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Bangladesh faces a double disaster because the coronavirus offers a brand new blow to the flood-hit nation

After the landing of Cyclone Amphan in Assasuni, Satkhira District, Bangladesh, a family takes temporary shelter at the community clinic. Taken on June 5, 2020.

Zabed Hasnain Chowdhury | SOPA Images / LightRocket | Getty Images

Bangladesh faces a double crisis of extreme weather disasters and a pandemic that has so far killed thousands of people.

In addition to battling the heaviest rainfall in recent years, the South Asian nation is also struggling to contain the coronavirus outbreak that has hampered recovery efforts and hurt employment prospects.

The people most vulnerable to the Covid-19 pandemic are the same ones who "live on the front lines of climate change," Afsari Begum, senior disaster risk reduction specialist at Development Aid Practical Action told CNBC.

"We are concerned that many people will continue to be driven into poverty as a result of the coronavirus. If communities are hit by violent storms and floods that destroy or damage homes, farmland, schools and hospitals, it will only make the situation worse." She said in a report commissioned by the Zurich Flood Resilience Alliance to help countries build their flood resilience.

Extreme weather

According to official sources from the ministry, the annual monsoon season in Bangladesh usually lasts from June to September.

In May, Cyclone Amphan – reputedly the most intense cyclone in Bangladesh in two decades – devastated coastal villages, leaving half a million people homeless while another million were cut off from electricity.

To top it off, Bangladesh experienced "the worst flood in decade" of sustained heavy monsoon rains that began in June, the country's head of flood forecasting and warning center Arifuzzaman Bhuiyan told Agence France-Presse.

Given widespread unemployment in addition to temporary lockdowns between late March and early August, millions of locals have been stranded with little access to food and health care while exposed to water-borne diseases in their overcrowded homes.

Desperate local conditions have hampered public health measures such as social distancing and increased hand washing, said Hasina Rahman, interim country director for Bangladesh at international humanitarian nonprofit Concern Worldwide. She said people can't even afford food – let alone soap, hand sanitizer and masks.

Before the pandemic, many of the rural poor in Bangladesh traditionally had to deal with seasonal flooding by finding jobs in nearby towns, such as B. in clothing production or pulling rickshaws, and returned to their farms when the water level dropped. Others went overseas to find long-term jobs in sectors such as construction and housework.

We see desperate workers willing to accept very low wages in extremely dangerous conditions with no serious health and safety protection, let alone social distancing or personal protective equipment.

Jon Hartough

Country Director for Bangladesh, Solidarity Center

This year, economic stagnation and job losses under Covid-19 have forced workers to return to their flood-prone villages, where there are even less economic opportunities. This has destroyed remittance flows from overseas and the urban centers of Bangladesh.

Many more rural poor people in Bangladesh are afraid to seek refuge in evacuation centers and some even choose to live on their rooftops to escape the water, said Begum, who feared losing the small land they own.

However, their weak grip on their only life good is steadily disappearing. Over the years, the rise in sea levels has caused the freshwater supply to be infiltrated by saltwater, affecting agricultural production. In addition, soil erosion has ravaged their land due to climate change, forcing them to increasingly prioritize freshwater for irrigation and their livestock as they travel further to find safe drinking water for their own households.

"Vicious circle" of poverty and disaster

After a while these poor people stopped caring about what was going to happen. You really see very little difference between starving yourself and dying from the virus.

Afsari Begum

Practical action

When Bangladesh reopened hundreds of garment factories in April, thousands of desperate workers streamed back to overcrowded industrial areas, including the capital Dhaka, which is where the bulk of the coronavirus infections reported in the country currently occur.

"We see desperate workers willing to accept very low wages in extremely dangerous conditions, without serious health and safety protection, let alone social distancing or personal protective equipment," said Jon Hartough, country director for Bangladesh at the nonprofit firm, Solidarity Center .

"It's a vicious circle of poverty, disaster and recovery," Rahman said, adding that the cumulative impact of shock after shock affects Bangladeshi locals, whose meager life savings have dried up.

Begum agreed, saying, "After a while these poor people … stopped caring about what was going to happen. They really see little difference between starving and dying from the virus."

Uncertainty of Climate Change

For now, at least one hope is that the coronavirus pandemic will subside if a vaccine is successfully developed. Bangladesh has reported over 337,500 coronavirus cases and more than 4,700 deaths so far, according to Johns Hopkins University.

However, fighting climate change is much less secure.

"There are still many such crisis moments to come," said Begum, adding that there are "more frequent and more intense" climate disasters.

The latest figures from the World Resources Institute show that China accounts for more than 26% of global emissions, the US 14% and the European Union 9.6%. Bangladesh accounted for less than 0.35% of global greenhouse gas emissions in 2014, according to the country's Ministry of Forestry and Environment.

Local officials and humanitarian aid agencies have urged the global community to better comply with the 2015 Paris Agreement, which includes a combined pledge of $ 100 billion by 2020 to invest in the resilience of vulnerable nations against climate change.

"Unfortunately, not enough of this money actually reaches the people at the front," said Begum. "The industrialized countries are not keeping their promises. They cannot allocate climate finance to the poorest countries."

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