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The role of climate change — even if only partial — in helping to trigger the current floods of Bangladesh increases the moral duty of rich nations to provide assistance. The issue is all the more pressing as the frequency of flooding is likely to increase in the future.

As Bangladesh faces the consequences of its worst floods in six years, leaving some 600 dead and at least 30 million people homeless or stranded, the question is inevitably being asked: have these floods been caused by human-induced climate change?

There is no straight answer; indeed it may be impossible to attribute this particular flood event to climate change. But what can be said with certainty is that such events will occur with increasing frequency in the future, due to changes in the global climate system caused by greenhouse gas emissions attributable to human activities.

In its last report, published in 2001, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) — set up by the United Nations to examine the evidence for climate change — stated unequivocally that human-induced climate change is taking place.

The IPCC's conclusions are based on observations from some of the world’s leading scientists, who have recorded unprecedented changes in climatic patterns, along with global circulation models that also predict that the atmosphere will get warmer over the next five to ten decades.

Such models also confidently predict that this atmospheric warming will cause sea levels to rise by several metres over the next five to seven hundred years. In contrast, however, the IPCC's degree of confidence is much lower in short- and medium-term predictions — i.e. between five and 20 years. It is also relatively difficult to model the types of changes in climate that may be triggered by global atmospheric warming.

Floods and cyclones are among the extremes of natural climatic variation. We are, therefore, naturally interested to know about the likelihood of such extreme events in a warmer world.

Climate modellers are currently unable to make accurate predictions about such extreme events. But in the short term, they can already say that they are likely to become more frequent, even if not necessarily more severe.

For example, 'once-in-20-year' events, such as the current flood, could now occur every five years. This prediction is supported by the fact that the last flood of similar magnitude occurred not 20 years ago (as we might have expected without any global warming) but only six years ago, in 1998.

Of course, this does not prove conclusively that this flood is due to global warming. But the modelling work of climate scientists does suggest the frequency of such floods will be much greater in future than in the past. And that means that we need to be better prepared for such floods in future.

In the case of the present floods, the public warning about rising waters was made known several days in advance, and those likely to be affected were able to take some — admittedly quite inadequate — measures.

Given the increasing accuracy of predictions, based on a combination of weather forecasting and aerial monitoring of river and irrigation systems, there will no longer be any excuse in future for saying that the floods came as a surprise.

Bangladesh needs to be ready for such disasters every year from now, just as if it were putting the country on a war footing. If the floods turn out to be moderate, the country will not have lost much. But if they are severe, Bangladesh will be better prepared, and better preparation will considerably reduce the adverse impacts.

The prudent course to follow is to prepare for the worst-case scenario.

This requires a wide range of changes in attitudes and actions across Bangladesh. These include:

  • improved meteorological and hydrological information for prediction and warning;
  • making flood warning more accurate with respect to which localities will be affected, by how much and when;
  • improving evacuation procedures, providing safe shelters on raised ground, building all future roads at higher levels with more sluice gates to allow flow of flood water;
  • building protective embankments for high capital value infrastructure or densely populated areas only (it will be impossible to protect everyone and everywhere);
  • stockpiling water purification tablets, medicines and dry food;
  • preparing health centres for patients with diarrhoea and snake bites; and
  • preparing seed beds for seedlings after the floods recede.

In addition, multiple other actions need to be taken by those at all levels: from national policy makers to those working for sectoral ministries, local administrations, political parties, non-governmental organisations (NGOs), colleges, schools, and finally down to individual citizens.

It may seem from the above analysis that the future for Bangladesh looks bleak with respect to future floods. But it does not necessarily have to be that bad, and there are at least a couple of important, albeit small, silver linings behind the dark, rain-laden clouds.

Firstly, with better information, preparation, warning, action and rehabilitation, the adverse impacts of severe events such as this year's floods can be reduced; this was already well demonstrated during the floods of 1998, and hopefully will be demonstrated again in 2004. The national and local administration, NGOs and private citizens have risen to the challenge in the past and can do so again in the future.

Second is the fact that floods caused — even if only partly — by climate change are fundamentally different from 'normal' floods. Even though scientists cannot (yet) attribute an exact percentage to the role of climate change in such events, they are reasonably sure it is greater than zero, and will be able to make an increasingly accurate estimate of the contribution over the next few years.

This opens up an entirely new level of calculation for the floods. In the past, they could be attributed entirely to 'acts of God' (or nature). In future they will also be at least partially attributable to human acts as well.

Furthermore, it is also widely recognised that it is the rich countries of the world that are primarily responsible for the problem of global warming. And that puts a political slant on the allocation of responsibility both for extreme events themselves, and for efforts to mitigate their impact.

In future, therefore, when affected countries demand assistance from the rich countries of the world in helping address climate-related disasters such as floods, it will not be for a request for charity but for compensation, appealing to their moral responsibility, if not their legal liability, to make good the damage and destruction for which their activities have, directly or indirectly, been partially responsible.

Saleemul Huq is director, Climate Change Programme, International Institute for Environment and Development, UK and chairman, Bangladesh Centre for Advanced Studies. He is also the chair of SciDev.Net's advisory panel on climate change. This editorial is adapted from an article published in The Daily Star (Dhaka, Bangladesh) on 4 August.