Drowning in Climate Crisis—A Bangladesh Perspective

7 min read
Girl with her head covered in a cloth after taking shower in a canal in the area of Dacope, Khulna. A few years ago, these rivers and ponds were improper or unclean to use. However, after intervention the community now has a safe water source to use; protecting them from the water borne diseases.
Habibul Haque/WaterAid

A conversation at the dinner table of an average household on climate change may vary dramatically between different age groups nowadays. This particular conversation with a school going student would typically get an answer to the question of what they understand by climate change as the following “Change in weather, ice melting somewhere and—the world ending?” While asking the same question to her parent/s, the response usually would flow somewhere along the lines of “Whales being stranded on beaches?”

The basic understandings of the ongoing climate change crisis within a Bangladeshi household, is a mix pot of ideas and knowledge which is mostly influenced by the Western media. These ideas often overlook the pressing impacts that has moulded the country’s climate change impacts throughout the years. Although it is admirable that most people do understand the idea of the climate crisis in the year 2021, one cannot overlook the more pressing problems and the intricate connections which usually gets overlooked, especially in the homes of Bangladesh.

Besides the obvious effects of climate change, the intricate connection that, to this day is going unnoticed and unnamed is the ongoing water crisis. As most of us know, only 3 percent of the world’s water is fresh and useable (National Geographic, 2012); of which two-thirds is captured in polar ice and glaciers. Water and weather—a tricky balance of evaporation and precipitation, is the primary cycle through which the effects of climate change are seen and felt. As our climate changes little by little every day, droughts, floods, melting glaciers, sea-level rise and storms intensify or adjust, often with severe consequences. These consequences are sensed widely in regions with pre-existing vulnerability such as in the country of Bangladesh.

Bangladesh being the ninth most vulnerable country in the world (Greenwich) feels the effects of climate change on water in the gravest manner. This is because the riverine nation has a close relationship between its water and water resources to their climatic factors which directly increases their risk and vulnerability to climate disasters and its effects. If we take on a more technical approach to understanding the severity of the problem, it is necessary to mention that during the pre- and post-monsoon season the temperature in the country has been observed to increase by more than two-thirds of the atmospheric stations, particularly in the coastal areas. More than 80 percent of the locations in the country are showing a rising trend in temperature because of this. On the other hand, the highest recorded rainfall for any month in the capital for a 24-hour period was 341mm in September 2004 however, recently 448 mm rainfall was recorded during 24 hours in Dhaka on 27 July 2019, which was the highest rainfall in the history of the city Tide gauge measurements and more recently satellite altimeter studies show a definite increase of sea level change (Bates et al. 2008).

It is evident that because of climate change the water sector of Bangladesh is suffering greatly however, the question is by how much? According to the National Adaptation Programme of Action of Bangladesh report, the water related effects of environmental change will probably be the most impactful for the country of Bangladesh – generally identified coastal and riverine flooding, but also enhanced the possibility of winter (dry season) drought in certain areas. The impacts of increased flooding as an outcome of climate change will be the core issue faced by the country. Both coastal flooding (from ocean and stream water), and inland flooding (waterway/riverway/rainwater) are expected to further increase. Almost all the expected collisions on the water resources will become more prominent due to the lack of infrastructure developments throughout the country—for example, the expansion of the road communication networks, and the construction of flood protection works.

Besides technical risks and impacts of climate change and water in Bangladesh, there remains the greater resultant of this issue on the economy and society of the nation. Climate change in Bangladesh has proven to have direct impact in the nation’s extreme poverty level. Different studies show that in Bangladesh, the sectors which are predicted to be the most affected by changes in water and water resources are agriculture, health, fisheries, biodiversity, and infrastructure. Since Bangladesh is falling under the Least Developed Country (LDC) category still relies heavily on its primary sectors—which, according to these studies are most affected by climate and water disasters. This directly in turn affects the earnings and livelihoods of the mass individuals working in these fields within the country and impacts the GDP and thereby reduces the overall economic growth of the country.

If we take a more personal approach in understanding the lengths of effects of this disaster within the Bangladesh’s culture, we can now consider the story of Rubina. Rubina, a fifteen-year-old girl lived on the outskirts of Mymensingh. Her family consisted of her mother, her maternal grandmother, and her little three-year-old sister. Her mother was divorced and worked hard at Dhaka city for a living. Rubina lived with her grandmother and took care of her sister, which prevented her from continuing her education after fourth standard. However, education was not the only barrier she faced. Rubina’s family did not have proper water facilities. Her water source came from a nearby pond that was contaminated with high arsenic. This resulted in severe health issues for both Rubina and her family. However, Rubina was the one most effected. Along with having bad stomach infection, her skin broke out and different forms of allergies became her daily companion. Neighbours prevented their children from playing with her, shops refused to sell goods to her in the fear of touching her contaminated hand and lastly, Rubina’s grandmother soon started to worry that no man would ever love her granddaughter. She started to be termed as ‘unholy’ or ‘cursed’ by the villagers. At this point, we must stop and ask, who is at fault here? The villagers and their narrow mindset? Rubina and her innocent family? The water management facilities in these regions? Or is it mother nature herself?

Although there are problems which are being address, solution is being prioritized as well. While communities are at the frontlines of climate change impacts (just like Rubina and her family), they rarely have an effective voice in prioritizing, decision-making, and implementing the actions that most affect them. The Global Commission on Adaptation flagship report has asked to decentralized funding available to local governments, community-based organizations, and others working at the local level to identify risks and prioritizing problems that are often gone unanswered so that a much-needed call for action is addressed for the least vulnerable. The locally led adaptation track for water aims in prioritizing mobilizing of governments and experts to concentrate on giving priority to the water sector, so that families like Rubina’s do not have to suffer physically and emotionally. The four-prong approach will look into

1.    Harnessing the power of expanding water infrastructures; The initiative looks to mobilizing governments to invest on nature-based solutions, investing on watersheds and creating interconnected water systems to increase ground water recharge. Therefore, empowering families so that they have means to clean water sources and giving them proper appliances so that these sources sustain are among the top priorities. This will ensure clean water for the communities and will avoid putting children like Rubina from the risk of skin disease.

2.    Reallocating water to the most water scares people: The initiative looks to increase water efficiency by reducing wastage and prioritizing it to the most vulnerable or high priority stakeholders. Again, this will ensure clean water source for all hard-to-reach communities and will increase development and opportunities around the water source area. This in turn will not only save the communities from water borne diseases but will also provide economic incentives for the locals.

3.    Preparing for floods and droughts due to the effects of climate change: The initiative looks into mobilizing resources to prepare communities to be water secure by proving greater accessibility, accountability, reliability of WASH services during frequent hazards. This will ensure physical and health safety of those communities against dangerous climate impacts.

4.    Improving water governance and finance allocation: Accountability of government and finance mobilization for vulnerable communities to amp up water management practices in vulnerable communities. This is crucial in handling the crisis. Without proper funding none of the above-mentioned problems can be solves. Therefore, the government of Bangladesh must increase their accountability and rethink funds for climate change impacts, especially in villages where families like Rubina’s live, who are most vulnerable.

Access to information can be a beautiful thing and something that can help us from drowning. Bangladesh faces a severe and immediate threat from climate change and climate variabilities that impacts the country, especially the costal and vulnerable regions immensely. This impact is felt not only environmentally but also economically and socially throughout the nation. Like the rest of the world, Bangladesh too is now taking this challenge seriously and is aiming to adapt their national polices accordingly. 

Written by: Arusa Iqbal Rahim