Bangladesh, located on one of the largest river deltas on earth, is one of the most flood-prone countries in the world, with the lush, low-lying landscape subject to yearly flooding. This is normal and part of life, but occasionally excessive flooding causes widespread destruction and loss of life (e.g. 1988, 1998, 2004 and 2007). In a report relating to the flood of 1998, I read that it inundated two-thirds of the country and left 30 million people homeless. Those living in close proximity to the many rivers in Bangladesh are most at risk. In the north-west, I heard a story about a farmer whose family had farmed land close to the Jamuna-Brahmaputra River for generations, until the monsoon flood of 2007 literally carried his fields and home away. The Jamuna-Brahmaputra system is a braided river system with constantly shifting river courses. This farmer had no option but to migrate to Dhaka in search of work, as do 400,000 or so environmental refugees every year. Severe overpopulation means that many people are landless and forced to occupy and cultivate flood-prone land. For example, large numbers live on chars – low-lying river islands – that are particularly susceptible to any changes in river courses, or rises in water levels (see post 55). Areas prone to floods and tidal surges correlate with those areas of greatest poverty in Bangladesh (see map below, and more at the end of post 30.)
Susceptibility to cyclones, that gather their strength from the Bay of Bengal, causes further devastation and, on average, Bangladesh is hit by one major cyclone every three years. The worst times for these are May/June and October/November. The oldest account of a major cyclone dates to 1582, chronicled in the historical volumes Ain-i-Akbari and Riyaz-us-Salatin. There, it is recorded that a violent cyclone razed Barisal and Patuakhali areas to the ground during its five-hour onslaught at hurricane speed; only a few strongly founded temples survived. During my time in Bangladesh, Cyclone Aila (May 25th 2009) caused devastation and hardship in the south-west of the country. To read about the consequences see post 34. You can see some photographs of the aftermath of the disaster on Boston.com’s The Big Picture: News Stories in Photographs.
Minimising the impacts of cyclones and associated flooding
During the 1970s and 1980s cyclones caused hundreds of thousands of deaths in Bangladesh. The infamous November 1970 cyclone alone, for example, killed 300,000 people. In 2007, Cyclone Sidr resulted in the deaths of 4,000 people. While still too many, this was significantly less than the numbers killed in 1970, and Cyclone Sidr was a considerably stronger cyclone. The government and civil society had eventually reacted to multiple earlier disasters, by working out plans for mitigating the catastrophe outcomes. Cyclone shelters were built. Early-warning systems, such as radio broadcasts and coloured flags, were implemented. So, when Cyclone Sidr threatened, the authorities tracked its path and growing strength and had time to prepare a well-rehearsed response. They issued warnings and activated 44,000 volunteers who helped evacuate roughly 3 million people from their homes. They were able to accommodate 1.5 million people in shelters. Fewer people were surprised and unprotected when Cyclone Sidr struck than were in the devastating cyclone of 1970. There is more to be done, but the statistics show that a cyclone-preparedness programme can save lives and mitigate the catastrophe caused by unpreventable natural disasters. An example of a UNDP initiative in this regard, the Core Family Shelter Programme, is working not just to rebuild homes for the poorest and most vulnerable, but also to set innovative building standards.
Health and other environmental concerns
A large proportion of fishing waters in Bangladesh are polluted (from commercial pesticide). Naturally occurring arsenic is present in groundwater in some areas. Droughts are also a reoccurring problem when the monsoons fail. There are intermittent water shortages due to falling water tables in the north and centre of the country. Soil degradation, salination, erosion and deforestation are concerns.
Water sharing issues with India are regularly debated in newspaper articles here. There is ongoing controversy over the proposed Brahmaputra River Taipamuk Dam in neighbouring Manipur (in India) which could affect the northeast of the country, in the same way that the Farakka barrage on the Ganges River has led to desertification and other problems in the northwest. Because Bangladesh depends on the Ganges and Brahmaputra for its water supply, any changes upstream in these rivers will have consequences for people here. (See also post 60.)
Malaria and dengue fever are prevalent in many parts of Bangladesh. Hygiene and sanitation standards are poor throughout the country and food- and water-borne diseases are common e.g. intestinal diseases. High levels of humidity and pollution, particularly in Dhaka, cause serious health problems, particularly respiratory trouble (See post 15). Local clinics and hospitals are generally of a poor standard.
It is astonishing to see how private cleanliness and public squalor co-exist so easily in Dhaka. Environmental rhetoric is bandied about by politicians and others and yet they sanction encroachment and polluting activities. (This is part of the political culture deficit discussed in post 51.) In my workplace, for example, I was surprised when, on more than one occasion, I saw groups throwing rubbish out a window opposite mine during breaks from meetings and training courses. I was even more surprised to see colleagues throwing rubbish out through the windows of a minibus that we were sharing, especially as one of the perpetrators had recently given me a paper to edit on the subject of environmental issues. Yet more evidence of the gap that exists between rhetoric and reality in Bangladesh.
By far the most talked about environmental threat is that of the impact of climate change. According to the organisation Germanwatch, Bangladesh is the country most at risk from the impacts of climate change (see map on left: click to open larger version in new window). Changes in the Himalayas that affect the Ganges and Brahmaputra Rivers would have deep consequences for this deltaic country. (See post 60 in relation to climate change and the Tibetan Plateau.) Predicted sea level rises would be particularly problematic given Bangladesh’s low-lying topography. With a sea-level rise of 45cm (circa 18 inches), which is at the conservative end of the projections from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), three-quarters of the Sundarbans (see post 38) would be permanently lost. At 67cm (26 inches) the entire forest would be gone, obliterating not only a precious defense against cyclones, but also one of the richest natural gene pools in the world. Listen to the voices of the people in the Sundarbans, who are already living with the implications of climate change, in this photo essay with interviews from Greenpeace.
As well as rising sea levels, evidence suggests that there would be an increase in the frequency and intensity of cyclones and the storm surges they bring. Rain patterns would be less predictable, as would changes in seasons. Such changes would negatively impact on rural livelihoods that depend on the weather e.g. farming and fishing. In a country like Bangladesh, where 80% of the population live in rural villages, this would be particularly problematic. The cost of implementing solutions (e.g. building flood embankments and dykes, drilling deep tube wells, installing rainwater-collecting technology and developing tolerant rice varieties) could well prove prohibitive for a struggling country. Have a look at this article which gives an overview of climate change implications for Bangladesh and discusses how the country is coping with the challenges so far.
In addition to the issues discussed, there would undoubtedly be a massive increase in the numbers of environmental refugees in Bangladesh, given its large and growing population and its particular vulnerability to the impacts of climate change. In an already over-populated country the repercussions of such internal displacement are unpredictable. While most people are noticing changes in weather patterns in Bangladesh (e.g. more frequent and intense cyclones and rising sea levels), the majority still believe that these are ‘acts of God’. Most Bangladeshis think, mainly, about their immediate future and whether they will have enough rice and clean drinking water for tomorrow. Up till now, understanding the extended time-scale and the language of climate change was limited to Dhaka’s educated, secular elites. However, this is beginning to change slowly as the subject is incorporated into the educational system. Some commentators fear possible future reactions once awareness grows and people realise that their suffering is not an act of God, but the act of others. There is no doubt that the inequities of climate change will feed into anti-Western feelings in the Islamic world. Deficiencies in the internal political culture within Bangladesh (see post 51) further complicate the challenge. Whether the international community will be able to garner and sustain global action, at the required scale to stem climate change and its effects, is as uncertain as the science of modelling climate change itself.