Because of its geographical location, the multiplicity of rivers, and the monsoon climate, Bangladesh is one of the highly disaster-prone countries in the world. Flood, drought, cyclone, water-logging, tidal surge, tornado, thunderstorm, river erosion, and landslides are some of the disasters that are frequently experienced in Bangladesh. These disasters affect the lives of people, cause damage to infrastructure and economic assets, and directly affect the livelihoods of the poor people in the country while cyclones and floods particularly damage most. All these disasters trigger humanitarian crises in the country.
These disasters also cause hundreds of thousands of internal displacements each year. Over 200 natural disasters have affected Bangladesh in the last three decades.[i] Among the mentioned disasters, from 1970 to 2019, storms have been the most recurrent disaster to affect Bangladesh at 52%, followed by floods at 31%.[ii] Besides, due to climate change, the flood damage is increasing.
According to the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP), Bangladesh is one of the most multi-hazard risk-prone countries in the world. It also says that 77.6% of the population in Bangladesh live in high multi-hazard risk areas.
In reference to some recent major disasters, a cyclone that hit Chittagong, Bangladesh in April 1991 killed 138,866 people and affected 15,438849 people, and the total damage was UD$1.78 billion as per the Asian Disaster Reduction Center (ADRC).[iii] It was also reported that in November 2007, Cyclone ‘Sidr’ hit the coastal areas of Bangladesh that affected 8,978,541 people and killed 4,234 people. The economic damage caused by the cyclone was USD2.3 billion. Another cyclone ‘Aila’ hit Bangladesh on Monday 25 May 2009 and caused extensive damage across the areas of southern Bangladesh where 190 people were dead and 3,935,341 people were affected. Overall, the amount of total damage was USD270 million.
In 2019, disasters initiated more than 4 million new displacements that include pre-emptive evacuations before cyclones ‘Fani’ and ‘Bulbul’ made landfall.[iv] In addition, in the first half of 2020, 2,520,000 people were newly displaced as a result of disasters.
As per the report of the UN country office, Network for Information Response and Preparedness Activities on Disaster (NIRAPAD), and IDMC, Cyclone Amphan prompted 2.4 million pre-emptive evacuations to government shelters in Bangladesh in late May. Another 100,000 people were self-evacuated.[v] The vast majority of the people affected were able to return to their homes relatively quickly, but an unconfirmed number were displaced to host families and face the prospect of prolonged displacement. Monsoon rains triggered widespread floods that inundated about a quarter of the country a month later.
Almost 5.4 million people had been affected by the time the flooding reached its peak in early August.[vi] Thousands of health centers were also damaged, adding to pressure on a health system already beset by the Covid-19 pandemic.[vii] Many of the displaced people took refuge in government shelters, others on high ground, roadsides, and embankments.
Recent estimates also suggest that one in every 45 people in the world by 2050[viii] and one in every 7 people in Bangladesh[ix] will be displaced because of climate change. As per the estimation of The Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC), over 4.7 million people were displaced due to disasters in Bangladesh between 2008 and 2014.[x] Furthermore, an RMMRU-SCMR study (2013) estimates that from 2011 to 2050, as many as 16 to 26 million people would move out from their places of origin in Bangladesh due to a number of climatic hazards.[xi]
On the other hand, over the last 40 years, thousands of Rohingya people from the Rakhine State of Mynamar found their way to neighboring country Bangladesh, but the largest influx took place in August 2017. An estimated 745,000 Rohingya—including more than 400,000 children—have fled into Cox’s Bazar.[xii] As per the report of UNHCR, 866,457 Rohingya people are currently living in the camps in Cox’s Bazar as of December 2020.[xiii] With the sudden arrival of this amount of people in Cox’s Bazar, an area that is frequently exposed to natural hazards, the vulnerability of the local inhabitants in the area and the Rohingyas living in the camps increased more to natural hazards.
The response since then showed that existing disaster management mechanisms and processes in Bangladesh need improvement to handle large-scale, conflict-induced, and complex humanitarian emergencies such as a mass population movement in Cox’s Bazar.[xiv] The risk to the refugee population is high, as the camps are in predominantly low-lying areas vulnerable to flash flooding; the surrounding mud hillsides have been indiscriminately cut back to create rudimentary terraces for temporary shelters with no regard to the landslide hazard; and large areas of forest in the hills have been cut down to build makeshift shelters, further increasing the risk of landslides.
To tackle and strengthen effective response amid Covid-19, UN Bangladesh developed the HCTT Contingency Plan 2020 for Climate-Related Disasters in the COVID-19 Pandemic Context that looks at the risks of cyclones, floods, and landslides in Bangladesh in the context of COVID-19. In addition, a draft Humanitarian Preparedness and Response Plan (HPRP) for Climate-related Disasters in 2020, was developed based on the above referenced HCTT’s contingency plan.[xv]
It is undeniable that Bangladesh has made significant progress in disaster preparedness and mitigation in the last several decades, reducing the death toll during tropical cyclones from hundreds of thousands down to just hundreds of people.[xvi] The Disaster Management (DM) Policy (2015) places importance on financial resources for DM activities at all levels. The DM Act 2012 endorses the Standing Orders on Disaster (SOD) and provides a legal basis. The Ministry of Disaster Management and Relief (MoDMR) has the responsibility for coordinating national DM efforts and the National Disaster Management Council (NDMC) is the supreme body for providing overall direction. Despite some excellent initiatives and efforts from the Government, UN agencies, and local and international NGOs, there are still coordination gaps among these bodies that often result in the suffering of people.
In 2020, waves of monsoon floods came in several times, starting from late June and thrice in July. Due to heavy rains, some of the districts affected by floods experienced either fresh inundation or waterlogging caused by flash floods in late August. Likewise, cyclone Amphan impacted coastal districts in May and heavy rains and tidal waves in August and September, some of the cyclone-affected districts were freshly impacted by water-logging and flash flooding. People displaced during cyclone Amphan, could not get back to their homes due to floods, waterlogging, and embankment damage in a number of places particularly in water-logged coastal areas of Khulna, Satkhira districts. Amid the pandemic situation, these multiple waves of disaster both in floods, cyclones, and waterlogging areas triggered an extension of this humanitarian situation.
Since disasters hurt the poor and vulnerable the most, damages caused by all these disaster events can significantly roll back development progress. Disaster Risk Management (DRM) is therefore central to mitigate the losses and save the lives of people. Integrating DRM into development planning and investments in Bangladesh could better protect people and assets from rising disaster impacts. It is evident that complex and multifaceted disasters are the way of the future, therefore, require a multifaceted set of responses. Hence, longer-term investment in climate change adaptation and resilience programming, and consideration of an inclusive plan from the government and other stakeholders engaging the community in the decision making processes are the keys to cope and overcome these disaster-induced humanitarian emergencies in Bangladesh.