Climate change factor in ‘unprecedented’ floods in South Asia

SYLHET, Bangladesh (AP) – Scientists say climate change is a factor behind erratic and early rains that caused unprecedented floods in Bangladesh and northeastern India, killing dozens and making life miserable for millions of others.

Although the region is not unknown floodit usually takes place later in the year when the monsoon rains are well underway.

This year’s heavy rainfall hit the area as early as March. It may take much longer to determine the extent to which climate change played a role in the flooding, but scientists say it has made monsoons — a seasonal change in weather usually associated with heavy rainfall — more variable in recent decades. This means that much of the rain that is expected to fall in a year arrives within the span of weeks.

The northeastern Indian state of Meghalaya received nearly three times the amount of rain in June in the first three weeks of the month, and neighboring Assam received twice the monthly average during the same period. Several rivers, including one of the largest in Asia, flow downstream from the two states into the Bay of Bengal in low-lying Bangladesh, a densely populated delta country.

With more rain forecast over the next five days, Bangladesh’s Flood Forecast and Warning Center warned on Tuesday that water levels would remain dangerously high in the northern regions of the country.

The pattern of monsoons, vital to the agricultural economies of India and Bangladesh, has been shifting since the 1950s, with longer dry spells interspersed with heavy rain, said Roxy Matthew Koll, a climate scientist at the Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology in Pune, adding that extreme rainfall was also expected to increase.

Until now, floods in northwestern Bangladesh have been rare, while Assam state, famous for its tea cultivation, has mostly experienced flooding later in the year during the usual monsoon season. The sheer amount of early rain this year that ravaged the region in just a few weeks makes the current flooding an “unprecedented” situation, said Anjal Prakash, a research director at India’s Bharti Institute of Public Policy who contributed to a report by the government. UN sponsored research on global warming.

“This is something we’ve never heard of and never seen,” he said.

A total of 36 people have died in Bangladesh since May 17, while Indian authorities reported that flood deaths have risen to 78 in Assam state, and 17 others have been killed in landslides.

Hundreds of thousands have been displaced and millions in the region have been forced to rush to makeshift evacuation centers.

Some, such as Mohammad Rashiq Ahamed, a shop owner in Sylhet, the hardest-hit city in northeastern Bangladesh, have returned home with their families concerned to see what can be saved. As he waded through knee-deep water, he said he was afraid the water would rise again. “The weather is changing… another disaster could happen at any moment.”

He is one of about 3.5 million Bangladeshis who face the same predicament each year when rivers overflow, according to a 2015 analysis by the World Bank Institute.

The country of 160 million people is considered one of the most vulnerable to climate change and the poor are disproportionately affected.

Mohammad Arfanuzzaman, a climate change expert at the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization, said catastrophic floods like this year’s could have far-reaching consequences, from farmers losing their crops and trapped in a cycle of debt to children left out of be able to attend school and are at increased risk of disease.

“Poor people are suffering a lot from the ongoing flooding,” he said.

Ghosal reported from New Delhi. Associated Press writers Julhas Alam of Dhaka, Bangladesh, and Victoria Milko of Jakarta, Indonesia, contributed to this report.

The Associated Press Health and Science Department is supported by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Department of Science Education. The AP is solely responsible for all content.

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