Bangladesh Floods Cause Death and Destruction in Sylhet

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PEKERKHAL, Bangladesh — Rohima Begum was cooking breakfast last week when the floodwaters flowed into her tin-and-bamboo home and began racing across the floor.

Ms. Begum, her three children and her mother made a quick escape in a small boat. When they looked back, the house and their possessions had been swept away.

“I’m having a tough time here, and I don’t know what comes next,” Ms. Begum, 28, said this week at a school building in Bangladesh’s landlocked northeast where hundreds of flood victims have been sheltering.

The Asia-Pacific region is used to the occasional flood. In Bangladesh and elsewhere, the rhythms of local life have adapted over centuries to the annual monsoon that typically runs from June to September and provides water that farmers need to grow rice, a primary food in many countries.

But this year, the rains have been especially intense, a harsh reminder that climate change is bringing more extreme weather around the world. In China, where recent flooding has displaced hundreds of thousands of people, the state-run news media reported this week that water levels had surged beyond flood levels in more than a hundred rivers. In Bangladesh and northern India, recent flooding has washed away towns and train stations, killing dozens of people and displacing millions of others.

As of Friday, at least 68 people in Bangladesh had died since mid-May from flood-related causes, including drowning, electrocutions and landslides, government data show. More than 4,000 people have been infected with waterborne diseases. Crops have been devastated.

The northeast, an area that produces most of the rice for a country of about 170 million people, has been especially hard hit. At least 384,000 people have been displaced in Ms. Begum’s home region of Sylhet, one of six in the northeast, said Mosharraf Hossain, the divisional commissioner.

“Every piece of real estate in Bangladesh is populated, and this entire area is underwater,” said Sheldon Yett, the United Nations Children’s Fund representative to the country, referring to the northeast.

As rescues continue, an immediate concern is that waterborne diseases will affect more people, Mr. Yett said, adding that he had already seen a rise in reports of diarrhea. Though the latest rains were tapering off, he noted, more is in the forecast for the coming days and weeks.

“Protracted climate change emergencies don’t always get front-page coverage, and because of that they sometimes disappear beneath the waves,” he added. “In Bangladesh it’s figurative as well as literal.”

Linking climate change to a single flood event requires extensive scientific analysis. But climate change, which is already causing heavier rainfall in many storms, is an increasingly important part of the mix. Warmer atmosphere holds, and releases, more water.

Scientists have determined that global warming made the record rainfall that led to devastating floods in Germany and Belgium last summer much more likely. In South Asia, recent research has strengthened the theory that climate change is disrupting the annual monsoon.

India and Bangladesh are particularly vulnerable to climate change because they sit near the tropical waters of the Indian Ocean and the Bay of Bengal. In 2020, torrential rains left at least a quarter of Bangladesh submerged. Last year, extreme rainfall and landslides washed away a sprawling Rohingya refugee camp overnight.

“Now, we are past the phase of asking if each of these extreme weather events is due to climate change,” said Roxy Mathew Koll, a climate scientist at the Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology. “The question has become obsolete and a frequent distraction from working toward climate solutions.”

Abdus Sattar, 70, a former village mayor in northeastern Bangladesh, is not a climate scientist. But he had no trouble putting the scale of the latest floods in historical context.

“I’ve never seen a flood like this,” said Mr. Sattar, who was sheltering on Thursday in the same converted school building as Ms. Begum. “My father used to tell me many stories of their struggles, but he never told me about anything like this flood. It has ruined many of the villagers.”

Ms. Begum, her mother and her three children, aged 4 to 10, fled to the schoolhouse in Pekerkhal after their home was washed away on June 17. Her husband has been in Saudi Arabia for the last six months, looking for a job in construction.

Their schoolhouse shelter, which sits in a submerged area accessible only by boat, has one toilet for about 190 families. The sacks of rice that some flood victims brought have made it even more crowded.

When she arrived, Ms. Begum had no provisions because she had left her home in such a hurry. Initially, her family had to drink floodwater, she said. They also did not eat for two days, until another family shared a meal with them.

They now have a small stockpile of rice, sugar and bottled water provided by aid workers, Ms. Begum said. But her children still cry.

“My mother says I’m a beautiful woman,” she said. “But in the last week I became ugly.”

Saif Hasnat reported from Pekerkhal, Bangladesh, and Mike Ives from Seoul.

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