The First Major Victim of Climate Change
by Nader Rahman
The Fourth Assessment Report of the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) was released on the 2nd of February 2007 and as Achim Steiner, the head of the UN environment programme said, “This day marks the removal from the debate over whether human action has anything to do with climate change.” Finally after passing the blame around mankind woke up to the truth that we changed the planet and it was now on an irreversible 'highway to extinction'.
While many critics claim that this may be an extreme reaction to climate change, even they warn that we should plan for the worst-case scenario, something that Bangladesh can ill afford. The reason being we stand to be one of the countries most devastatingly affected, and most importantly, fastest affected. But even before one gets to the worst case, there must be a clear understanding on what climate change is.
Climate change refers to the variation in the world's global/regional climates over time. It has been a common topic of discussion for many years now, but only relatively recently have people associated it with the expansion of mankind, the burning of fossil fuels and the infamous greenhouse effect. It is commonly known that the planet has been through its fair share of climate changes, from its superheated beginning to the ice age and most drastic changes have been followed by catastrophic losses of lives. That is what makes the current issue of climate change such a hot topic of discussion.
To state it very clearly, since the industrial revolution humans have been burning fossil fuels at an alarming and unsustainable rate. The emissions from them have led to what is commonly called the greenhouse effect, or global warming. There was a certain apathy towards climate change, global warming and in general proving that humans were to blame for the worsening climatic situations around the world. Many even flatly denied that climate change has or would ever occur. Yet now all that can be put to rest, it has been proved almost beyond a shadow of a doubt that climate change is occurring, and humans are to blame for it.
Now slowly as governments start to wake from their collective limbo, they have opened their eyes to a world of unpredictable weather, which could eventually lead to the loss of millions of lives. Bangladesh is a country that stands to be one of the first to suffer from global climate change, and the time to act is now.
For one to fully gauge the effects of climate change on Bangladesh, one first needs to understand the global predictions. Now there are a number of various scenarios that may take place if we continue on the current path. It is important to remember that all scientists can do is to try and accurately estimate what world weather will be in the future using current data and feeding that into advanced climate models. Nothing of what they say is set in stone, in fact far from it, their predictions always come within ranges because no one can actually stand up and say what the definitive world weather will be like in the future.
In the most recent IPCC report there are no fewer than six different predictions on sea level and temperature rise. Each of them come with their own little ranges and somewhere between those ranges is the truth. It has come to be accepted in some circles that by the year 2100 the global temperature rise would be 1.8 °C with a likely range of 1.1 to 2.9 °C (3.2 °F with a likely range of 2.0 to 5.2 °F). That would also have to be coupled with sea level rise of about 59cm (23 inches) in the next 100 years. The statistics for the sea level rise do not take into account the possibility of melting ice sheets because there was not enough documentation on the subject. But even conservative estimates have put that at a possible 30cm addition to 59cm mentioned earlier. Therefore it leaves us with close to a 2 °C rise in temperatures along with roughly 89cm increase in the world's sea levels. These estimates spell very real danger for Bangladesh in the not too distant future.
Bangladesh stands to be affected in a number of ways and seemingly from all directions. Firstly from the north there is a major probability of increased floods. The reasons behind that are fairly simple to understand. With temperatures rising, more and more of snow that caps the Himalayas will melt and flood downstream straight into the delta that is Bangladesh. While that has never really been a massive problem to the country, increased deforestation means that much of the water that was traditionally held up in the forests is now being let through as it drains straight into Bangladesh. Therefore leaving us in a position where not only more water will come down every monsoon, but more water will be let through. In an article on climate change renowned scientist Dr Saleemul Huq said “In the past, they (floods) could be attributed entirely to 'acts of God' (or nature). In future they will also be at least partially attributable to human acts as well.” With no pun intended this scenario is just the tip of the iceberg. Another aspect we have to take into account which has already been studied is how the “one-in-20-year” floods have now started occurring roughly once-in-five-years. This is some of the easiest pieces of information to interpret, because it shows how the frequency of major catastrophic events in Bangladesh has increased, at least due in part to human induced climate change.
Cyclones will also take on new dimensions as their frequency and intensity will increase to provide more misery for the nation. With global warming affecting temperatures, there is a strong likelihood that the intensity and frequency of tropical storms will increase. In an interview with The Independent (UK) Professor Ainun Nishat an expert in the field of climate change said, “The direction of the monsoon has changed in the last few years, the depression that brings the rain used to advance north across Bangladesh. Now it is heading west." That scenario could have shocking implications to Bangladesh in the event of a tropical cyclone. Dr Nishat says the change in direction of the monsoon could mean cyclones spend longer gathering pace over the Bay of Bengal. "When Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans in 2005, it was only a category three hurricane while it was over Florida, it was when it headed across the Gulf of Mexico that it turned into a category five. It gathered heat from the sea. And the Bay of Bengal is hot.”
Possibly the most important climatic change would take place along the coastline of Bangladesh as sea levels rise. If sea levels were to rise by the predicted amount of 88 to 89 cm then the effect on Bangladesh would be disastrous. Firstly Bangladesh is a land mass which is on average no more than 10 metres above sea level, with that number drastically smaller nearer to the coast. An 89cm increase in the sea level would eat up roughly 20% of Bangladesh's landmass, displacing more than 20 million people. Already we are the most densely populated country on earth, if even after that we were to lose 20% of our land and had to relocate 20 million people then as a country we would literally be on our last leg. Dr. Md. Sirajul Islam says, “The creation of 20 million environmental refugees would only be the start of our problems. While the government deals with them, the Bangladeshi farmers would face a stark future.” He adds that “Salinity intrusion could cripple the agricultural sector of Bangladesh for good.” Aside from losing arable land, the rising seawater would make most agricultural activities near the “new” coastline almost impossible. One does not even need to look too far ahead into the future to see the agricultural problem. As we speak farmers in the south of the country face salinity problems, so much so that they have even taken up shrimp cultivation instead of traditional crops. But the situation is not completely bleak, there have been studies into a new form of hybrid rice that could still be cultivated in saline water.
The rising seawater poses the biggest threat to Bangladesh as well as our delicate eco system. Most of the mangrove forests would go underwater, and there are signs that the effects have already started. In the Sunderbans, trees have already started dying, and forest officials are quite seriously worried. If the Sunderbans were to go under then it would be safe to say that a few endangered species would perish along the way, most noticeably the Royal Bengal Tiger.
Along with rising seawater, increased intensity of tropical storms and higher levels of flooding there will be more periods of drought and heavier rainfall, which also effect the flooding situation. Dr Islam says, “Global warming and the consequent climate change will drastically change the climate of Bangladesh. There will be greater climatic extremes leading to severe droughts, like those experienced in northern regions of the country, as well as heavier rainfall. The timings of the seasons will also vary, hampering agricultural productivity.”
But all is not lost; organisations around the country and world have taken the first step towards helping Bangladesh. A number of studies are being carried out on Bangladesh and there are plans to help the nation with the imminent dangers. According to Dr Mizan R. Khan, Chairman of the Department of Environmental Science and Management at North South University, a DFID and UNDP $15 million, five-year project titled Comprehensive Disaster Management Programme (CDMP) that has been underway, has an elaborate component on adaptation to climate change impacts. In order to address climate change and incorporate climate change considerations into the CDMP, a Climate Change Cell was established at the Department of Environment. The Climate Change Cell aims to establish a mechanism that facilitates management of long-term climate risks and uncertainties as an integral part of national development planning. Things are being done, but only a few foreign nations are willing to put out a helping hand. From the rest there is a certain sense of apathy, which is objectionable because they are the nations that created the problems which we will have to suffer for.
In an article on the floods in 2004 Dr Saleemul Huq wrote “it is also widely recognised that it is the rich countries of the world that are primarily responsible for the problem of global warming. And that puts a political slant on the allocation of responsibility both for extreme events themselves, and for efforts to mitigate their impact.
"In future, therefore, when affected countries demand assistance from the rich countries of the world in helping address climate-related disasters such as floods, it will not be for a request for charity but for compensation, appealing to their moral responsibility, if not their legal liability, to make good the damage and destruction for which their activities have, directly or indirectly, been partially responsible.” His point is well accepted around the world, now aside from hearing the problem and accepting it, the developed nations must act on it. Bangladesh stands to be one of the worst affected by human induced climate change; it needs help now, if it is to have a survivable future.
Dr Mizan echoes Dr Huq's words when he says, “funding should be obligatory not charity based. The developed countries must help out the other nations who suffer for their actions, by reducing their help to charity they leave themselves clear of blame. That is simply not the ethical way to go about things. Think about this: America produces 22% of global CO2 emissions and yet with the greenhouse effect and climate change we here in Bangladesh will be the ones suffering. They should rightly help out with our contingency plans, in fact it is their duty.” Truth be told even if miraculously all harmful emissions were stopped overnight, the heating process would still continue for at least another couple of hundred years. The course has been set, now the rest of the world needs to come together and reverse the trend. Obviously when powerful and countries with massive emissions like America don't ratify the Kyoto Treaty then the world has a problem. The Kyoto treaty itself is a drop in the bucket, it basically asks the countries producing the largest amounts of greenhouse gases to reduce their emissions by small percentages. The United Sates of America was asked to reduce their emissions by roughly 6% of their emission levels recorded in 1990, yet shockingly they still failed to agree to those terms. It will take an effort by everyone. But even that effort will not completely save Bangladesh, international assistance is a must and we need it right now.
Dr Islam says, “there are three things to take into account when talking about climate change mitigation, impact assessment and adaptation. Bangladesh has nothing to do with mitigations, we don't produce enough harmful gases to have any impact there. Yet that does not mean it is not an important topic to us. The rest of the world must take the responsibility of mitigating factors that have led to this situation. Adaptation is important to our country because we will need to adapt and that too quite fast if we are to live with climate change. And very simply we don't have enough money to act, there are some projects but those are small. We need nation-saving amounts of money.”
Global warming, climate change whatever anyone calls it, Bangladesh is set to change like it has never done before. The effects will devastating and if we don't act now, our children will have to suffer from it. To say we are a sinking ship would be a little dramatic, even worse and far more real would be to say that we are a sinking nation. The world did this to us, now it's time it helps us.
Source: STAR Weekend Magazine, Volume 6 Issue 13| April 6, 2007