The Guardian’s environmental editor John Vidal is a journalist who takes opportunities to report the adverse effects of climate change already being experienced by some of the world’s poorer populations. In earlier posts I’ve drawn attention to pieces he’s written about Peru and some of the countries of Africa. This week he tells of the problems confronting villagers in Bangladesh. Coastal villages face enormous challenges from increased flooding, erosion and salt-water intrusion and the local communities are tackling them with vigour. Vidal writes of Rebecca Sultan of the village of Gazipara which suffered enormous damage from two super-cyclones in recent years:
Sultan and 30 other women have raised their small houses and toilets several feet up on to earth plinths. Others are growing more salt-tolerant crops and fruit trees, and most families are trying different ways to grow vegetables. “We know we must live with climate change and are trying to adapt,” said Sultan.
Elsewhere in Bangladesh, hundreds of communities are strengthening embankments, planting protective shelter belts, digging new ponds and wells and collecting fresh water. Some want to build bunkers to store their valuables, others want cyclone shelters.
Added to the severity of cyclones are the increasing drought experienced in the north of the country and the ever-present threat of rising sea levels. This is how Bangladesh is described by Bangladeshi scientist Saleemul Huq:
“It’s by far the most aware society on climate change in the world. It has seen the enemy and is arming itself to deal with it. The country is now on a war footing against climate change. They are grappling with solutions. They don’t have them all yet but they will. I see Bangladesh as a pioneer. It has adapted more than any other country to the extremes of weather that climate change is expected to bring.”
The resilience and adaptive capacity of the Bangladesh population was also underlined by Mark Hertsgaard in his book Hot, which I drew attention to in this post. Their spirit is worthy of respect, however much it may ultimately be overwhelmed by the force of events in the future. It’s also worthy of assistance. The kind of help needed is indicated by Atiq Rahman, director of the Bangladesh Centre for Advanced Studies:
“Many know to plant more tolerant crops in hard years, but lack the drought-tolerant or salt-resistant seeds now needed to deal with worsening conditions. We need new technologies, funds and knowledge.”
The funds are not coming. Vidal reports foreign minister, Dipu Moni, as saying that rich countries had not given the money they had pledged to help Bangladesh and other vulnerable countries adapt.
“Climate change is real and happening,” Moni said. “A 1C rise in temperatures for Bangladesh equates to a 10% loss of GDP. One event like cyclone Sidr can take 10 to 20 years to recover from and cost us billions of dollars. But we don’t see the money coming.”
Some has come – $125 million – but donors are unwilling to say whether this is just subtracted from development aid, and therefore not new money at all. That’s not what is supposed to happen, and prevarication on the issue looks suspicious.
It’s all too easy to avoid contemplating what is happening in countries like Bangladesh and to starve it of the significance it deserves. The foreign minister takes a stab at the reason:
“The people being affected are not the big banks but the poor. Our plight goes quite unnoticed. It does not make the rich countries produce trillions of dollars overnight. It’s a shame, but we keep trying.”
All too often there appears little more one can do than bemoan the failure of the richer countries of the world to absorb the seriousness of the effects of climate change on the lives of some of the world’s poorer peoples, let alone offer the help that by any measure of justice is their due. But all honour to journalists like Vidal who persevere in confronting us with the reality and the need. They at least remove the excuse that we didn’t know.