OPINION: The era of loss and damage from climate change is upon us

by Saleemul Huq | International Centre for Climate Change and Development
Tuesday, 20 July 2021 19:36 GMT

A man looks on outside a house in an area affected by floods caused by heavy rainfalls in Bad Muenstereifel, Germany, July 19, 2021. REUTERS/Wolfgang Rattay

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

As extreme weather worsens, what can Germany and other disaster-hit countries learn from well-prepared at-risk nations like Bangladesh?

Saleemul Huq is director of the Internationl Centre for Climate Change and Development in Bangladesh and a senior fellow at the International Institute for Environment and Development.

Sitting in Dhaka, Bangladesh I have been glued to my TV watching the heart-rending loss of so many lives and so much property due to the horrendous flash floods in Germany over the last few days.

My heart goes out to all the victims. 

However, what has struck me about the large number of deaths that have been announced so far, with many still missing, is: This would not have happened in Bangladesh, where floods are a regular phenomenon every year during the monsoon season. 

Bangladesh has several different types of floods in different parts of the country, including the overflow from two of the world's mightiest rivers, the Ganges and Brahmaputra, during the monsoon months as well as flash floods , like the ones in Germany, from the river Meghna in the northeastern part of the country whenever there is heavy rainfall in the hills across the border in India. 

We also have urban floods of short duration when cities like Dhaka and Chittagong get very heavy downpours. And then there are coastal floods associated with cyclones that affect low lying coastal parts of the country.

One can safely say that Bangladesh is a country of rivers, cyclones and floods which in years past would have caused huge numbers of deaths at times.

However, over the years Bangladesh has invested in making sure that we no longer lose lives when such disasters strike us. Now we can claim one of the best disaster warning systems, with evacuation plans and shelters for people. That means even though we still get a lot of floods and cyclones and they still cause a lot of damage to crops and infrastructure, we have minimised the loss of human lives to a very significant extent.

The loss of lives I saw in Germany over the last few days would not be thinkable in Bangladesh anymore.

Therefore I would like to offer some lessons from Bangladesh to Germany - and other rich countries who are equally unprepared.

The first is that the citizens living in a hazardous zone must all know about the hazard and be prepared to take actions when it occurs.

In parts of Bangladesh prone to cyclones and floods, children learn this in school and do regular simulations. Children are one of the major routes to ensuring families know what to do when they get warnings to evacuate.

The second major investment has been in technology to forecast and track both cyclones and floods so the Meteorological Department can issue regular updates to everyone on where things stand and when to expect the cyclone or flood to reach us. 

The third investment has been in dissemination of Information to every citizen in the country – something now easier as almost every adult has a mobile phone through which they can receive the warnings.

Many even have smart phones on which they can watch the flood or cyclone from satellites in real time and figure out for themselves how much time they have before they have to evacuate. 

At the same time warnings are issued over radio and television as well as disseminated by thousands of volunteers from the Red Crescent and NGOs.

The final investment that is now beginning to take place is to make sure that the country is adapted to the future impacts of climate change which, unfortunately, will enhance the intensity of what used to be normal floods and cyclones in the coming years.

The scientific community has already given the verdict that such unusually strong floods and cyclones are now attributable to human-induced climate change as the global mean temperature has risen by more than one degree Celsius due to emissions of greenhouse gases by humans.

So while we need to redouble our efforts to reduce emissions and also to adapt to the impacts of climate change, I would argue that we have now entered the era of having to deal with loss and damage from human-induced climate change.

Chancellor Angela Merkel has already announced a 300-million-euro fund to help the flood victims in Germany, and this figure is likely to rise into the billions before it is over. This is actually funding the victims of loss and damage from human-induced climate change.

While she is quite right to be willing to come up with the money for her own citizens, she needs to also consider providing similar funding for the victims of climate change in poorer countries who have been asking for help to deal with loss and damage without any success so far.

Funding of loss and damage for the victims of human-induced climate change in the most vulnerable developing countries is likely to be a major expectation from the upcoming U.N. COP26 climate negotiations to be held in Glasgow in the United Kingdom in November.

As extreme weather grows, for all of us, not addressing loss and damage adequately will lead to the failure of the COP for many vulnerable developing countries.