Bangladesh: on the front line

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.

18 thoughts on “Bangladesh: on the front line”

  1. Why does Bangladesh need development aid above and beyond that given for Climate Change mitigation? Is it in the middle of a drought or something?

  2. What would be a possible solution here is for a radical land reform programme where small holder farmers sell their plots and they are reorganised into larger units where the high capital costs of managing changes to the environment are better able to be handled and where economies of scale can lead to efficiencies in production and increased output. The people who have sold their farms could then be resettled into urban environments where they can concentrate on higher output activities in the secondary or tertiary sectors of the economy.

        1. Isn’t the urbanisation of society on of the key points in UN Agenda 21? i.e urban living gives better use of resources, transport etc.

        2. Yes economies of scale would lead to more efficient use of resources and also enable environmental protection stategies to be focused better.

          This is an example of where someone like Thomas is just a naysayer who offers little beyond constant carping of the status quo.

        3. Gosman: The study as you might have realized if you actually read it, was referring to the conditions of Western Suburbia when compared to Western Cities.
          The Western Suburban living arrangement is one of the most wasteful of all possible outcomes: Long commutes in congested roads to work in the cities, long drives to strip mall shopping centers, long drives to anywhere and anything you want or need to do plus land carved up into Mac Mansion type suburban sprawl with all the related cost of delivering Western comfort, power, water etc. long distances to these artificial settlements.
          In that regard: I would prefer an urban apartment in walking distance to work, shops and community. And in that comparison indeed urban living is environmentally preferable.
          But you argued about chasing millions of small scale farmers of their plots in order to corporatize the land, This is an entirely different situation.

          1. Sorry Thomas but that article did not mention Suburbs but did mention rural communities. Admittedly they are rural communities in Western countries but that is a minor point.The fact remains that increased concentration of population in a urban setting allows for cost benefits to come into play that don’t occur in places where population density is lower.

    1. Or in another way of saying it: lets take ownership of land (and the ability of sustenance living) away from a few tens of millions more and make them into little consumers while big international food producers (Nestle anybody? Monsanto?) own the land and produce “so much more efficiently” the food that we all need. Then Monsanto can “lend” these people some money so that they can “afford” to buy the tucker. In end of which we are back to the days before the abandonment of slavery…. Hurray!

        1. Having had the benefit to be borne into a western society after WWII and getting my Physics degree at the onset of the age of microprocessors I founded an IT company with international success.

          Having gotten tired of sitting in front of screens after a long career in IT I have become a Science teacher late in my professional career and that is what I am doing at the moment.

          When you talk about the millions of people in Bangladesh and patronize over their fate by suggesting one should take their land away from them to give it to big business and transport them to the cities I cringe.

          Have you traveled to India or Bangladesh in order to know what you are talking about? Try to make it in the slums with perhaps a job putting western consumer good together at $2 a day…

          Gosman, how about you go over there and patronize them with your ideas…

          1. So it is fair to say that you don’t live off the land and rely on your wealth and income from economic interactions with other people who also don’t live off the land. That is good for you. However you don’t seem to think it is possible or desirable for others to strive for the same lifestyle. I find this rather perplexing especially when you accuse me of being patronising.

            As for your emotive outbursts about farmland being taken away from them to give it to big business, I never mentioned anything about Big business. I did mention bigger and more efficient farms. Whether they are owned by a big business or an individual farmer is irrelevant to me. Obviously not for you though.

            1. I tried clicking on Thomas’s link to play the Sustainability Game, and I got this message

              After 4 years and hundreds of thousands of players, the Consumer Consequences game has been retired.

              Did they run out of Duracells?

            2. How depressingly dull that first game was. Additionally it was obviously designed for a US audience, (it didn’t have any option about using the Train to get to work for example). I hope you don’t use those games with your kids at Science class Thomas. A sure way of turning them off I wouldn’t know is possible.

              Anyway, once again I have to put you on the spot about what you are actually aiming for. If you want to stop people in the developing would from attaining the sort of living standards we in the West enjoy what sort of living standards do you want Western people to move down to? Examples please not general wish washy eco-babble.

  3. Looking at that video it seems that part of the problem is land ownership is fuzzy. The fact that a farmer can abandon one farm and just move to a new one that has just been created is suggestive that people don’t value land highly.

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