Bangladesh is expected to be one of the countries most affected by climate change. With the help from European donors, the country is implementing programs aimed at helping its 150 million people face those changes.
A Bangladeshi family travels to a safer location amid flood waters after a cyclone
Fatima is a 25-year-old mother of two living in the village of Salimpur. It’s a part of Bangladesh that has just been declared a disaster zone, after flash-flooding hit the region almost two months earlier than expected. Fatima held up the remains of this year’s rice crop: mostly rotting, empty husks.
"It’s happened before that we’ve lost crops, but it’s never happened like this in the past few years. This is totally devastating," she said.
Fatima is one of hundreds of thousands of Bangladeshis already starting to feel the impacts of climate change. These are the people the European Union hopes to help with the 8.5 million euros it recently pledged to assist Bangladesh in implementing its Climate Change Strategy and Action Plan.
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Bangladesh is a prime example of the difficulties facing the region. Most of its 150 million-odd inhabitants live in poverty, and the low-lying delta country is already vulnerable to flooding, cyclones, salinity and drought – all of which are expected to become more severe and less predictable over the coming decades.
Dilruba Haider, a director at the Bangladesh Disaster Preparedness Centre (BDPC), said that although the country has already developed and begun implementing its climate change action plan – one of the first developing countries to do so – these measures are far from pre-emptive. "I think that Bangladesh has been facing the impacts of climate change for a long long time, it’s only that things are getting worse, and it will get even worse with climate change impact," she told Deutsche Welle. "You [already] have more cyclones, more water surges, more floods, more erratic rainfall, you have salinity in the coastal belt."
Small changes could prove crucial
Flooding already affects an enormous number of Bangladeshis: in the last major flood, in 2007, around 60 percent of the country was inundated.
That flood proved devastating for the tens of thousands of Bangladeshis whose homes and livelihoods were destroyed, or who became sick in the aftermath of the disaster. In the village of Ghora Chara, in Sirajganj Sadar Upazila, most families were forced to move onto higher ground for two weeks while they waited for the waters to recede. "The water got into all the houses, including mine. I tried to save my bed by propping it up on pieces of brick, but it didn’t work," said 55-year-old Rezaul Islam, a local. Most of the villagers’ crops were destroyed and livestock drowned.
Locals here have been keeping records using a rudimentary measuring stick, and have found that the waters have been rising steadily each flood season. Since the 2007 flood, though, they have taken steps to ensure that even if the waters continue to rise, they will stay safe. Villagers received assistance from the EU and the UN, among others, to raise their houses on earthen mounds or ‘plinths’. They were also given fruit trees to plant, to provide an extra source of income and protection against erosion, and latrines and cement-based wells were installed.
Ghora Chara locals now have safe drinking water during floods
"Raising the ground here is not only helpful for the people in this village, but also people in the neighbouring villages. When the floods come, they too can come here and take shelter," said Islam.
The wells were a key element of the project, according to the United Nations Development Program’s (UNDP’s) Mohiuddin Mohammed, who helped to implement the adaptation project.
"During floods, collecting safe drinking water is a problem, they need to go away. But when we put tubewells here as a source of water, [even] during flood-time they do not need to go out. They can collect the water from their own drinking tubewells," Mohammed said.
Though changes such as installing wells and toilets may be simple, they are by no means insignificant. When the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released its 2007 report on adaptation and climate change, it signalled out the spread of water-borne diseases associated with climate change, like diarrhea and cholera, as an increasingly deadly threat across south Asia.
Scientists can’t be certain
While scientists are reluctant to attribute any individual weather event to climate change, most agree that the changing weather patterns in Bangladesh are consistent with the kinds of changes expected as a result of climate change. "The aberrant behaviour of the climatic patterns in this part of the world and particularly Bangladesh, cannot be at the moment attributed to human-induced climate change," said Saleemul Huq, a senior fellow at the International Institute for Environment and Development.
However, Huq said, records of flooding in the Bangladesh region indicate that the flood patterns are already being disrupted, and severe floods occur far more frequently.
The BDPC’s Haider said that the greatest impact of climate change-related natural disasters in Bangladesh is likely to be on livelihoods.
"Crop production is greatly hampered by salinity, the fish stock is getting depleted as a result of salinity. In the southern belt for instance shrimp cultivation was a very profitable business 15 or 20 years ago, but now it’s really a huge crisis," she said. "So that’s our challenge: how to ensure that these livelihood practices are resilient to the climate change impacts."
Blocking out climate change
The people of Nawabpur have built a wall to keep rising floodwaters at bay
In the village of Nawabpur, in the wetlands region in the country’s north-east, the people have taken a literal approach to blocking out climate change. During the wet season the village becomes an island, and is extremely vulnerable to flooding or other extreme weather events. But this season, the people of Nawabpur were prepared: a year ago, their community received assistance from the EU and from the Irish NGO Concern to build a protective wall, almost four meters high, around the side of the village where the floodwaters are strongest.
Now, locals say the village is seen as a haven. "The rivers used to eat into the village, the erosion was quite severe. So no one from the other villages wanted to make ties with anyone from this village, we couldn’t marry off our young people," Faizur Rahman, who helped build the protective wall, said. "Now change has come to this village: we have more space, and the people from other villages who’d overlooked us before are willing to start building relationships with us again."
With more land and more security, locals have been able to establish vegetable gardens and raise animals for which there was previously little room.
The potential consequences of the increasingly erratic flood season are plain in Salimpur, the village in which Fatima and other villagers have just lost their crop. It is only half an hour’s boat ride from Nawabpur.
"I want to stay in this village if I can get work, or if help comes. But if not, what am I supposed to eat? I’ll have no choice but to go elsewhere in search of food or work," says 25-year-old Fatima.
On the move
Fatima will by no means be the first to have to leave her home for environmental reasons: forty years ago, 80-year-old Asma lost her home to river erosion and was forced to travel to the capital, Dhaka. Now she lives in Mohammadpur Beribadn slum, on the city’s outskirts Conditions here are poor: the people are crammed into small huts raised over a pit of waste.
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"No one is left in the village I’m from. No relatives, nobody. These kids here have no one, I’m practically their mother. I am all alone," she says.
If climate change continues, there may soon be many more Bangladeshis to join her. The Bangladesh Government has warned that in a worst-case scenario, six to eight million people living in coastal and river areas alone could be displaced by 2050. Experts estimate that the total number could reach 30 million by the end of the century. Already, more and more so-called "climate change refugees" are arriving in the country’s already-crowded slums.
The BDPC’s Haider said that as the effects of climate change worsen, some migration may prove unavoidable. "When the salinity level reaches a certain point maybe it will not be habitable by the people at that point, and at that point people would probably need to move out," she said.
But she argues that the developed world has a duty to help countries like Bangladesh adapt as much as possible, so that loss of life and forced displacement can be minimised.
"It is not just whether we need it or not ... it's a matter of rights for the people of Bangladesh to get support for adaptation," she said.
Author: Sophie Tarr
Editor: Anke Rasper