For the world's poorest, the climate crisis may be just as deadly as coronavirus

One night in early September, sisters Tahani, Nayla, Alawiya and Firiyal woke up in the middle of the night to something most of us only experience in our worst nightmares. Flood water was up to their necks in the room they all shared.

Soon, the walls of the house collapsed as the building couldn’t stand the amount of water.

Miraculously, along with the help of local volunteers, they managed to help each other to get away, and are now in a camp for hundreds of displaced people who have fled their homes. This is due to the worst flooding Sudan has seen in decades.

Tahani, who along with her other sisters is deaf, told me her story using her finger in the sand while inside their cramped tent. Like most people in the camp, she and her sisters had nothing but the clothes on their backs.

Listening to her story deeply disturbed me. I could sense her fear so much that I could almost feel it. How would I feel in that situation, not knowing if I’d live or die? And wading through the water to get out – how could you know where your next step would take you, whether it would be a ditch that would pull you under?

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I met these sisters on my trip to Sudan last month, where I was visiting communities impacted by this latest manifestation of the climate emergency and witnessing how Islamic Relief – the charity for which I am the UK director – is responding to the humanitarian need.

These needs are huge.

Heavy rains in August and September caused the Nile River to rise to its highest level in 100 years. According to authorities, floods have killed at least 155 people and affected more than 860,000 across all but one of the country’s 18 provinces. Two million hectares of farmland was destroyed.

At the start of September, the government declared a three-month state of emergency.

But Sudan is not alone. Extreme flooding was also causing havoc at the same time across South Sudan, Niger, Mali, India, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh.

Just last month, Storm Saudel ravaged parts of Vietnam, which killed over 100 people and forced an estimated 90,000 from their homes due to floods and landslides. 

Now imagine going through this but also living through a global pandemic.

Globally, coronavirus has killed more than a million people – with the second wave showing no signs of abating. 

Health systems that were already on their knees in places of conflict like Syria, Yemen and Gaza have been stretched to their absolute limit. Lockdowns have plunged already fragile communities into economic decline.

In many of the world’s poorest countries, people have had to face the unimaginable choice: stay at home and protect your family from the virus, or go to work and protect them from starvation.

But while the struggles of this year feel incessant, we cannot turn our backs on the climate emergency.

This month COP26 – the UN’s annual climate change conference – was meant to take place in Glasgow. It was supposed to shine a spotlight on the UK government’s efforts to decarbonise our economy and on the many inspirational people who work up and down the country fighting for their future.

Because of the pandemic, this has been postponed for a year. But unlike the weddings, festivals and holidays that have been cancelled in 2020, this conference was time sensitive in determining all of our futures. 

On my trip to Sudan, I saw entire villages destroyed; swathes of farmland submerged and livestock completely perished; areas where large bodies of stagnant and filthy water remains and has already contaminated local water supplies.

People are suffering from diarrhoea and there are real concerns cholera and malaria will spread rapidly as mosquitoes are attracted to stagnant water.

Sudanese people said these were the heaviest rains they’d ever seen in a country that is usually busy contending with drought. To help, Islamic Relief teams have been working hard to deliver aid to hundreds of displaced families in the form of hygiene kits, shelter and other essentials.

All of this is compounded with economic turmoil meaning the price of staple foods like bread and sugar have increased by over 50% in a matter of weeks.

It is people living in the least economically secure countries like Sudan who will bear the brunt of climate change impacts. 

Of those affected, age, ability and gender all have a huge part to play in determining who will cope. In humanitarian disasters, it is elderly and disabled people and women who are disproportionately affected.

We only have 10 years to limit irreversible climate catastrophe – if we are already seeing freak flooding become the norm, what will the future bring for women like Tahani?

You could say that with the climate conference being postponed, we have wasted a year’s progress in tackling climate change. But we must not be disheartened.

We must use this year to do all we can to hold our leaders to account and we must not let coronavirus distract them from the even bigger crisis waiting in the wings and already impacting the world’s poorest. 

I would urge anyone reading this to sign a declaration to the prime minister calling for a green economic recovery from the coronavirus crisis.

We can all build back better if we unleash a clean energy revolution that boosts jobs across the UK; if we protect, restore and expand our green and wild spaces; and, crucially, if we leave no one behind and increase support to those most vulnerable – like Tahani and her sisters.

You can sign the declaration or donate to Islamic Relief UK’s Global Floods Appeal.

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