Cyclone Aila's devastation of the Bangladesh coast - another victim of climate change?

Flooding after Cyclone Aila, Bangladesh, May 2009
By
Unnayan Onneshan

Cyclone Aila's devastation of the Bangladesh coast - another victim of climate change?

On 25 May cyclone Aila swept through the villages of traditional resource-users of the Sundarbans forest, Bangladesh. Disasters like Aila (2009) and Sidr (2007) have forced more than a million people to lose their homes and to migrate from their regions. Kushal Roy, Senior Research Associate with FPP partner Unnayan Onneshan, reports on the trail of destruction left by Aila and asks whether the increasingly volatile weather patterns are a direct result of global climate change. 

 The devastating cyclone Aila struck the south-western coastal region of Bangladesh and eastern coast of the neighboring West Bengal province of India at midday on 25 May 2009.

Satkhira and Khulna were the worst hit districts, with nine other districts also badly affected.

According to the official statistics nearly four million people have been affected, with - as at 3 June 2009 - an official death toll of 190. Huge numbers of livestock have been lost with nearly 2,000 km of road either fully or partially destroyed. Thousands of acres of crops have been wiped out.

The horrifying fact is that nearly 2,000 km of the coastal embankment (locally known as 'polder') was damaged, causing extensive flooding. Diarrhoea has broken out with almost 50,000 people reported as being affected.

However, the unofficial sources confirmed the figures should be doubled at least.

Aila has resulted in mass migration. To date more than 35% of the affected communities have permanently migrated towards northern and hilly regions.

The main damage has been caused by flood water breaching the already weakened embankments throughout the affected districts. Communities have reported that activities associated with shrimp farming, such as the frequent practice of opening the embankments to move saline water into shrimp ponds, has made the half-century-old earthen embankments weak, causing them to break during the tidal surge inflicted by the cyclone. Silting up of the river beds, along with rapid coastal subsidence, have also contributed to higher tidal surges and increased strain on the embankments.

The area remains waterlogged, causing the salinisation of soil and inland water. As a result, agriculture in the region is under serious threat and soon there will be an acute scarcity of drinking water throughout the region.

In recent decades people have experienced frequent disasters like Aila. There have also been unusual phenomena in the weather patterns. Data from the meteorological department reveals that the frequency of cyclones hitting the Bangladesh coast has increased consistently since the 1990s, whilst the wind speeds vary between extremes of high and low intensity. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has said that this phenomenon could be due to the heating up of the sea's surface in the Bay of Bengal.

Disasters like Aila (2009) and Sidr (2007) have forced more than a million people to be made homeless and to migrate from their regions. Bangladesh's lack of preparedness and its diminishing strength to combat calamities, combined with peoples' lack of ability to cope with disasters may have contributed to the massive destruction. However, there is concern that global climate change may also be contributing to the severity of the weather, multiplying the suffering of the people.

Given the present rate of cyclones hitting the Bangladesh coast worse in the future is expected, with a larger scale of migration and an increase in landlessness.

To cope, the Bangladesh government will require more skilled manpower, more effective planning, an increase in economic strength, more in-depth studies, an increase in resources and an improved and adequate infrastructure. Gathering evidence of climate change and its impact at the local level, placing emphasis on local ecological knowledge and traditional innovation, and analysing community-level preparedness are essential components of the planning necessary to combat the impacts of climate change.

Even more importantly, it is vital that local people fully participate in policy making and programmes dealing with climate change impacts, mitigation and adaptation. Community-based adaptation should, therefore, be a central tenet of action on climate change in Bangladesh.

 

Homes destroyed by Cyclone Aila and associated flooding, May 2009, Bangladesh
By
Unnayan Onneshan
Farmers with cattle in floods from Cyclone Aila, Bangladesh, May 2009
By
Unnayan Onneshan
Children in the floodwaters of Cyclone Aila, May 2009
By
Unnayan Onneshan