Twice a Victim: How Climate Change Hit Bangladesh with a Disaster and a Pandemic?

Abstract

Change in the regional or global climatic pattern, often known as climate change is an undeniable problem of modern time. The degree of the problem intensifies according to the geographic and socio-economic conditions of respective regions. Vulnerable areas undergo destruction of both the natural as well as societal settings. This year, the ever-existing problem of climate change has been accompanied by the coronavirus outbreak. The regions already affected by climate change faced a new challenge to survive. In this paper, the focus has been drawn to Bangladesh, one of the worst-hit countries by climate change. The south Asian country faced a record-breaking flood and mass outbreak of COVID-19 apparently at the same time this year. The paper investigates the role of climate change behind the double whammy of devastating floods and the rampant spread of COVID-19 in Bangladesh.

 

Introduction

From the Siberian mountains to the Latin American amazon forest, no place on earth is safe from the catastrophic impacts of climate change. This common concern of the world got covered under the COVID-19 outbreak that emerged from the Chinese city of Wuhan in December 2019. The spread of the virus turned quickly into a pandemic and got the world leaders under one umbrella to fight against it. Where other countries were in a battle against the coronavirus pandemic, Bangladesh dealt with a double crisis of severe flooding and the virus outbreak. 3 months after the emergence of the virus, Bangladesh confirmed its first case of COVID-19. According to the coronavirus tracker of John Hopkins University, the COVID-19 transmissions and deaths in Bangladesh reached its peak in June. Before the month came to an end Bangladesh was hit by a severe flooding event. The nation considered the most vulnerable to climate change has undergone disasters before, but the strike of 2020 appeared like a nightmare in the darkest of nights. Creating an effective physical and human environment, climate change became able to strike twice simultaneously. Since the world is slowly recovering from the unprecedented menace, it is time to open the blindfold to the undeniable reality of climate change so that we can ensure a safer future from disasters to pandemics.

 

What is Climate Change?

Despite being the most uttered environmental issue, climate change is often misdefined. Being used widely by scientists, news agencies, and the public, the notion of climate change has now been trapped under uncertainty. For example, “global warming” and “climate change” are the two widely discussed terms often used interchangeably in the media, although they have a completely different meaning. Such ambiguousness in defining climate change can create skepticism regarding the reality and magnitude of the problem (Werndl, 2016). A globally recognized definition by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says climate change is an average or variability change of climatic properties that can be detected through statistical tests and continues for a long time (IPCC, 2018). So any change in climate persisting for a longer period can be regarded as climate change. For example. increase or decrease in the average temperature for a decade. Global warming on the other hand is the increase in average global temperatures for the long term. So the sphere of climate change is wider than that of global warming. While the IPCC does recognize both the natural and human force behind climatic change, the scale of scientists supporting human influence is heavier. According to the American Association for the Advancement of Science, 97% of climate scientists agreed on the fact that the current change in climate is human-induced (AAAS, 2014). Some of the human activity contributing to climate change is apparent, for example, a higher level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere resulting from fossil fuel usage (Lineman, et al., 2015).

 

Disaster to disease spread: overwhelming impacts of climate change

While climate change impacts on nature are direct, the impacts are often invisible and indirect in terms of human health aspects.

Vivid signs of climate change in nature manifest in the concentration of greenhouse gases, global temperature change, depletion of the ozone layer, sea-level rise, warming and acidification of oceans, etc. (Rahman, 2013). The last 30 years saw a triple increase in climate change-induced disasters around the globe (Oxfam International, 2020). Cyclone Idai in southern Africa, wildfires in Australia, drought in eastern Africa, flood, and landslide in south Asia are some of the notable disasters of recent time. However, in recent years health impacts of climate change in terms of disease spread are urgently being considered by scientists along with the natural impacts. Climatic drivers like rainfall and temperature have a profound effect on the distribution of pathogens and parasites, which is making scientists believe that climate change can influence the patterns of infectious disease (Thomas, 2020). FAO warned about climate change being a promoter of a worldwide pandemic situation along with globalization (Curseu, et al., 2010) more than a decade ago. Although scientists have not found any direct connection between climate change and pandemic so far (WHO, 2020), some of them believe in an intersection point between the two where the causes of climate change simultaneously increase the risks of a pandemic (Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, 2020). Deforestation and demolition of animal habitats are drawing animals closer to human habitats resulting in human exposure to the germs of the wildlife. The most recent and relevant example of this can be the emergence of coronavirus in Wuhan, China, which originated from bats.

 

Stricken by climate change: country focus on Bangladesh

The world as a whole is affected by changes in climate, but some are confronting it harder than others. When discussing the region worst hit by climate change, chances are strong that Bangladesh has been set as an example.

Bangladesh is located in the South Asian subcontinent. It is home to one of the largest river basins in the world. 80% of the country’s landmass is floodplain. Monsoon is the unique climate of the region. Due to the geographic location, disasters like floods and cyclones are of no wonder to Bangladeshis. But the concern is arising since Bangladesh is facing intensive rainfall and more severe flooding than in the recent past. Research shows that Bangladesh made it to the top of the countries faced with the extreme risk of climate change. According to the Global Climate Risk Index 2020, Bangladesh ranks 7th in terms of climate vulnerability with 191 climate change-induced disasters occurring between 1991 and 2018 (Mahmud, 2019). The vulnerability often results in flooding, cyclone, salinity intrusion, arsenic contamination, and many more natural calamities (Younus and Kabir, 2018). The socio-economic environment also intensifies the vulnerability as the country is burdened with population and poverty. Climate change has created a conducive environment in the country for the spreading of infectious diseases before. Climate change is linked to vector-borne diseases like dengue and malaria diseases in Bangladesh (Hasib and Chathoth, 2016). Poor water quality resulting from flood and waterlogging has significantly influenced the outbreak of water-borne diseases like diarrhea.

 

The connection between climate change and a flood of the decade: the Bangladesh Perspective

The most common manifestation of climate change in Bangladesh is visible through its extreme flooding events. This year the country experienced flooding of its vast areas after heavy rainfall hit Bangladesh in late June (Reza, 2020). The Guardian stated that it was the longest-lasting monsoon flood in Bangladesh in decades. The flood was reported to be taking 257 lives and destroying agricultural products worth 156 million USD (Sakib, 2020). The sufferings of people went beyond description since the country was under lockdown to prevent the coronavirus outbreak.

To understand the role of climate change in the devastating flood we need to dive deeper. The main cause of flooding in the country is the monsoon rainfall in the giant catchments of the GBM (Ganges, Brahmaputra, and Meghna) river basins. However, research shows how the natural setting reinforced by climatic change can cause and already caused severe flooding in Bangladesh. Climate change can make the flood condition worse and longer-lasting than usual by magnifying the governing factors of the flood (Ali, et al., 2012).  The upward trend of air and oceanic temperature change the rainfall pattern, intensifying floods, and increasing sea levels (Kabir, et al., 2016). Increasing precipitation coupled with decreasing evapotranspiration cause the river discharge to widen than its normal resulting in flood frequency intensification (Hossain, et al., 2020). The last few decades saw a considerable increase in the flood magnitude.

Figure: Flood extent in Bangladesh (Source: Anam, et al., 2019)

Mirza et al. (2003) in their study showed how Bangladesh faces frequent extreme flood events due to climate change using a sequence of hydrodynamic models. It is probably too early to convict climate change directly for this very specific flood of 2020, but scientists say that the conditions will be worse in the coming days.

 

The link between climate change and pandemic evolution: The Bangladesh Perspective

Other than the origin, climate change significantly affects the pandemic response, mostly observed in climate-vulnerable countries like Bangladesh. The COVID 19 situation in Bangladesh was relatively less alarming in the beginning, with 8.6 % confirmed cases per test and a 3.9% death rate by April 15, according to The Business Standard report. But the battle against the pandemic got harder as the effects of climate change stood along the way. Hossain et al., 2020 showed how factors induced by climate change are affecting the COVID-19 pandemic evolution in Bangladesh.

The first factor considered is migration. After the first confirmed case of COVID-19 on March 8, Dhaka quickly became the hotspot of the virus. The city became the most affected region in Bangladesh due to its dense urban population. Dhaka is the target destination for between 300,000 and 400,000 people of other districts who migrate for economic purposes each year (Ahsan, 2014). Among the migrants, a significant portion comes from the coastal belt since they are faced with adverse effects of climate change, such as-frequent flooding (Gray and Mueller, 2012), water, and soil salinity (Haider, 2019), etc.

 

Table: Influence of climate change in migration flow of Bangladesh

Migration type Source region Destination Key drivers Sensitivity to climate change
Localized displacement All affected regions

 

 

Cities (Dhaka)

 

Flood risk, monsoon

 

 

High

Localized displacement River communities Often inside own or in neighboring communities, sometimes urban areas  

River erosion

 

High

 

Seasonal moves to urban areas

 

 

Rural areas

 

Nearby cities,

capital (Dhaka)

Need to diversify livelihoods, often the main source of income  

Medium

Long term

rural-urban

 

Rural areas

 

Mainly Dhaka and Chittagong

The difference in labor demand, the security of employment  

Low

(Source: Black, et al., 2011)

The second factor affecting the COVID-19 situation is poverty. Low-income households of urban areas and coastal areas especially the southwestern part (Abedin, et al., 2018) do not have access to clean water for drinking and sanitation purposes. Groundwater pollution by arsenic contamination, rising sea levels resulting in increased salinity, etc. are responsible for this water crisis, which prevented people from taking necessary safety measures against COVID-19. Maintaining physical distance is another challenge for low incomers who do not have adequate dwelling space.

The third factor is the lack of funding in the public health system, some of the manifestations can be unreliable infection data, ICU crisis, etc. Again climate change is a catalyst working behind the scene creating extra pressure on health care systems (WHO, 2020).

 

Lessons learned and way forward

The twin crisis of severe flooding and coronavirus pandemic in Bangladesh shows us a bitter reality- the least responsible are often the most hurt. It also showed that we do not notice the impact of a crisis until another crisis appears. The world response is immediate only when the crisis affects the economy. It is time to link debt relief and climate resilience so that the wounds of the most vulnerable decrease, who did not cause the problem.

For Bangladesh, strict application of its climate change and disaster management approaches in its seventh five-year plan (2016-2021) along with a louder voice for proper allocation of climate finances is needed. Safeguarding our future depends on prioritizing our environment and climate. So there is no way of seeing health and climate policy apart. The loss of lives in the pandemic clearly shows why Bangladesh needs to increase public funding for health care systems. Cumulative efforts of the national and international source can reach a viable solution to significantly reduce the sufferings of vulnerable people.

 

Conclusion

Flood water eventually receded in Bangladesh, the vaccine for COVID-19 is also on the way at long last. But will the sufferings of climate-vulnerable people be reduced in due course? Can the world be unified to save people from the disastrous effects of climate change as they did for the pandemic? The answer is what we look forward to.

 

Writer: 

Sumaiya Siddique

Student of Geography and Environment, University of Dhaka.

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