Given the current climatic shifts, Cyclone Fani may be the least of our worries
Tens of thousands of Rohingya refugees in camps across Bangladesh are at imminent risk of El Niño-related drought this year.
The refugees are living on the steep, deforested slopes of sand and clay in the Kutupalong-Balukhali camps located in Ukhia, Cox’s Bazar. Thousands of hand-built tarpaulin and bamboo shelters are threatened by strong winds and cyclones during the monsoon season and now they face the added danger of drought.
A dry season is likely to hit soon in Bangladesh and the barren hills in Cox’s Bazar are particularly vulnerable. In a nutshell, the situation in the Rohingya camps is a disaster waiting to happen.
Despite criticism, the emerging research on the effects of water scarcity on armed conflict has produced an important insight that “a negative change in water accessibility appears to be harder to adapt to and potentially more important for conflict.” Similarly, civil conflicts arising throughout the tropics double during warm or dry or drought (El Niño) years relative to normal or cold or flood (La Ninã) years (note that La Ninã is the opposite of El Niño; also note that El Niño/La Niña is a complex interaction between the tropical Pacific Ocean and the global atmosphere that results in changing ocean/weather patterns).
While El Niño is the warming of sea surface temperature (SST) in the eastern Pacific (EP), La Niña is just the opposite: The cooling of SSTs in the EP. El Niño brings drought or drier than normal weather (eg in 1983, 1997, and 2015) while La Niña brings floods or wetter than normal weather (eg in 1988, 1998, and 2017) for Bangladesh.
El Niño (and La Ninã) may have had a role in 21% of all civil conflicts since 1950 and is the first demonstration that the stability of modern societies is strongly related to the global climate. Bangladesh also had serious civil conflicts and political unrest during the El Niño years in 1970-72, 1982-83, 1991, and 2013-14. Therefore, the forthcoming El Niño is a matter of concern for Bangladesh.
Currently, there is a 60-70% chance of an El Niño developing by summer this year. Initially, it looked like Warm Pool El Niño (or El Niño-Modoki), but it is currently changing to conventional El Niño. This El Niño could have an enormous global impact and may be even more severe than previous occurrences. This can cause lower than normal rainfall, warmer than normal temperatures, higher possibility of drought, and higher than normal cyclonic activities for the next six to eight months in Bangladesh, particularly in the Chittagong and Cox’s Bazar area.
Droughts during El Niño may be interrupted by devastating cyclones, as we witnessed in November 29-30, 1997 and April 29-30, 1991, which killed 150,000 people. The recent tropical Cyclone Fani -- which is the strongest storm in 20 years that made landfall in India -- is also another example. These El Niño-related droughts and tropical cyclones can cause displacement, dissatisfaction, and, potentially, conflict, particularly in the barren hills of Cox’s Bazar where the Rohingyas are strongly dependent on water.
Droughts during El Niño may be interrupted by devastating cyclones, as occurred on November 29–30, 1997 and April 29–30, 1991, which killed 150,000 people. Drought conditions can also lead to devastating forest and grassland fires on barren areas, which threaten bio-diversity, wildlife, and livelihoods.
There is also evidence that drought or El Niño is associated with a heightened risk of certain vector-borne diseases (eg mosquito-borne, water-borne, and rodent-borne). It has already been reported that, with the arrival of summer, the number of diarrhoea patients in and around Dhaka has gone up steeply this month.
The number of diarrhoea patients rose sharply this year compared to last. Food-borne bacteria grow fastest in summer at temperatures between 32 to 43 degrees Celsius. While local experts mainly attributed this rise in diarrhoea cases to consumption of unsafe water and food, the on-going El Niño, which caused higher temperatures during the summer, is partly responsible for this disease outbreak.
The greatest El Niño-related threat to trees and forests is that of fire.
Forest fires in the landscape of Bangladesh, particularly the barren hills in Cox’s Bazar, are common, even without El Niño. The fires affect climate and the smoke causes serious harm to the health of people all over the region due to potentially life-threatening respiratory problems.
So far this year, a fire gutted 30 houses and a mosque in Cox’s Bazar’s Kutupalong Rohingya camp. Two Rohingya people were injured while trying to douse the fire. Later, firefighters brought the fire under control. Luckily, no major damage was reported due to the fire, but the Rohingya Camp in Cox’s Bazar is particularly fire sensitive during any El Niño year.
The current El Niño conditions -- which are likely to continue to strengthen in the next two or three months -- may further aggravate the diarrhoea outbreaks in Dhaka and other parts of the country. The Rohingya camp in Cox’s Bazar is particularly vulnerable to this disease.
In all cases, those barren hills are the most vulnerable areas and need special attention and a serious management strategy during the on-going El Niño event so that it does not exacerbate the possibility for any internal or external dissatisfaction to erupt into violence.
Md Rashed Chowdhury is Principal Scientist of the Pacific ENSO Applications Climate Centre and Co-operating Graduate Faculty of the University of Hawaii.