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Ready or Not: Can Bangladesh Cope with Climate Change?


It is hard to believe the village was built from scratch. It looks as if it has always been here. Tidy kitchen gardens sit next to thatched mud houses raised on to plinths. Banana trees and betel nut palms line the paths; chickens, goats and children muck around in the dust. Cows munch steadily, tied to stakes. Green rice seedlings stand in the fields.

Just three years ago all this was a sodden pile of mud and ruined homes, after Cyclone Aila blew into Bangladesh on 25 May 2009. ‘We heard [neighbouring] Gabura was drowned, destroyed,’ says Nasima Ali, who lives in Mirgunj, a village on the southwestern edge of the Bay of Bengal. ‘We had 10 minutes to warn people before it hit. Suddenly we were up to our noses in water.’

The tidal surge that came with Cyclone Aila reached six metres, bursting through the embankments they thought would protect them. Across the coast, 190 people died, and hundreds of thousands of livestock drowned.

Mud houses crumbled into the water. The villagers recall taking shelter on the few brick buildings left standing. They all use the same sweeping motion with their hands when they say the word ‘Aila’.

‘We lost everything – all our belongings, money, documents, animals.’

‘Even the meal I was cooking,’ a woman adds.

Warming, rising seas are predicted to increase both the frequency and intensity of tropical cyclones, but these villagers are determined not to leave. I travelled to this remote corner of Bangladesh to find out what they, and millions of others, are doing to adapt to the impacts of a changing climate.

Ground Zero

Adaptation has long shaken off its early reputation as the dirty, defeatist side of climate science. We have known for over a decade that the least responsible for global warming are first in line to feel the full force of its impact. During that time, carbon emissions have risen faster than we imagined, and are rising still faster by the day.

Even if we stopped producing CO2 tomorrow, we’re still likely to hit a catastrophic two degrees Celsius rise in temperature – by which time, floods in Bangladesh will cover, on average, 30 per cent more land. This bleak outlook means that any push to cut emissions must now come hand in hand with efforts to help the poorest cope.

Bangladesh, with its paltry carbon footprint of 0.3 tonnes per person, is a case in point. It’s often described as the ground zero of climate change. Flat, populous and poor, it’s home to 160 million people squeezed into a country half the size of Iowa. Needless to say, its problems did not begin with global warming. Slap bang in the middle of Asia’s largest river delta, three mighty rivers – the Ganges, Brahmaputra and the Meghna – surge through it into the Indian Ocean, splitting into hundreds of tributaries along the way. Studying a map of the country I will spend two weeks exploring, it looks as if a toddler has been let loose with a blue pen. This tangle of rivers burst their banks every monsoon – in a good year, a fifth of the country is flooded.

‘We had 10 minutes to warn people before the cyclone hit. Suddenly we were up to our noses in water’

Human interventions have made matters worse. Indian dams have disrupted fresh water flows, allowing saline tides to penetrate further inland. Embankments planned to protect farmland have ended up waterlogging large areas, by blocking drainage.

Enter climate change: melting Himalayan glaciers to the north, rising seas to the south. Even under the most benign scenarios, rising sea levels are likely to displace tens of millions from the coastal regions.

A community’s vulnerability is not just an accident of geography, but also depends upon its access to resources. While Bangladesh has made important inroads in reducing poverty and cutting population growth, a third of its people are malnourished and 40 per cent still live below the poverty line.

But there is flipside to this coin. Bangladeshis are adept at living with water and have adapted to environmental changes over centuries. So when it comes to climate adaptation, the country is described admiringly as a laboratory of innovation. Development workers and policymakers travel here to learn about resilience, and how vulnerable communities have learned to cope with uncertainty. Bangladesh, they will tell you, is ahead of the game.

Adaptation in action

A constant, industrious stream of humanity lines the road south from Dhaka. Tricycles stacked with everything from tree trunks to baskets of broiler chickens compete with brightly painted road-hogging trucks and kamikaze buses.

Along the roadside, women spread out boiled rice to dry, men squat by scales offering live fish for sale. A boy floats a baby sibling on a raft in the family’s freshwater pond. Other girls and boys carry mud out of fields in baskets, or gather firewood. During the six-hour journey there is no break from people or activity, in this the seventh most densely populated nation in the world.

By the time we arrive in Mitradanga it is late afternoon. The sun is beginning to dip over bamboo trellises that trail ripening squash over a mass of water hyacinth. Birds fly low over the surface of the water, black against a peach-pink sky.

It’s a dreamy scene, and I say as much to Shova Biswas, vice-president of the Sonalir Shopnaw (or Golden Dream) forum, who has emerged to greet us. ‘You should see it in the rainy season,’ she says flatly. I have come to the village during the two months of the year when land can be farmed and water is temporarily at bay.

The village sticks out on a thin raised finger of land surrounded by water, close to the Modhumoti river. Located on the intertidal floodplains of south-central Bangladesh in Gopalganj district, it’s facing a three-pronged attack from water-logging, floods and saltwater intrusion.

Shova picks out some of Mitradanga’s defences from our surroundings. The mudcaked men are climbing up out of paddy fields sown with indigenous deep-water and saline-resistant rice varieties; the ducks waddling into their coops are prodigious layers, whose eggs provide both nutrition and an income to plug the gap left by lower-yielding rice.

Houses and water pumps are mounted on to plinths built high enough to withstand floods for the next 30 years. Alongside them stand huge tanks to harvest salt-free, safe to drink rainwater from the skies.

Shova shows us the floating gardens – a strengthened version of traditional models. They are planted with new crops, such as turmeric intercropped with okra, cucumber and chillies.

From bad to worse

These technologies are courtesy of an adaptation research project. Mitradanga was selected because, while its problems pre-date climate change, heavier rains and sea-level rise will make things go from bad to worse. Funded by British charityChristian Aid, it’s delivered by a national NGO, the Christian Commission for Development in Bangladesh (CCDB). ‘The idea is,’ says Evan Sarkar, project co-ordinator and charismatic Baptist, ‘that when the next crisis hits, they will be ready.’

The village is home to an imposing – if dilapidated – government flood shelter, whose path is eroded clean away. It offers shelter to people, but cannot safeguard their animals or homes, which are often swept away in severe monsoon floods.

To help people recover after these catastrophes – the village also caught the tail end of cyclone Sidr in 2007 – CCDB has helped the poorest women in the village set up a savings and loans scheme, which has already banked $1,000.

Saline water rots the rice in the paddy fields. Fish in the surrounding rivers grow ulcers and die

Villagers have used the money to stock back up on skinny biscuit-coloured cows with black-lined eyes – docile, adaptable creatures that can swim.

Funds, flood protection, livelihood options: it sounds like a lot. But when the Golden Dream forum gather in a corrugated shed (the designated ‘climate adaptation centre’) to talk about the problems they face, I begin to realize why it may not be enough.

‘Seawater has come into our area,’ says Subhash Chandra Roy, a retired teacher. Rice rots in the paddy fields; pumpkin production has dropped dramatically. Fish in the surrounding rivers grow ulcers and die.

Most people here are subsistence farmers. They complain that the seasons have dropped back from six to three. The weather behaves strangely – erratic rains and unexpected cold spells ruin seedlings, while deep fog infects crops with aphids and damages the mango trees.

‘Our harvests are shrinking’

One woman, Champa, her teeth stained red with betel nut juice, complains of scabies outbreaks caused by the stagnant water. During the dry season, the drinking water is salty and harmful. Each flood brings a sanitation crisis, and acute water-borne diseases that have claimed lives here.

The future holds only worries about how the land will sustain their children – as well as how to feed them in the meantime.

Posters on the wall warn of the greenhouse effect, and everyone nods knowingly when it is mentioned. ‘We are facing a lot of crises because of people in the West,’ says Shova. ‘Our harvests are shrinking.’ This slow erosion of livelihoods doesn’t make the headlines, but it’s no less devastating for that.

‘But how can we expect Europeans to believe this?’ she asks. ‘They don’t cultivate rice in paddies, they don’t raise cows. They live in big buildings surrounded by industry. How could they understand?’

She’s right. It’s hard for us to remember a life – and to imagine a destiny – tied so tightly to the land. In Britain climate change translates into hose-pipe bans, warmer weather or high insurance premiums in places like Yorkshire.

All here agree that the support, though helpful, does not go far enough.

The villagers have a solution. ‘Stop air pollution and give us financial help to survive this,’ they say. It resonates with UN climate negotiations: stop damaging, pay for the damage.

Shova has another suggestion: ‘Take us to your country if it gets bad here.’ Evan Sarkar prefers Canada: ‘They’ve got more space.’

The project in Mitradanga is in its early stages, with methods being trialled and evaluated. ‘When we started, people said this is too big, it’s a global problem,’ says Dwijen Malik of the Bangladesh Centre of Advanced Studies, which is lending technical support. ‘But now they are the doers in their communities; there’s a good feeling here compared to three years ago. Our biggest challenge is finding a way to boost agricultural production.’

Later I visit the Centre for Environmental and Geographical Information Services (CEGIS) in Dhaka, which specializes in water management and modelling. Fida Khan, head of climate change research, shows me an animated graphic that projects the impacts of sea-level rise. I watch as Gopalganj is slowly engulfed by a red splurge of salinity.

I wonder if all the ducks in the world would be any match for this hazard.

The same challenge faces much of the country, whose land is intensely farmed. Crop production is predicted to decrease by up to 32 per cent by 2050, by which time there will be an extra 130 million mouths to feed.

On the water’s edge

To meet the people who are facing a somewhat different, and more acute, set of problems, I travel further southwest, out on the edge of the Bay of Bengal in the shelter of the world’s last great mangrove forest – the Sundarbans.

As I head closer to the Indian Ocean, the lush paddies give way to a more barren, waterlogged landscape and ragged trees. This is the mark of shrimp aquaculture. In response to growing salinity, some landowners have turned to prawns. But while it has made fortunes for a small number of exporters, shrimp farming employs a fraction of the day labourers who once worked the land, which is usually leased by force from peasant farmers. The brackish water from the shrimp ponds wrecks the local environment, killing trees and spreading salinity.

Shahriar Dider and Anny Parveen, a warm husband and wife team from local NGO Shushilan, come out to greet me from an enormous gaudy guesthouse-cum-cyclone shelter in Munshiganj. We set off on motorbikes, bumping off down a narrow raised road along a canal.

Along the way, we stop off to speak to a group of farmers – who are in a meeting choosing volunteers for a disaster preparedness course. Their area is always among the first to disappear under a blue wash in maps that predict sea-level rise. This land could be underwater in the next 40 years.

Some villagers have already left, tired of trying to eke out crops from the salt-poisoned soil and fearful of natural disasters.

The group puts forward a long wishlist of what they need to happen in order to stay in the land of their ancestors. Most importantly, they say, the government must fix and then raise the coastal embankments, and build thousands more cyclone shelters.

‘We want ways to carry on making a living here,’ adds Selina Said, a mother of two. ‘We need new ideas and different kinds of technology.’

Their village is equipped with a similar array of adaptation techniques as Mitradanga. They are fattening crabs and growing chillies, to make up for lost rice yields; using organic compost to nourish the exhausted salty land.

What nobody knows is whether any of this will be enough. ‘How will the future generations live? What disasters are lying in wait for my children?’ asks Selina.

Hardcore poor

The trill of frogs grows louder as we motor on to the edge of the Sundarbans mangrove forest. Hugely rich in biodiversity, it’s the last stronghold of the Royal Bengal tiger. They are on track to join the Arctic polar bears as early victims of climate-induced habitat loss in the next 50 to 90 years.

The Sundarbans also acts as a buffer against storms and sustains around two million Bangladeshis. The people who materialize to greet us on the forest edge are landless, described as ‘hardcore poor’ by Anny. They subsist entirely on the forest, foraging honey, wood, shrimp fry and crabs from its meandering swampy channels.

But to collect these they have to journey ever deeper into tiger territory. They call the tiger babu (uncle) as a mark of respect – and fear. Among the group is a woman whose 25-yearold son was killed by a tiger. They reel off others – an uncle, brother-in-law, father-in-law.

Since Cyclone Aila swept away everything they owned – their boats, clothes and cattle – they have not been able to recover. Nearly three years later, they are living hand to mouth.

‘If we earn something from the forest, then we eat. If not, no,’ says one woman, Jhori Dashi.

If another disaster comes, or the sea continues to submerge the Sundarbans that feeds them, this ragged group of people will be forced into total destitution.

The following day, Shahriar takes me on a tour of the demonstration farm, where he’s trying out salt-tolerant vegetables. There’s a mangrove nursery for re-foresting roadside embankments. Four sea geese waddle past. Anny looks at them ambivalently.

‘We’re trying to find ways to help people here, but it’s a big challenge,’ says Anny. ‘Donor money may not last forever.’

‘Bangladeshi people are always facing trouble. They always take the initiative to pick themselves up. But with these cyclones, people are getting more and more vulnerable,’ says Shahriar.

Schools that float

Shahriar and Anny’s dilemmas are shared by development agencies across the country.

Major international organizations made the switch to ‘resilience’ from disaster management some years ago. CARE , Plan, Red Cross, Practical Action, Oxfam, Christian Aid, Action Aid and WWF all have ‘climate smart’ frameworks, and all are active in Bangladesh.

Practical Action has built multipurpose flood shelters in the north that lend full-scale protection to livestock and people, and have had huge successes growing pumpkins on sandbars; the United Nations Development Programme is trialing disaster-proof villages, ringed entirely by dykes, with houses mounted on concrete legs. Environmental challenges also drive great innovation in national NGOs. Shidhulai Swanirvar Sangstha has built a fleet of floating, solar-powered schools. Another outfit sails along the coast offering hospital services.

Ahead of the game

Bangladesh is awash with climate adaptation projects. But I am left wondering: what makes for success? And how do you know when you see it? In the capital Dhaka, I track down Bangladeshi scientist Saleemul Huq, leading climate adaptation expert, and author for the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IP CC).

‘There’s no static one-time solution to the problem,’ he says, ‘but a project must first take long-term climate impacts into account in design. The proof will only be seen 10 years from now.’

The theory is, of course, that if you are well prepared you will suffer less. ‘In many ways Bangladesh is better adapted than even the US,’ he says. ‘Take Hurricane Katrina. That’s a technologically advanced and rich country watching the thing coming but not being able to protect its own citizens – particularly the poorer citizens.

Farmers have channelled sediment from the river to raise the level of their land by up to five metres.

‘I’ve been working on adaptation for the last 10 years in the Least Developed Countries of Africa and Asia, and Bangladesh is several steps ahead of anybody else.’

Bangladesh has certainly played its hand well on the international stage. Politicians have eloquently challenged Western nations to open up their borders to refugees. They write hardhitting op-eds in leading broadsheets and lay responsibility squarely at the feet of polluting nations. And they are at the front of the queue when it comes to adaptation funding.

Only, until now, very little has materialized – $18 million to be precise. Most of the money coughed up by industrialized nations has gone to large economies like China and India to finance ‘mitigation’ in the form of energy efficiency (translation: slightly less polluting coal-fired power stations than before). Small island states, such as Tuvalu and other low-lying atolls in the Pacific, received, along with the Least Developed Countries in Asia, a sum total of $35 million from dedicated climate funds between 2004 and 2011.

Show me the money

Rachel Berger, climate change adviser at Practical Action, sits on the board of the Adaptation Fund, which was set up under the Kyoto Protocol. She worries that Western countries will claw back more than they give via their contractors, through tied aid. ‘The problem then is that adaptation priorities will be set according to what will benefit the private sector, not the poorest.’

The fight is on to have the UN manage the funds, to keep administration costs down, and to block the World Bank’s top-down programmes that ignore local needs and knowledge.

The West has come up with just $2.4 billion of the $30 billion promised by 2013

Meanwhile, UN climate talks have set a $100 billion annual target for a Green Climate Fund – for mitigation and adaptation – by 2020. This is roughly the same as the entire global development budget. There is a lot to play for, even if the West has only come up with $2.4 billion of $30 billion promised by 2013.

The unreliable track record of developed nations has led some Bangladeshis to think they had best not count on it.

Climate finance is a trap

‘This money won’t come,’ says activist Rezaul Chowdury. ‘Even when their economies were good, they didn’t give it. We will have to rely on our social capital: participation, sacrifice and leadership.’

We are in his dusty Dhaka office. Stickers saying ‘Ecological reparations now!’ decorate his laptop.

Rezaul runs COAST, a radical microfinance organization for coastal peoples and a climate justice coalition called Equitybd. He lost his home on Kutubdia island to erosion – and close family in the devastating 1991 cyclone, which killed over 138,000 people. This history lends his campaigning a passionate edge.

He is a late convert to adaptation (‘In the beginning I was so against it’) but is clear about its limits. ‘For me mitigation has got to be first. My government failed in Durban by saying “We need money!”’

There are others who believe climate finance is a trap. ‘It’s like a bribe from a man who is caught having an affair,’ says Iftekhar Mahmud, environmental reporter at leading Bangla daily Prothom Alo. ‘He keeps his wife sweet, giving her jewellery, a cruise trip, to keep on with his mistress. This Green Climate Fund is a bribe, to let them carry on doing their dirty work – to carry on emitting.’

It’s not what you do, it’s the way that you do it

If the buck stops with Bangladesh, what chances does the government have of protecting the most vulnerable? Some trends bode well. Bangladesh has cut deaths from natural disasters, with cyclone shelters and early warning systems, and invested in agricultural research.

The ruling Awami League even has something akin to a cross-party agreement with their arch-rivals in opposition when it comes to climate change policy.

Bangladesh was the first developing country to complete a National Strategy and Action Plan, and they have ring-fenced $100 million a year from their national budget to fulfil it. Pledges are rolling in for a ‘resilience fund’ from foreign donors, but money will fall far short of the $6 billion the government says it needs for more cylcone shelters and repairs to 7,000 kilometres of coastal dykes built back in the 1960s.

Technical capacity is also in short supply, and there is a yawning gulf between policy and implementation. Bangladesh ranks close to the bottom of Transparency International’s corruption index.

'We can't stop them living their luxury lives. But at least give us the money to adapt'

Money earmarked for flood defence measures in Khulna’s Dacope district has never materialized; some embankments were never built, others are not as high or robust as their blueprints prescribed.

NGO workers are deeply cynical and outspoken about mis-allocations. They talk of new organizations ‘grown overnight’ or ‘signpost NGOs’ who receive funding. The Environment and Forests Minister Hassan Mahmud came under fire for directing funds exclusively to groups in the Chittagong Hills, his constituency, which faces no threat from rising seas. He considered using climate funds to import hippos, after witnessing their tourism draw on a visit to Africa. Bangladeshi media caught wind of both these scandals and hippo cartoons dominated the press for weeks. But while the media ran Mahmud through the mill, he was promoted to a more senior position by his party.

I get the chance to meet staff from the government’s Climate Cell unit towards the end of my visit. The 10-year climate strategy is not sequenced, or prioritized. Projects have a maximum two-year lifespan.

But the rhetoric is fierce. ‘We can’t make countries reduce their carbon,’ says a woman from the forestry department. ‘We can’t stop them living their luxury lives and destroying our world. But at least give us the money to adapt.’ Mindful of criticism, the government has outsourced the next round of public funding for NGO adaptation projects to a microcredit organization.

Setting fire to a house

These are all steps in the right direction. And besides, there is something crass about tut-tutting over the capacity of a 40-year old country like Bangladesh to cope with an ecological crisis caused by the West; especially when the very same industrial prowess whose incubation is degrading Bangladesh’s habitat is what has equipped us to cope better with the impacts of global warming.

It’s a bit like setting fire to someone’s house, and then standing on your state of the art fire engine to watch, criticizing, as they try to put it out with buckets of water.

This point is not lost on Iftekhar Mahmud: ‘Environmental degradation is part of the development process. Now you have a good economy, law and order, and you spread pollution all over the world. We know we need to deal with governance. But what about the failure of your own democracies to rein in corporations?’

In the end, the government, with all its failings, is all that Bangladeshis will have to fall back on. Zakir Kibria, policy analyst with national NGO Uttaran, believes organizations should work towards building capacity at the lowest tier of district official. ‘Alone, most NGOs will fail,’ he says. ‘And I say that as an NGO.’

Bangladesh is bursting with expertise and ideas. It’s like a tantalizing puzzle where you can see all the parts but not how to fit them all together.

The answer, Kibria says, has to be joined-up working between government, civil society and the scientific community. The latter urgently need resources for climate modelling that can pin down the shape and scale of the hazards that lie ahead.

Making a virtue out of necessity

Bangladeshis are not natural pessimists. Iftekhar Mahmud’s critical analysis did not stop him from ending our conversation on a positive note. ‘Our people are innovative, their skill and motivation is high,’ he said. ‘That is where hope lies.’

Saleemul Huq is another who ducks dire predictions: ‘We are both vulnerable but also better prepared than many others – at the cutting edge of preparing for the impacts of climate change.’

I am starting to wonder whether this optimism is justified or a case of cognitive dissonance. I think about the Netherlands with their 100-year, costed climate adaptation strategy, and the innovation that wealth brings; their annual adaptation budget is $100 per person compared to Bangladesh’s $0.26.

It seems to me that people like Shova and Selina are resilient because they have to be. Adaptation comes at the cost of great personal sacrifice, degraded livelihoods and poor health. Surviving is one thing; planning ahead is another.

Among the development community, a more negative view prevails. ‘We are already in a bad basic situation regarding facilities and services. We will be hit by more and more problems. If we’re not ready, I fear terrible circumstances,’ worries Veena Khaleque, Practical Action’s country manager.

No-one really knows if what is being done now will be viable in 10 to 20 years’ time. My mortality-bound brain struggles to summon up even the 2050 world of scientists’ predictions.

But according to Kevin Anderson, deputy director of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Research, we may not have that long to wait.

Beyond adaptation

Anderson is an emissions expert who occupies the cusp between politics and climate science. He looks at energy systems, how power is generated, how economies grow. And that’s why when he says things are as bad as they could possibly be, I’m inclined to believe him.

‘We are above the IP CC’s worst-case business-as-usual scenario, and we’re pulling away,’ he says.

‘If you move scientists away from the microphone they’ll agree that we are headed for a four degree Celsius rise, maybe even by 2050. A lot of people have argued that four degrees will trigger a move beyond where you could have organized, structured adaptation.’ And that’s for everyone, by the way, not just Bangladesh.

I ran Anderson’s projections past Fida Khan. ‘Four degrees by 2050? My God! Everything will be destroyed,’ he exclaimed. ‘We are adapting. But if there’s a dramatic change, then it will be devastating.’

Coming back full circle, the best adaptation then must be accelerated mitigation, deep cuts in emissions. The real question becomes: are we capable of changing our societies enough, and in time, to stop it? I’d rather not wait to find out if there’s a tipping point beyond which society falls apart, when pushed beyond its coping range.

Back at COA ST, Rezaul Chowdury is not feeling hopeful. ‘I went to Bali, Cancún, Copenhagen and Durban [UN climate talks]. I’m not frustrated, I’m completely demoralized. It was a total waste of time. I should have stayed on my islands. The conferences just generate more cyclones, more floods, more people dead.

‘I feel like democracy is failing. I don’t believe in armed struggle, I believe in dialogue. Maybe this is my strength, maybe this is my problem. I don’t know.’

So he passes back the baton: ‘You need to wage a huge campaign in your country – a lot of education. If you pressure your governments, mitigation – and adaptation – will happen. Otherwise not. And maybe it will take 50, 100 years. In the meantime, India is drying us up with its dams and building fences while the world submerges our country. We will die drowning.’ 

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