Four years ago, Cyclone Amphan tore through the coastlines of Bangladesh and India, leaving a trail of devastation. While memories of the storm’s immediate impact may fade, many Bangladeshis are still grappling with the long-term consequences. In May 2020, Amphan, classified as an extremely severe cyclonic storm, slammed into Bangladesh during the COVID-19 pandemic, with winds exceeding 150 kilometres per hour. The southwest coast was hit and the storm surge inundated homes, destroyed vital infrastructure, and disrupted livelihoods.

Millions were affected, with tens of thousands losing their homes entirely. It also caused damages worth $131 million and resulted in the deaths of 26 people. Even after four long years, many people have not been able to overcome Amphan’s rampage. The path to recovery has been slow and arduous. Many residents of Shyamnagar upazila (sub-district) of Satkhira district and Koyra, Dakop, and Paikgacha upazilas of Khulna district still bear the scars of Cyclone Amphan.

Formerly a rice businessman, Babar Ali (65) is now forced to earn a living as a hawker. Islam Mir (50) has moved away from shrimp farming and agricultural work and is supporting the household through daily wage labour. Rafiqul Islam (52) and Farooq Hossain (58) lost their homes and left for the city in search of a livelihood. However, their families have never faced such a shortage before. They lived comfortably through local means of livelihood.

Hossain lost the house he inherited from his father due to Cyclone Amphan. His home was in Chakla village of Asashuni upazila in Satkhira. He left the area with his family members a few days after the cyclone. Now he is making a living in Khulna city. “Disasters bring us down to zero. I have nothing left after Cyclone Amphan, so I was forced to leave the area. There is no chance to return,” said Hossain.

Farooq Hossain is not alone; many others had to evacuate from Chakla village and other nearby villages after Amphan. Some have relocated to cities for work, while others have been displaced within the community. Many people have relocated from Dargatala, Howladar Bari, Sana Bari, and Kurikahunia villages in Asashuni upazila since the cyclone. Although government and non-governmental organisations provided post-cyclone aid, displaced families were not eligible. Many residents of Pratapnagar union in Asashuni upazila have been impacted by tidal water since the cyclone. A large number of people in the union were affected four year ago. “There is no list of displaced people, so they cannot receive assistance. However, we are attempting to bring them back to the area,” Pratapnagar Union Parishad Chairman Abu Daud Dhali said.

A salty fight for farms

The war waged by the cyclone in the region saw a critical combatant stay behind to deal greater damage — salt water. The salinity in the soil has wrecked livelihoods, said Zillur Rahman (48), a resident of Jorshing village near Sundarban in Koyra. “Previously, rice cultivation was the main source of income. At one time, there was a large amount of paddy production in the area. Workers used to come from different parts of the country to harvest paddy. But now the people of this area go to other areas as labourers to harvest paddy,” Rahman aid.

After Cyclone Aila in 2009, the entire region was affected by salinity. That crisis has worsened since Amphan. Frequent cyclones are severely disrupting agriculture and livelihoods along the southwest coast of Bangladesh. According to a study by the research organisation Change Initiative, 5.1 per cent of surveyed households in coastal areas have experienced land loss due to climate-related disasters in the past two years. About 29.4 per cent of households reported a loss of income due to the loss of natural resources in the past two years. Additionally, 53 per cent of coastal soils were affected by varying levels of salinity.

The average yield loss due to salinity ranges from 20-40 per cent, the research stated. A significant 46 per cent of households face high food insecurity due to water salinisation and increased soil salinity. About 46.46 per cent of households in the coastal region are facing a high level of food insecurity and 13.13 per cent are facing extreme food insecurity. There was a lack of large-scale support to bring about transformative change following the super cyclone, said Zahid Amin Shashoto, head of programme for climate change and water governance at Uttaran, a non-governmental organisation. “It is important to adopt long-term projects for the affected people,” he said.

The timing of Amphan coinciding with the pandemic worsened the ordeal, said Md Shamsuddoha, chief executive for Centre for Participatory Research and Development, a research organisation. “We need to look at good governance in the rehabilitation process and infrastructure construction for extreme weather events or the crisis for the affected people will increase,” he said.

Pre-monsoon cyclones compounding fear

There are concerns about pre-monsoon cyclones in May. These fears are exacerbated by the ongoing heatwaves. A pre-monsoon heatwave has continued in Bangladesh for two consecutive years. This year, a 76-year record has been broken in the country. Intense heat raises concerns about cyclones. Another cyclone is forecast for the last week of this month. There have already been 12 cyclones recorded in May in Bangladesh and India. These occurred on May 5, 1961; May 9, 1965; May 24, 1985; May 2, 2008; May 25, 2009; May 16, 2013; May 21, 2016; May 30, 2017; May 3, 2019; May 20, 2020; May 17, 2021; and May 26, 2021.

Bangladesh was fortunate that the super cyclone did not directly cross over the country, said Professor AKM Saiful Islam, director of the Institute of Water and Flood Management at Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology and an associate of the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). “Amphan made landfall near the coast, but if it had passed over the country, the loss and damage would have been even more catastrophic. According to the latest IPCC assessment report, future cyclones will be stronger, with heavier rain and higher surge heights,” the professor pointed out.

Coastal people are already facing the challenges of rising sea levels and increasing salinity, he further said. “Many will be internally displaced or become climate migrants due to increasing vulnerabilities from natural disasters like Cyclone Amphan unless we take appropriate adaptation measures. However, adaptation has its limits, and increasing global warming is likely to exceed these thresholds. Implementing the Paris Agreement to reduce greenhouse gas emissions is extremely important for vulnerable countries like Bangladesh,” Saiful added.