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Bangladesh’s Vulnerable Coastlines on the Frontline of Climate Effects

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The Pulse | Environment | South Asia

Bangladesh’s Vulnerable Coastlines on the Frontline of Climate Effects

Experts say the Sundarbans, the largest mangrove in the world, pays a price as it serves as a first line of defense against cyclones.

Bangladesh’s Vulnerable Coastlines on the Frontline of Climate Effects

River erosion in the Bay of Bengal coastal belt.

Credit: Depositphotos

The Bay of Bengal, the world’s largest bay, has always been one of the hotbeds for tropical cyclones. On the night of May 26, Cyclone Remal made landfall 80 kilometers southeast of the Indian city of Kolkata. It left behind much devastation in the Bay of Bengal littoral countries, India and Bangladesh.

In an age of rapid climate change, weather events are becoming more extreme and less predictable. Reports say that in recent decades, cyclones have decreased in frequency but increased in intensity.

Global warming is causing the water in the Bay of Bengal to rise faster than anywhere else. Climate scientists predict that due to sea level rise, the low-lying coastal areas of Bangladesh will go underwater. The World Bank estimates there could be 13 million climate migrants by 2050 in the country and has urged urgent climate actions.

Bangladesh is hit by cyclones often; the country is not new to their devastating impact.

Growing up in a coastal subdistrict called Banshkhali in the southeastern part of Bangladesh, I have become accustomed to frequent cyclone alerts. Especially during the monsoons, we have often carried our essential belongings and domestic animals to safety in distant cyclone shelters. We witnessed first-hand the devastating impact of tidal surges and floods; we saw embankments breached, eroded farmland being washed into the sea, livelihoods destroyed, and coastal communities displaced.

Bangladesh has a 580-kilometer-long vulnerable coastline. Going around all islands and up the estuaries, the coastline is estimated to be nearly 1,320 km long. In the Global Climate Risk Index 2021, Bangladesh is ranked among the seven most extreme disaster-prone countries globally. Worldwide, 22 of the 30 deadliest tropical cyclones have occurred in the Bay of Bengal, according to research published in the Yale Climate Connections by Jeff Masters, a hurricane scientist who documents extreme weather events.

As extreme weather events continue to rise, coastal communities are becoming increasingly vulnerable. According to the Bangladesh Weather Bureau, this April was the hottest April on record in Bangladesh. The combination of floods, intense cyclones, and escalating temperatures every year is taking a huge toll on the coastal ecosystems, resulting in devastating impacts.

Environmental degradation caused by growing human footprints in the coastal areas is also exacerbating climate risks. Along the southeastern coastal belts in Chittagong, mangrove forests are cleared to make space for shrimp farming, salt production, and economic zones, leaving people without adequate protection against cyclones. As a result, coastal areas rapidly eroding into the sea is a constant reality. The water crisis is getting worse as underground water is declining and salinity in the streams and farmlands due to sea level rise is increasing.

Last month, Cyclone Remal struck Bangladesh and the neighboring eastern Indian coast, leaving a trail of death and destruction, killing dozens, damaging homes, uprooting trees, and breaching embankments. Experts say the Sundarbans, the largest mangrove in the world pays a price as it serves as a first line of defense against cyclones. Following the cyclone, scores of animals were found dead and thousands of trees uprooted in Sundarbans.

Also in May 2023, a powerful cyclone called Mocha hit the Bangladesh and Myanmar coasts, tearing apart coastal villages and refugee camps. The deadliest cyclone wind I experienced in my life-time was in October 2023 in Cox’s Bazar. That cyclone was named Hamoon.

The Ganges-Brahmaputra-Meghna (GBM) Delta, also known as the Bengal River Delta, is situated in one of the world’s most fertile regions that has a variety of flora and fauna, which historically attracted people to migrate from other regions.

It is a transitional mega-delta shared between Bangladesh and India, with around 280 million people residing in this densely populated region. The reason this delta has a large population lies in its diverse ecosystems and abundant resources. However, in an era of climate change, the scenario is changing. Thousands in the coastal areas, with their lives and livelihoods affected by frequent flooding, erosion, cyclones, and salinization, are giving up on traditional rice farming and migrating to crowded cities like Dhaka and Chittagong to find work. Others are migrating to Middle Eastern countries for better livelihoods.

Often referred to as the land of rivers, Bangladesh has a complex network of more than 900 rivers. While monsoons and rivers were once the lifeline for this delta, sustaining communities and ecosystems, the combination of climate change and anti-river development policies has resulted in many rivers getting polluted and dying, and monsoons becoming a menace.

During the monsoons, river erosion and flooding are constant events causing huge displacement and damage to farmlands. Once a country of six seasons, Bangladesh has now turned into a country of three. Winters are becoming increasingly warmer, summers drier, and monsoons erratic.

Coastal communities in southern Chittagong continue to bear the haunting memories of the devastating April 29, 1991 cyclone, which claimed over 140,000 lives, including more than 40,000 from Banshkhali alone. Entire villages were washed away, and the whole coastal belt in Chittagong and Cox’s Bazar was left utterly destroyed. Whenever a cyclone alert is raised, my mother insists that I seek shelter in an elevated place. She is still haunted by the memory of the surging waters of 1991 that swept everything away.

Jalal Uddin Chowdhury, a local high school teacher from a coastal village in southern Chittagong, lost five members of his family including his mother, sister, and grandmother during the cyclone of April 29, 1991. To this day, he cannot forget the horrors of that night. The memories still haunt him, especially when cyclone alerts are raised during the April-May period. Driven by his personal experience and commitment to safeguarding the environment, Jalal has actively supported efforts to plant more trees and restore some of the lost mangroves at the Ratnapur point of the Banshkhali coastline.

In a recent article for a leading national newspaper, I explored the vital role of seagrass beds in safeguarding the coastlines of southern Chittagong. Seagrass in the inter-tidal zones serve as a nature-based protection system for the coastline against rising seas. Over time, they facilitate the growth of mangrove forests, further enhancing coastal resilience. Beyond its protective function to the coastline, seagrass beds play a crucial role in maintaining biodiversity. They provide shelter and food to diverse aquatic species on the shore including crabs, seahorses, turtles, and many other tiny invertebrates. Climate scientists also highlight their remarkable ability to capture carbon from the atmosphere, contributing to climate mitigation efforts.

Residing along the southeastern coastline of Bangladesh, we can perceive the sounds of climate warnings through the change of patterns of natural events and hazards. But our politicians remain impervious to these warnings. They are not bothered by the repeated climate warnings. Environment-friendly development approaches in countries like Bangladesh remain elusive. Rather we continue with more concretization in the name of development and neglect the environmental degradation and escalating adverse effects of climate change, which has become the greatest existential threat facing all humanity today.

I often get reminded of what the renowned Australian public intellectual Clive Hamilton once wrote in an article for the Guardian newspaper: “We continue to plan for the future as if climate scientists don’t exist. The greatest shame is the absence of a sense of tragedy.”

There is no time to downplay the climate warning. Addressing the consequences of climate change and taking urgent action to build coastal resilience and ensure a sustainable future for this delta is the prime need of the hour.