Ahead of the UN Climate Change Conference (COP26), which begins this Sunday, Islamic Relief’s Country Director for Islamic Relief Bangladesh, Akmal Shareef, describes the climate challenges facing the country, and a series of recent round table aimed at addressing them.

Climate change is an issue that touches all of our lives and one to which the people of Bangladesh are particularly vulnerable.

Much of the country stands at low elevation, meaning flooding is a constant threat, particularly during monsoon season.

The country experiences cyclones every year, with 2-3 storms claiming human lives and damaging infrastructure along the coastal belt.

In 2020, an abnormally strong storm severely impacted nine of the Bangladesh’s districts, and left millions of people across the country and neighbouring India without power.

Bangladeshis have always moved to escape the effects of the country’s extreme weather, and some 18 million people have already been forced from their homes by rising sea levels alone.

But, with its high population density, poor infrastructure, and the world’s largest refugee settlement, Bangladesh is fast running out of room.

Voices from the community

As part of our commitment to protecting the planet and its people from the impacts of climate change, Islamic Relief held consultations across 10 Bangladeshi cities to hear from communities ahead of COP26.

Respondents raised their concerns about heavy rains and floods, which are happening more frequently, as well as the impact of climate change on the health and livelihood of individuals.

They also discussed how climate change can contribute to the serious issues of migration, the abuse of women and children, and early and forced marriage.

The people we spoke to pointed to the importance of raising awareness and adapting to the changing climate, as well as preparing for increasingly extreme weather with initiatives such as planting more trees to help combat flooding.

One of Islamic Relief climate change events in Bangladesh

Following the consultations, we organised 3 events, the last of which gave activists and others the chance to speak directly to a government minister and other leaders.

I was particularly struck by the words of a schoolgirl, who at one of the events took the opportunity to share a troubling statistic with the country’s minister of planning, M.A. Mannan:

“It has been estimated that 1 out of 7 citizens of Bangladesh will be displaced by climate change by 2050, particularly due to the sea level rising,” says the young girl.

“Can you let us know if we will be able to live at Sunamganj, a Haor [wetland] area, after 30 years? Or will we need to swim like fish, in search of land?”

The importance of accountability

At our second event, we shared the concerns of the communities we’d heard from during our consultation work and opened a discussion on possible ways forward.

The government was urged to come up with a robust, inclusive, resilient, and sustainable national plan to address the impacts of climate change.

Specialists in the field of development were also invited to respond to the comments from the communities.

“Climate change is here, it is real,” says Judith Herbertson, development director at the British High Commission in Dhaka, adding that it was essential for richer countries to assist poorer nations in responding to climate change.

“This is about climate justice,” she says.

One of Islamic Relief’s climate change events in Bangladesh

Crucial to protecting people from climate change is effective government policy, and this was the focus of the first event in the programme.

Bangladesh’s Minister for Disaster Management and Relief Dr. Md. Enamur Rahman, was the guest of honour at the event, which addressed authorities’ ability to plan for disasters and respond to them effectively.

Dr Shawkat Ara Begum, country director for anti-poverty charity Practical Action, raised the point that Bangladesh’s unique vulnerability to climate change meant “governance and accountability must be ensured at both a national and international level.”

Dr Rahman described Bangladesh as “a role model for managing disasters,” and said that work was under way to improve the country’s defences against earthquakes.

Despite the serious threat climate change poses to our country, the programme of events ended on an optimistic note.

The mayor of Sylhet city promised a tax rebate for residents who took part in rooftop gardening, while federal government representatives pledged to only implement climate-friendly projects going forward.

Protecting the planet and its people from the effects of climate change is a key focus of Islamic Relief’s work in Bangladesh and around the world.

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