Before I visited projects supporting people affected by climate change, I did not really connect the devastating impact of global warming around the world with the way we live our lives in the UK. But my recent journey to Bangladesh really opened my eyes to the realities of climate change and the human lives most affected by it.
I am a Londoner, but my parents were born in Bangladesh and many members of my extended family still live there. Visiting projects there run by Islamic Relief, my employer, was something of a 'sliding doors' moment, to my surprise. The plight of the communities affected gave me a sense that if my parents hadn't moved to London, it could have been me in this situation, homeless and hungry.
I know relatives who have been killed by floods, and I had the opportunity to see close up the staggering impact of climate change. I also learned how easily we can prevent the situation from becoming more devastating through better preparation, and how costly and ineffective it is to intervene with emergency relief after disaster strikes.
Most significantly, I felt a strong sense of responsibility. Bangladesh is one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen, my motherland, yet man-made disasters, floods and cyclones are destroying it.
Thirty per cent of the Bangladeshi population live in extreme poverty, and that means 50 million people. In 2012, Islamic Relief UK was the recipient of £5 million in funding from the UK's Department for International Development through a scheme called UK Aid Match, enabling us to help protect hundreds of thousands of people against natural disasters, in Bangladesh and four other countries. Thanks to this UK Government funding and donations from the public during our 2012 Ramadan appeal, Islamic Relief Bangladesh is implementing its ground-breaking Climate Change Adaptation programme. Over 27,000 households have benefited so far - nearly 100,000 people.
I visited a community-level disaster management committee, one of 90 established by Islamic Relief to enable local people to fight back against climate change. The committee had shaped and built their own strategy for preparing and responding to disasters. These committees include men and women, disabled people, Hindus and Muslims from the local villages, spreading knowledge. I also saw community members from Islamic Relief's projects make their own decisions, ensuring that the most vulnerable people get help, using a fair and transparent process.
One of my most memorable moments was visiting a disabled man whose leg had been bitten by a tiger. "My disability has made it difficult to earn an income, but now I have the shop my life has improved," he said, smiling. "I use the profits from the shop to invest back into the business and it's going well."
One of the most devastating impacts of climate change is increased salination of water, a result of past flooding and deadly rising sea levels. Families who once relied on growing food are now the ultra poor, barely surviving. One of 34-year-old Salma Begum's children died in Cyclone Aila and she had no way to feed the three who survived, until she was funded by Islamic Relief's solar-powered homes project.
"Now I can grow spinach, cauliflowers and cucumbers," Salma told me with relief. "I burn less kerosene when cooking and my children can go to school." I also saw a trained local volunteer demonstrating how he warns the community with a speakerphone, urging people to take dried foods, medicine, transportable ovens and containers of water to the cyclone shelters. This volunteer is one of over 600 people who have received training in first aid, search and rescue through Islamic Relief so far.
Without preparing for disasters, more people die and it is costing too many lives. For every pound spent on preparing people for disaster, Islamic Relief can save £9 on emergency relief. That's potentially a lot of money saved that doesn't need to be spent to rebuild people's lives if they lose everything in a major flood.
The poorest people in the poorest countries, like Bangladesh, are bearing the brunt of global warming. But they are contributing least per head to the greenhouse gas emissions that are causing the problem. This is why Islamic Relief is calling for a firm commitment from developed countries to ensure carbon emissions are reduced. We also need political commitments that are legally binding so that every country can be held responsible and made accountable for the commitments it makes. Investment in preparing for disasters must also be a priority on the global agenda, so that we can help some of the most vulnerable communities in the world.
Now that I have met the people who are on the front line of climate change, I feel strongly about fighting for climate justice - a much better deal for the communities worst affected. We must do more to defuse this time bomb that is ticking away until the next disaster occurs.
Join the Climate March in London on 7th March at Lincoln's Inn Field at 1pm to call on world leaders ahead of the United Nations Climate Change Conference in December 2015 because it time to act now. If we don't, we will be sorry for generations to come.