Bangladesh Needs Nature-Based Solutions to Save Itself From Catastrophic Floods

Two devastating floods have locals still displaced with flooded homes.

Houses in Innatalipur village of South Surma Upazila of Sylhet are submerged in flood water.
Houses in Innatalipur village of South Surma Upazila of Sylhet are submerged in flood water.

Rafiqul Islam Montu

Abdul Momin poured his life savings into a house in Bangladesh's Sylhet district. Now, his new home has been sitting under floodwaters for over a month. "All my property was lost in the flood," the 40-year-old agriculture laborer tells Treehugger. "I'm living in someone else's house. I don't know when I can go to my home."

The Sylhet region was hit with two devastating floods this year that impacted 6 million people, according to local administration sources. The cumulative impact of both floods—the first took place on May 11 and the second on June 17—left 80% of Sylhet district flooded. Months later, flood victims are still displaced, as their homes remain submerged. The fortunate have found refuge in flood shelters, homes of relatives, or roadside shacks. While emergency food aid was provided to the victims, rehabilitation initiatives are limited.

The houses of Joykalas Noagaon village of South Sunamganj upazila of Sunamganj district are submerged in flood water.

Rafiqul Islam Montu

Dilara Begum's home sat in the Jayakals Noagaon village in the Sunamganj district—90% of this district was flooded—before it was washed away by flood water. While she and her family of nine found shelter on the highway during the flood, they have been living in shacks along the highway since.

Saheda Begum of Siddharchar village was not so fortunate—she lost her husband, the sole earner of her family, the night of the floods. Now she worries about her future and the fate of her family.

Stories like these are commonplace in the flood-affected areas of Bangladesh, as many people are temporarily displaced and face financial insecurity.

A man holding a child standing outside of their shack.
Many flood-affected families have lost their homes and are living in shacks along the highway.

Rafiqul Islam Montu

Flood Victims Were Not Prepared

For many in the Sylhet-Sunamganj area, the flooding was a first. Anwara Begum says she's never experienced anything like it in her 60 years of life. She, along with 30 flood-affected families, has been living in a primary school for more than three weeks.

"We did not realize that the flood water would rise so quickly. We have never seen such a big flood," Anwara Begum, who lives in Sylhet's Innatali Pur village, tells Treehugger. "We never had to leave our house due to flood. We have been living in shelters for over three weeks due to this year's floods. I don't know when I can return home. Our house is still under three feet of water."

Much like Anwara Begum, others like her in the area had no idea how to prepare for a natural calamity.

"The people of Sylhet region were not prepared for the flood. As a result, their losses have increased," Atiq A. Rahman, an international climate expert and executive director of Bangladesh Center for Advanced Studies, tells Treehugger. "People on the coast of Bangladesh can prepare due to frequent cyclones and floods. But the people of the Sylhet region are not used to preparing in that way because they have not faced such a big natural calamity before."

A family inside a shack in Bangladesh

Rafiqul Islam Montu

Climate Change Is the Culprit

Experts agree that man-made climate change is to blame for the floods this year. "Due to the effect of climate change, there is excess rain and excess drought," says Rahman.

Rahman says record rainfall in Cherrapunji, Meghalaya, India—the distance between Bangladesh and Cherrapunji is 25 kilometers—led to the flooding of the northeastern Sylhet region of Bangladesh. "This is due to climate change," he says.

Behind the heavy rains was the effect of La Nina. "La Nina is moderately active in the Pacific Ocean this year," Rashed Chowdhury, a researcher at Arizona State University, tells Treehugger. "This will lead to more rainfall across the Ganges and Brahmaputra basins, which will eventually lead to flooding again. There is a direct link between the activation of La Nina and floods in Bangladesh."

United Nations Development Program

“Bangladesh is one of the most climate vulnerable countries in the world. The country is frequently subjected to cyclones, floods, and storm surges due to the adverse impact of climate change. Around 35 million people who are living in 19 coastal districts of the country are in the highest level of climate risks. Experts suspected that due to global warming, 10-15% Bangladesh’s land could be inundated by 2050, resulting in over 25 million climate refugees from the coastal districts.”

Compounding the issue is the siltation of the rivers in the area and infrastructure challenges that prevented rainwater from moving south. "Excessive rainwater is not able to move causing the flood in Sylhet division to be so severe," says M. Saiful Islam of Bangladesh University of Engineering Institute of Flood and Water Management to Treehugger. "Various infrastructures have been constructed in the region, which is creating an obstruction in the flow of water. Because the water in this region goes down through the river. Rivers have also lost their navigability. Water cannot move quickly. Heavy rainfall in Cherrapunji is the main reason behind this sudden flood."

The situation is not expected to get better. "In August last year, the assessment report of the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) said that rainfall, cyclones, tidal waves, and floods will increase in the coming days in 11 countries of the world, including Bangladesh, due to the impact of climate change," says Rahman. "The situation is now getting out of control. The flood of Sylhet is proof of that prediction of scientists."

Experts Call for Nature-Based Solutions

Houses damaged by floods in Joykalas Noagaon village of South Sunamganj upazila of Sunamganj district.
Houses damaged by floods in Joykalas Noagaon village of South Sunamganj upazila of Sunamganj district.

Rafiqul Islam Montu

Experts are calling for a comprehensive rehabilitation initiative for flood-affected people in the northeastern region of Bangladesh. The nation needs to re-examine infrastructure investment plans for the area as well.

"Sylhet's devastating floods are a big warning for Bangladesh," Saleemul Huq, an international climate scientist and director of International Climate Change and Development, tells Treehugger. "The task for Bangladesh is to re-examine infrastructure investment plans for the Haor region and move towards more nature-based solutions to reduce future flood risk. The warning message to the world from the Sylhet floods is that human-induced climate change is now a reality everywhere. Attention should be paid to this issue."

"Bangladesh's preparation is enough if the temperature can be kept within 1.5 degrees. If it exceeds, then this preparation is not enough. Not only Bangladesh, but no country in the world also has enough preparation if it exceeds 1.5 degrees. We need to reduce our dependence on coal, oil, and natural gas. The power of the sun and wind should be used," says Huq.

In order to save the lives and livelihood of Bangladeshi people, it is essential to move towards more nature-based solutions to reduce the risk of future floods.

Mushtaq Ahmad, a professor in the civil and environmental engineering department of Shahjalal University of Science and Technology, tells Treehugger: "To protect Sylhet from floods, a long-term plan must be adopted. The rivers of Sylhet should be dug and increased in length, width, and depth with proper design and method. Indiscriminate hill cutting and pond filling in Sylhet should be stopped. The water of the Sylhet area comes out through Kalni river. Only by digging that river, the flood water can be removed quickly."

Climate change is an undeniable reality. As a planet, the collective goal to limit the average global temperature spike to 1.5 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels is essential. In the meantime, it's time to prioritize solutions for the many communities, like Bangladesh, that are already suffering the consequences of the man-made climate crisis.