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Bangladesh Floods Cause Death and Destruction in Sylhet

PEKERKHAL, Bangladesh — Rohima Begum was cooking breakfast last week when water poured into her tin and bamboo house and started raging across the floor.

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

“I’m having a hard time here and I don’t know what comes next,” Ms Begum, 28, said this week at a school building in landlocked northeast Bangladesh, which has sheltered hundreds of flood victims.

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

But this year, the rains were particularly heavy, a harsh reminder that climate change is bringing more extreme weather around the world. In China, where recent floods have displaced hundreds of thousands of people, state-run news media reported this week that water levels in more than 100 rivers had risen above flood levels. In Bangladesh and northern India, recent floods have washed away cities and train stations, killing dozens of people and displacing millions of others.

At least 68 people had died in Bangladesh since mid-May from flood-related causes, including drowning, electrocution and landslides, government data shows. More than 4,000 people are infected with waterborne diseases. Crops have been destroyed.

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

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

As rescue operations continue, an immediate concern is that waterborne illness will affect more people, Mr Yett said, adding that he had already seen an increase in reports of diarrhea. Although the last rains have eased, he noted, more is forecast for the coming days and weeks.

“Long-term climate change emergencies don’t always make the front pages, which is why they sometimes disappear under the waves,” he added. “In Bangladesh, it’s both figuratively and literally.”

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

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

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

“Now we are past the stage where we wonder 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 is outdated and a frequent distraction from working on climate solutions.”

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

‘I’ve never seen a flood like this,’ said Mr Sattar, who took shelter Thursday in the same converted school building as Mrs Begum. “My father told me a lot of stories about their struggle, but he never told me about anything like this flood. It has ruined many of the villagers.”

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

Their schoolhouse shelter, which is located in a sunken area only accessible by boat, has one toilet for about 190 families. Bags of rice brought back by some flood victims have made it even busier.

When she arrived, Mrs. Begum had no provisions because she had left home in such a hurry. Initially, her family had to drink flood water, she said. They also didn’t eat for two days, until another family shared a meal with them.

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

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

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

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