Last year, almost 31 million people were displaced from their homes because of extreme weather events, 4.4 million of whom were from Bangladesh.
This may just be the tip of the iceberg as the World Bank's updated Groundswell report from September 2021 estimates that by 2050, one in seven Bangladeshis will be internally displaced and forced to move to cities, straining and overwhelming already fragile systems.
If Bangladesh is the ground zero for climate change, the south coast of the country is the bull's eye. This year, as annual floods ripped through the coastal regions of the country, Covid-19 compounded vulnerability— deepening debt, desperation, and hunger.
In May, a survey by an NGO, Uttaran, found that in Ashashuni Upazila of Satkhira, Khulna, three out of four people were eating less and borrowing more to survive.
Barely a month after the survey was conducted, Cyclone Yaas rolled over Ashashuni, bringing tidal surges that inundated vast areas, decimated embankments, and condemned entire villages to the sea.
One of these authors, Rafiqul Montu, has been documenting the climate crisis for over a decade and has seen the same story repeated again and again. Extreme weather events tend to hit the same communities— the same houses, schools, mosques and roads.
Often, everything is destroyed and has to be rebuilt from scratch. This cycle of destruction and reconstruction has long defined life across coastal Bangladesh, but now, the frequency and intensity of disasters are leaving communities with no place to turn to.
It's not always the disaster itself that forces people to leave, but the lack of support to cope with aftershocks. In Dakop, a small Upazila surrounded by the Sundarbans, almost a hundred families have resorted to living in a 'hanging village' by the Shibsa river due to recurring floods.
After Cyclone Aila in 2009, increased salinity killed crops, debt deepened, and the village never really recovered. Many, like Saifuddin, were faced with the choice of living in acute uncertainty or moving to the city to find work.
But moving to cities is often the first step to a long, challenging road to recovery. Saifuddin moved to Khulna in 2016 alone, hoping to save up enough to bring his family. He found work as a day labourer, and then a rickshaw puller, but five years later, he still does not have the financial means to support a family of five in the city.
During this time, his children have grown up and his eldest daughter, 15, has gotten married. "I wanted my children to go to school and have better lives than mine," Saifuddin told Montu the last time they met. "But when everyone is hungry, the first priority is to get food."
Sufia Begum and Noorun Nahar both saw their houses taken by Amphan. Both have been living in makeshift tents since then.
Since the 1990s, Bangladesh has made exceptional progress in mitigating the human toll of storms and tidal surges. Developed in close consultation with the government, NGOs and local communities, early warning systems, awareness building and volunteer mobilisation mean significantly fewer people die when cyclones occur than they did in the 1990s.
But anticipatory action and long term programmes to mitigate spillover effects remain ad-hoc and underfunded.
This does not have to be the status quo. We cannot stop disasters, but we can certainly reduce their impact on education continuity, livelihoods and food security, employment, and access to vital services. But doing so will require a pivot from repair and rebuild to prepare and prevent.
Bangladesh is already leading the way. The government has formally adopted an ambitious National Plan for Disaster Management and is sharing best practices and adaptation knowledge with other climate-vulnerable countries through Global Centre on Adaptation's (GCA) regional office in Dhaka.
On average, the country spends 2.5% of its GDP— approximately $5 billion each year— on climate adaptation and resilience-building. The political will exists, but scaling up these initiatives— and hardwiring climate adaptation into development projects— will require far greater funding than has been forthcoming.
The evidence is undeniable and overwhelming. Today, climate displacement far outpaces displacement by conflicts and violence. Over the next few years, these numbers are estimated to skyrocket.
More and more people will be displaced, and more and more people will need help. The imperative for action is undeniable. In Glasgow, the failure of rich nations to act will condemn countries like Bangladesh, which continue to be disproportionately impacted by a changing climate while contributing minimally to global warming.
Imrul Islam is the Advocacy Manager for the Norwegian Refugee Council in Bangladesh. Rafiqul Islam Montu is an award-winning climate journalist.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinions and views of The Business Standard.