While the rest of the world debates climate change, Bangladesh has started living the reality of a warmer, more volatile world.
BY SEBASTIAN STRANGIO | JUNE 7, 2010
DHAKA—Earlier this year, a small island in the Bay of Bengal vanished, taking with it a long-running territorial dispute between neighbors India and Bangladesh. The uninhabited sandbar, known variously as South Talpatti and New Moore Island, had been hotly contested since the 1980s. But in March, as the island was submerged by rising sea levels, the dispute quietly resolved itself. The rising waters were "definitely attributable" to climate change, oceanographer Sugata Hazra at India's Jadavpur University, told the Associated Press. "What these two countries could not achieve from years of talking has been resolved by global warming."
While the world's capitals debate the reality and impact of climate change, Bangladesh is already living it. According to recent projections, the sunken island's fate foreshadows low-lying Bangladesh's broader future: to be overcome by rising waters. A 1 meter rise in sea levels could put 17 percent of the country underwater by 2050, the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change estimates. (The capital, Dhaka, lies at the center of a flood plain and could be engulfed by even a "slight rise" in sea level, according to another report by U.N.-Habitat.) Meanwhile, on the land that does remain, this country of 162 million will face cyclones, droughts, and floods with increasing frequency and intensity as the effects of climate change begin to bite.
But if the coming temperature rise spells disaster for Bangladesh, it has also transformed the country into the world's biggest experiment in how to minimize the impact of climate change. The reason for preparedness, however, is less intentional than accidental. Bangladesh began preparing for climate change long before the term was ever known -- simply because the country's geography has always subjected it to frequent flooding and cyclones. No wonder this is one of the few countries that has accepted the inevitability of global warming. As Munjurul Hannan Khan, deputy secretary of the Bangladeshi Ministry of Environment and Forests, told a Dhaka conference in April, "For the North[ern Hemisphere], [climate change] will mean a compromise with lifestyle. For us, it's about future survival."
Bangladesh's environmental measures began in the 1970s, when the country started developing saline-resistant varieties of rice and other crops. The country built flood embankments to prevent low-lying arable land from being flooded with salt water. And as a result, grain production rose from 9 million tons in the mid-1970s to 28 million tons today, according to government figures. Today, agriculture in Bangladesh is as "climate proof" as anywhere. And more recently, the British-backed Chars Livelihood Program has funded the construction of flood-resistant infrastructure on Bangladesh's riverine islands, or chars, where some 3.5 million people reside.
Further changes were prompted by a 1991 cyclone that left 140,000 dead. In the wake of disaster, Bangladesh leapt at the opportunity to put in place community-based early-warning systems and emergency evacuation plans that have since saved countless lives. The Bhola Cyclone, for example, killed as many as half a million people in 1970, but the recent Cyclone Sidr was detected in the Bay of Bengal ahead of time, and as many as 2 million people were evacuated before it hit. Death tolls -- cited at 3,447 by one official -- were correspondingly lower.
With its massive head start, today Bangladesh is embracing its newfound role as a living laboratory. In November, the country is opening an International Center for Climate Change and Development at Dhaka's Independent University. The aim, says the institute's incoming director, Saleemul Huq, is to use Bangladesh as a classroom for researchers and policymakers from around the world, offering short courses (and perhaps later a master's program) to study tactics for adapting to climate change.
Last October, the country became the first to create a National Adaptation Program of Action, a provision recommended by the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change in 2005. The proposed 10-year plan includes steps for bolstering infrastructure such as flood embankments and cyclone shelters, strengthening disaster-management systems, improving food security and sanitation in vulnerable areas, and bolstering climate research. Bangladesh has even created a climate change "trust fund" to serve as a repository for donor money, and the country has put in $100 million of its own funds.
Getting these future projects off the ground may yet face hiccups, not least the country's endemic levels of corruption and a lack of coordination between government agencies. But if the past is any test, Bangladesh will keep on adapting -- by environmental imperative. As Huq told The Diplomat, "Bangladesh has always lived on the edge of an apocalypse, but somehow it doesn't ever fall over the edge."
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