, food, and livelihoods; results in losses of life, etc.
Heavy rainfalls, as well as the onrush of water from the upstream Meghalaya hills in India, have led to the inundation of vast areas of croplands of Haors and low-lying areas of the northeast in 2017. This affected six districts (Sylhet, Moulavibazar, Sunamganj, Habiganj, Netrokona, and Kishoreganj) in the northeast region. It caused the rising water to overflow, breached embankment in many places, inundated vast areas of croplands, and destroyed nearly-ready-for-harvesting Boro rice in about 160,170 hectors areas, which caused huge damage to crop production. According to Ministry of Agriculture, the loss of Boro rice is estimated to be about 800,000 tons.
Although these events occurred in very different parts of the planet and each had unique causes and circumstances. Nevertheless, their severity can now credibly be linked to human-induced climate change.
Nonetheless, climate change is a reality, and the sign is mostly visible in and every aspect of Bangladesh as well as different parts of the world. It reveals that the intensity and frequency of cyclones and floods have increased and the riverbank erosion enhanced. Drought is spreading at a slow pace and gradually changing the rainfall pattern and increasing salinity, resulting in deeper penetration of saline water and sea level rise. Such slow onset disaster and rapid and gigantic landslide are some of the alarming signs of climate change.
The progress in the science of climate change has been significant but rather limited while taking actions to support the reduction of greenhouse gases, given the urgency, available technology options and the call from the global communities. We have often been the victim of poor global governance mechanism and lack of decision-making short-sightedness of political leadership, particularly of the rich countries.
There is no doubt that many obstacles continue to exist along our way. However, we should bear in mind that global issues like water-induced disasters cannot be addressed by a single nation’s or a single government’s effort. The growing stress on water resources faced by us today can be solved only when every habitat on our planet is fully aware of the gravity of such issues and tries to join the global efforts to combat it.
The two broad strategies for addressing climate change that has been agreed upon so far are:
(a) Mitigation, i.e., reduction of emissions and absorption of GHGs; and (b) Adaptation, i.e., actions to reduce vulnerability, risks, and impacts and enhance the resilience of societies, ecosystems, communities, their capacities, and governance systems.
Climate change adaptation and disaster risk reduction have to be addressed using integrated, harmonized, collaborative, participatory and scientific ways. However, these require (i) Finance, (ii) Technologies, (iii) Knowledge of both science and the communities itself; and (iv) Good governance, mobilization and preparedness.
Many adaptation activities, particularly by the disadvantaged communities are evident and observed. Nevertheless, this stands as a minuscule effort compared to the needs. As more impacts of climate change-related disasters become evident, huge populations are facing enormous challenges including the threat of displacement and being transformed into climate refugees. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has indicated that the total number of climate displaced population is expected to cross 300 million by the end of this century. Fighting and destructive capabilities of this displacement on stability, peace, and functioning of future societies and its significance is one of the greatest future challenges the world is about to face.
It is to be noted that adaptation has limits, some of which will be met in the near future. Hence, mitigation will be the best form of adaptation. Demand for compensation will become evident. Nevertheless, the framework of the most critical issue that will be faced by the planetary governance so far is emerging by what will be known as “Climate Justice.”
The writer is the Senior Research and Communications Officer at the Bangladesh Centre for Advanced Studies (BCAS) and the Treasurer of IUCN Bangladesh National Committee.