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Climate crisis ravages Bangladesh as rich nations look away: 'It's already too late'

Natural disasters are growing in severity, but wealthy countries still haven't delivered on their $100 billion promise of climate aid to poor nations, including Bangladesh.

Khulna, 2009: Off the coast of Bangladesh, 11-year-old Sufiya Khatan watched as Cyclone Aila relentlessly tore her village apart. Winds blowing faster than highway speed limits swept her mother to the ground, and her neighbors held on to precious family photos while their mud homes sank into the earth.

"Our entire Satkhira district was flooded," said Vaskar Mondol about the remote area where he resides. He's another victim of the nation's increasingly frequent natural disasters. 

At just 9 years old, Mondol was forced to leave his house for a month when Aila ripped through and destroyed about 90% of the houses in his neighborhood, washing away couches, dining tables, bed frames and countless other items of domestic life. Citizens of his town were forced to restart their lives. Some didn't get the chance.

"Many old people, children and women drowned," Mondol said. In total, Aila killed 113 Bangladeshi people

In 2013, another cyclone blew through, and the tragedy started to become routine. Over the next four years, calamity became an annual event. In 2017, 2018, 2019 and 2020, villagers' jolts of fear turned into passive, prolonged anguish. And this past May, Khatan and Mondol, who are now in their 20s, witnessed their community's devastation yet another time as Cyclone Yaas hit.

While these hurricane-like storms aren't new, the climate crisis has upped their severity and frequency, says Saleemul Huq, director of Bangladesh's International Centre for Climate Change and Development. 

And it's not just cyclones devastating the South Asian country.

"Every year, [during] the monsoon period we have floods," Huq said. "Normal floods are fine, but every 20 years we get a big flood -- and now, in the last 20 years, we've had five of them."

Bangladesh, which has a population of over 166 million, has long been the global face of the nations most threatened by global warming. Sometimes called "ground zero" for climate change, the land -- especially its shore -- is imperiled due to its positioning between two main rivers, the Brahmaputra and Ganges. Many regions are prone to drought, too.

"Climate change, to us, does not need an IPCC report," Huq said, referring to the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. "We just look out the window or walk down the street in heavy rainfall, in knee-deep or waist-deep water, and we know it's happening."

Bangladesh's status as a developing nation also means it doesn't have enough financial resources for protective or reparative measures. Houses in remote areas, many of which have mud or clay foundations because of those materials' cheaper costs, are prone to water damage and seawater salt retention to the point of becoming uninhabitable. 

Damaged mud homes in Khulna after Cyclone Yaas

Inundated and damaged mud homes in Khulna after this past May's Cyclone Yaas.

Sufiya Khatan

"It's a combination of geography, population and poverty," Huq said. About one-fifth of the population lives below the poverty line.

River embankments, meant to protect residents from such harm, are eroded with these now twice-yearly disasters. They often completely disappear. 

"The water of the river enters and destroys our crop fields, which I think is a major cause of the food crisis," Mondol said. Last year, the United Nations World Food Programme announced that 25% of Bangladesh's population is food insecure and 32% of Bangladeshi children under the age of five suffer from stunting, a result of chronic malnutrition.

In 2020, Cyclone Amphan ravaged trees and buildings in the college student's hometown, leaving the area "absolutely destitute." 

Richer countries, like the United States, have tried stepping up to help. 

Flood waters outside Khulna, Bangladesh

A disappearing embankment in the outskirts of Khulna following Cyclone Amphan in 2020.

Sufiya Khatan

A hopeful promise, broken

During 2009's climate conference in Copenhagen, wealthy nations agreed to give poorer countries a total of $100 billion by 2020 to keep citizens safe. They also promised $100 billion for every year after that. 

But instead of delivering on their word, these countries have since been arguing over fiscal allocation or, simply, who owes what. Meanwhile, poorer countries like Bangladesh are left to fend for themselves.

"It's already too late," Huq said. "2020 has come and gone, and they only delivered $79 billion. ... In 2021, it would be another $100 billion, but they're talking about the $100 billion as if it's a one-off $100 billion."

Even that $79 billion, Huq says, is the product of years of pleading. This past July, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said that "to rebuild trust, developed countries must clarify now how they will effectively deliver $100 billion in climate finance annually to the developing world, as was promised over a decade ago."

Flood waters wash over a ravaged embankment in Bangladesh

Following Cyclone Amphan, flood waters wash over a ravaged embankment.

Vaskar Mondol

While $100 billion sounds like a lot, Huq notes that developing nations require much more if they are to succeed in combating climate change. "The needs are in the trillions," he says.

To make matters worse, wealthy nations are among the highest contributors to global carbon emissions. A recent report calculates the US' carbon emissions output to be the second highest in the world, at about 5 billion tons in 2021. Germany is No. 6 on the list, and the United Kingdom stands at 15. Bangladesh doesn't even make the top 20, but it's the citizens of such developing nations, like Mondol and Khatan, who are most impacted by the climate crisis.

In September, President Joe Biden pledged to double the amount the US will add to the $100 billion pool. But given the belabored efforts, for the last 10 years Bangladesh hasn't depended on international funds, Huq says.

"We created a climate change trust fund. Every year, the finance minister has been putting $100 million of our own money. And then in the last three years we created a climate budget."

Picking up the pieces

There's a bitter silver lining: Bangladesh is now recognized as a world leader in adapting to the consequences of climate change, including severe flooding and forest degradation. 

A deteriorating mangrove forest in Bangladesh

A deteriorating mangrove forest in Bangladesh. 

Sufiya Khatan

"We moved significantly forward from simply ascertaining and declaring vulnerability, towards doing something about it," Huq said.

Huq has regularly attended international climate summits, including this year's COP26 in Glasgow, Scotland. During 2015's Paris Accord meetings, held at the Le Bourget airport, he made a startling observation.

"People were seeing a big conference with flags of 200 countries flying. The Parisians who [were] going by obviously knew there was something big happening there, but most of the time, most of them probably had no clue what was going on," Huq said. 

On the inside were private crews from Bangladesh that had traveled to Paris at their own expense. As global government representatives met about the state of the climate crisis, most people in Bangladesh were well aware of what was going as they earnestly followed the summit.

And since the Paris conference, Bangladeshi citizens have paid close attention to climate fluctuations, underlining their outstanding involvement in managing the detrimental impacts of global warming. For instance, Khatan was motivated to pursue a master's degree in disaster management and, like others in her community, she volunteers at an organization that helps deal with the ramifications of climate change. Mondol does too.

Vaskar Mondol and his volunteer youth group

Vaskar Mondol (left, standing) and his volunteer youth group working to help the community adapt to climate change.

Vaskar Mondol

But even for a nation leading the charge, climate adaptation isn't without its challenges. Khatan emphasizes that the aftermath of evacuation isn't always a story of reprieve. "The government, and sometimes nongovernment NGOs, help [evacuees] to recover from this situation, but most people don't get these facilities," she said. "They either leave the place or migrate and take shelter in the city area."

Those shelters are located in city slums.

A temporary settlement on an embankment following Cyclone Amphan

A temporary settlement on an embankment following Cyclone Amphan.

Sufiya Khatan

But the process of evacuation in general, Huq says, represents success for Bangladesh. "We can evacuate 3 million people so they will move out of the way," he said. "We still have huge damage, but we don't lose lives anymore."

After Cyclone Amphan, most of the thousands of people who evacuated the area weren't able to go home because their houses had washed away. Now they're now living in the slums of Dhaka and Khulna.

"But they didn't die," Huq said. 

Climate change won't wait for political agreement

Though a lot can be done to face the forces of climate change, and so much already has been done in Bangladesh and other developing nations, Huq argues that we need global unity. This crisis is a human problem, Huq stresses, and not a political one.

"I think the paradigm shift that is taking place now is that everybody is vulnerable," Huq said. "Being rich doesn't make you immune. The poor may be poor, but they know a lot about dealing with adversity and problems."

To survive the catastrophes that climate change has unleashed on Bangladesh's financially struggling villages, residents formed a system that champions dependability.

Satellite images, warning systems that send out notifications about impending cyclones and other infrastructure have helped to prevent loss of life when a hurricane hits or extreme flooding occurs, but, Huq says, it's also largely people knowing what to do -- and simply helping each other. 

A destroyed house of after Cyclone Amphan.

A destroyed house of one of Mondol's neighbors after Cyclone Amphan.

Vaskar Mondol

Members of Khatan's community have become experts in responding to cyclone signals. A heartwarming aspect of that readiness to react is the role young people have taken in helping older individuals escape the headspace of helplessness. As Khatan puts it, "youth know the best in the present scenario."

"Every schoolkid knows what to do. They have regular rehearsals," Huq said. Children have assignments to save people from every household, particularly vulnerable households such as those sheltering widows and people with disabilities so "nobody gets left behind." 

Khatan notes that most people don't want to leave their neighborhoods, their homes. 

"Parents and grandparents don't like to evacuate," Huq said. "They'll say we've seen this before. We're not going to go. We're going to stay home. But they make them go."

With the encouragement of their peers who have gained their trust, everyone evacuates. Schoolchildren, volunteers and friends save one another's lives. 

Bangladesh's story of vulnerability molding into determination illustrates how camaraderie can counterbalance the disasters of climate change. And if we magnify the resilient country's tenets, we'll also find a clear picture of why the promise of $100 billion per year shouldn't be seen as a favor, but rather a necessity. 

"Nobody gets left behind."