Climate Change a Factor in ‘Unprecedented’ South Asia Floods

(SYLHET, Bangladesh)—Scientists say climate change is a factor behind the erratic and early rains that triggered unprecedented floods in Bangladesh and northeastern India, killing scores and making lives miserable for millions of others.

The region is not immune to flooding. However, this usually happens later in the year as monsoon rains are already well underway.

This year’s torrential rainfall lashed the area as early as March. It may take much longer to determine the extent to which climate change played a role in the floods, but scientists say that it has made the monsoon — a seasonable change in weather usually associated with strong rains — more variable over the past decades. The result is that almost all the rainfall expected to fall within a given year has arrived in just a few weeks.

Meghalaya in northeastern India received three times as much June rainfall in three weeks. Assam, however, received only twice that amount. Several rivers, including one of Asia’s largest, flow downstream from the two states into the Bay of Bengal in low-lying Bangladesh, a densely populated delta nation.

With more rainfall predicted over the next five days, Bangladesh’s Flood Forecast and Warning Centre warned Tuesday that water levels would remain dangerously high in the country’s northern regions.

According to Roxy Matthew Koll (climate scientist at the Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology, Pune), the pattern of monsoons has changed since 1950. It is vital for India’s agrarian economy.

Floods in northeastern Bangladesh have been rare until now. Assam, a state famous for tea cultivation, has always had to deal with flooding later in the year due to the monsoon season. The sheer volume of early rain this year that lashed the region in just a few weeks makes the current floods an “unprecedented” situation, said Anjal Prakash, a research director at India’s Bharti Institute of Public Policy, who has contributed to U.N.-sponsored study on global warming.

“This is something that we have never heard of and never seen,” he said.

Bangladesh’s Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina gave a similarly grim assessment Wednesday.

“We haven’t faced a crisis like this for a long time. Infrastructure must be constructed to cope with such disasters,” she told a news conference in Dhaka. “The water coming from Meghalaya and Assam has affected the Sylhet region” in northeastern Bangladesh, she said, adding that there is no quick respite for the country.

Hasina said that floodwaters would recede soon from the northeast, but they would likely hit the country’s southern region soon on the way to the Bay of Bengal.

“We should prepare to face it,” she said. “We live in a region where flooding happens quite often, which we have to bear in mind. We must prepare for that.”

Bangladesh has lost 42 persons since May 17. Indian authorities report that the death toll from floods rose to 78 people in Assam, while 17 other victims were killed by landslides.

Many thousands have fled the area, and many millions are forced to flee to temporary evacuation centers.

Mohammad Rashiq Ahamed (a Sylhet shop owner) is just one example of a worried returnee. They are looking for help and hope to find it. As he waded through the water to his knees, he expressed concern about flooding again. “The weather is changing … there can be another disaster, at any time.”

According to an analysis done by the World Bank Institute in 2015, about 3.5 Million Bangladeshis face the exact same situation each year when flood waters rise.

This country, home to 160 million people is one of the most at-risk from climate change. The poor will be disproportionately affected.

Mohammad Arfanuzzaman is a U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization climate change expert. He said that floods such as this one could cause widespread damage, including farmers losing crops and becoming debt slaves, and children being prevented from attending school and being at greater risk of developing diseases.

“Poor people are suffering a lot from the ongoing flooding,” he said.


Ghosal reported in New Delhi. Julhas Alam (Dhaka, Bangladesh) and Victoria Milko (Jakart, Indonesia), were Associated Press reporters who contributed to the report.

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