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As Ground Zero of Climate Change, Bangladesh Braces for the Deluge
The Washington Diplomat / August 2012

By Larry Luxner

COX’S BAZAR, Bangladesh — Along the world’s longest unbroken white-sand beach at Himchori, about 50 kilometers from the Burmese border, little boys and girls splash in the surf while their parents sell sliced mangoes, coconut milk and trinkets to the few foreign tourists who pass through their quaint fishing village.

Not so picturesque are the enormous sandbags installed two years ago by Bangladeshi Army troops to protect the newly built coastal road running from Cox’s Bazar to Teknef, at the country’s southernmost tip. The 20-meter-long sandbags, stretching clear to the horizon, curiously resemble beached whales with nowhere to go.

“Ten years ago, this shore extended out 150 meters,” said local tour operator Mahi Uddin Zia. “Slowly, the sea level rose and is now affecting this land. The original road, Marine Drive, is already in the sea. We don’t know how long this new road will exist — maybe three or four years from now we won’t find it.”

As the Washington area swelters through its hottest summer on record, more and more people here are suddenly taking climate change seriously. Yet the 158 million inhabitants of Wisconsin-sized Bangladesh have worried about this topic for decades.

This South Asian country, often called the “ground zero” of global warming, could find up to a third of its 147,600 square kilometers under water if greenhouse-gas (GHG) emissions force temperatures up by more than 1.5 degrees Celsius, causing glaciers as nearby as the Himalayas and as far away as Antarctica begin to melt.

The net result: an estimated 20 million environmental refugees, and double that number without livelihoods. Fleeing across the border to India may not even be an option, since the government in New Delhi is well on its way to building a high-security fence that almost completely encircles Bangladesh. Besides, in the event of catastrophic storms and rising seas, India may not be much better off than its smaller neighbor.

This correspondent recently spent 11 days in Bangladesh, traveling with a group of foreign journalists from the capital of Dhaka (population 12 million) south to the crowded port of Chittagong, then to the popular beach resort of Cox’s Bazar and finally northeast to Srimangal, in the heart of Bangladesh’s tea-growing region.

Throughout the trip, which was arranged by the country’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the subject of climate change and catastrophe was never far away.

One evening, as the group was traveling by minivan to a beachfront hotel in Cox’s Bazar, our guide somberly announced that an 8.6-magnitude earthquake had just struck off the coast of Sumatra — and that a tsunami would reach the Bay of Bengal coastline, precisely where our minibus was heading, at exactly 10:51 that night.

The tsunami alert was eventually called off, but not before rattling a few nerves.

Atiq Rahman, executive director of the Bangladesh Center for Advanced Studies, says natural disasters are nothing new for his country, one of the unluckiest in Asia.

“Climate change does not cause the formation of cyclones, but it does increase their frequency and intensity,” said Rahman, interviewed on the sidelines of a Dhaka climate-change conference. He said that the two cyclones which hit Bangladesh in 2007 and 2008, Ila and Sadr, were in fact mega-cyclones — the kind that generally happen only once every 20 years.

“But those two were followed by Nargis, which killed 150,000 people in Burma. Those three happening in such close proximity? It’s a violation of statistics. They should have happened over a 60-year period.”

On the other hand, he said, “if Nargis had struck Bangladesh, probably only 6,000 to 10,000 people would have died, because our society has mobilized a whole preparedness program. That adaptation plan consists mainly of dredging rivers, planting trees, building dams and constructing cyclone shelters.

Yet already, say experts, seasonal monsoons are becoming shorter, with too much rain over short periods of time, damaging crops and houses, and causing flash floods followed by prolonged periods of drought. Many smaller islands in the Ganges River delta have disappeared due to the frequent flooding, which has contaminated rice fields and water wells with salt, destroying agriculture.

“For us, climate change is real, and it’s happening now,” says Mohammed Sufiur Rahman, director-general at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. “We’re already experiencing a 3mm-per-year rise in sea levels. But it is going to rise significantly. If it’s 5 to 6mm per year, our calculations say that by 2050, one-third of Bangladesh will be inundated.”

Assuming yearly production of 40 million metric tons of cereals in Bangladesh and global productivity losses of 10 percent due to a 1C temperature increase, that translates into roughly $4 billion in annual losses to the country’s GDP, which currently stands at $110 billion.

“In a developing country like Bangladesh, we need 8 to 10 percent GDP growth a year, and if climate change takes 5 percent of that growth away, you can imagine the impact on employment, health and every other aspect of society,” said Sufiur Rahman.

“Now we at least have the capacity to purchase grains, but dealing with these extreme weather events will divert scarce resources we need to feed our people,” he explained. “And even after the event is over, these people need to be relocated to other places. A country like Bangladesh is very densely populated, and if you relocate them to other villages or districts, you create pressures. We are trapped in a situation where we need to get cooperation and support from others.”

But that cooperation is declining. In 2010, overseas development assistance to Bangladesh went down both as a percentage of GDP and in absolute numbers. That year, said Sufiur Rahman, “the total inflow of money was $1.1 billion and we had to pay $900 million in the form of interest payments. So the net inflow was $300 million. This is a clear case of climate injustice.”

The Asian Development Bank, in a recent report, concluded that although Bangladesh is the most vulnerable country in Asia when it comes to climate change, it’s also the best-prepared to face the challenges climate change will bring.

“That coping capacity didn’t come from a high level of education or disposable income, but primarily from a motivation and awareness campaign that we run,” said Sufiur Rahman. “The entire shoreline is dotted with cyclone shelters. Similarly, we need technology to develop our capacities. Bangladesh has undertaken its own mitigation responsibilities very seriously.”

The Bangladesh Climate Change Trust Fund, established in 2009, now has $300 million; each year, the government puts another $100 million into the fund.

Dr. Saleemul Huq, director of Dhaka’s International Center for Climate Change and Development, said that compared to citizens of other poor countries, Bangladeshis are by far the most aware of climate change.

“Talk to waiters, they’ll tell you about it. They may not get it right, but they’ve heard of it,” he told The Diplomat. “Our prime minister can give you a very coherent speech on it. The level of awareness is extremely high. We are now translating that awareness into knowledge and action. We’re beginning to move in the right direction.”

For example, he said, “we’ve developed heat-tolerant varieties of rice. What used to be 24 degrees is now 35. It is the extremes that will dominate lives, not the averages.” However, he points out that “climate change is happening faster than two generations ago, so I fear there may be a knowledge gap. In Bangladesh, rainfall will be condensed into a shorter period of time. The whole crop calendar oscillates around the rain.”

Ardashir Kabir is senior vice-president of the Bangladesh Tea Association and owner of the Sathgao Tea Estate in Srimangal. He says that for his industry — one of the most important in Bangladesh — climate change is no longer a matter of debate.

“We are already finding that the rainfall patterns have changed,” Kabir told us. “We have records going back 100 years. In the old days, we would assume there’d be a minor drought once every four or five years. These days, we have almost drought-like conditions early season and late season. We’re never sure whether the rains will continue in October.”

Kabir’s tea estate is located only a few kilometers from India, where the double-walled, barbed-wire fence can easily be seen in the distance. Guarded day and night by troops known to have shot cattle that strayed too close, the 4,053-kilometer-long fence is largely seen in Bangladesh as an effort by New Delhi to keep millions of potential climate refugees from flooding into India.

According to the Indian human rights watch organization Odhikar, nearly 1,000 people of both nationalities have been gunned down by overzealous Indian border guards since 2000, including 31 last year alone. Assuming things will only get worse as the world heats up, that pretty much precludes a mass exodus of Bangladeshis across the border, in search of dry land. That means the population will have to seek shelter somewhere within already crowded Bangladesh — not a very attractive prospect at all.

“The idea that people want to be relocated is a lot of rubbish. If they’re forced by climate change to go somewhere temporarily, they’ll go to the nearest urban center — and after that they’ll move to megacities like Dhaka,” said Huq, who predicts huge displacements of millions of inhabitants. “What I propose is that these people who are climate-induced migrants will have to be taken in by the countries that created greenhouse gases in the first place.”

In Gwynne Dyer’s 2007 bestseller, “Climate Wars,” those GHGs have reached record levels, causing global catastrophe and suffering. Bangladesh — already burdened by the weight of millions of refugees with nowhere to go — threatens to inject one million tons of powdered sulphates into the stratosphere in a desperate ploy to “geo-engineer” global cooling.

That last-ditch attempt to blackmail the world, with Indonesia’s help, forces wealthier countries to sign an international geo-engineering treaty which eventually brings down CO2 concentrations to 387 parts per million — slightly below today’s 400 ppm levels — by 2075.

Bangladeshi experts warn that the world might very well have resort to such extreme measures if politicians continue to deny that climate change exists — and that human activity is causing it.

Rahman, who used to teach at Oxford, has been a climate-change expert for 25 years. He complained that while American scientists are “are very good at doing the science,” they’re not as good in communicating that science to ordinary U.S. citizens.

He added that President Obama’s chief scientific advisor, John Holdren, is a “very close friend” of his. But constant lobbying by climate-change deniers keeps Holdren busy, virtually paralyzing his work.

“These are all strategies in a whole systematic plan to keep climate off the agenda,” he told The Diplomat. “The United States has some of the best scientists, both in climate change and in general, but their message is not getting across. And the non-government community has been pretty useless in terms of raising issues to ordinary people, because they want to be kind to Obama, and not take a confrontational position.”

“The highest number of cynics are in Washington, because they’re paid to tell lies,” he said sadly. “The number of lobbyists who de-emphasize climate increased by a factor of three or four after Obama came along. Because of external political reasons, the United States has basically walked out on climate change, but they don’t understand that the U.S. will become a victim too. There’ll be many more Katrinas. It’s just a matter of time before the Florida coastline disappears.”

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