In The News

From Bangladesh: Climate Change Ground Zero

April 21, 2010

In Asia speaks to The Asia Foundation’s Deputy Country Representative in Dhaka, Jerome Sayre, on climate change in Bangladesh.

Q: The latest Global Climate Risk Index ranks Bangladesh as the most vulnerable nation in the world to extreme weather and climate change. What does “climate change ground zero” look like on a daily basis?

A: Since floods and cyclones are part of life in Bangladesh, and climate change is expected to contribute to the intensification of these, the average Bangladeshi may experience this as “more of the same,” only more destructive and more frequent. Bangladesh is also grappling with declining water tables and river flows, and salinization of crop lands along the coast due to non-climate change related phenomena. Climate change can intensify these trends.

These are slow but real changes that affect people’s lives, but the more dramatic and visible shift I’ve noticed over my five years in Dhaka is in public awareness of the issue. Members of Parliament, government agencies, NGOs, and the general public are all now much more aware of the potential for losses due to climate change. Bangladesh’s Prime Minister spent a significant amount of her time abroad in her first year in office raising the issue at several international venues.

Q: And, Bangladesh happens to also be one of the most densely populated areas of the world which would make this a humanitarian crisis as well.

A: Over the long term, an estimated 17 percent of Bangladesh’s land area could be submerged, displacing about 20 million Bangladeshis. Keep in mind that these estimates project a sea level rise of one meter over the next 100 years or so. This will not happen overnight. However, in March, Indian scientists in Kolkata reported that water levels in the Bay of Bengal have risen faster in the last 10 years than the prior 15 years – and that the small disputed island of South Talpatti – which lies between India and Bangladesh and was occupied temporarily by the Indian Navy in the1980s – has now disappeared.

Q: Bangladesh’s capital, Dhaka, has been called the fastest-growing megacity in the world, with a population of 12 million and 400,000 newcomers each year. How does a city – already straining to deliver basic services such as electricity and clean water – absorb these additional “environment refugees” who are now looking to stay in Dhaka permanently?

A: Dhaka has for many years been a magnet for those from Bangladesh’s rural areas who have lost their land – whether to river erosion or salinization or to “land-grabbing” by influential local strongmen. Some of these internal migrants come in the winter when the need for daily laborers to help with agriculture is low and then return after the winter ends. Others end up in Dhaka’s expanding slums where sanitation and security conditions are much worse than in the countryside. All of this, combined with an increase in vehicle ownership and traffic congestion, has contributed to Dhaka being rated one of the most “unlivable” cities in the world. Earlier this year, there were a number of opinion pieces in the press calling for the relocation of some government offices and functions to other major cities to ease the pressure but this is not a new idea and would be a difficult process.

Q: Have there been any promising environmental initiatives undertaken recently in Bangladesh?

A:  Yes, both by civil society and by the government. One of the most promising civil society efforts in this area is operated by Waste Concern, a social business project developed by two enterprising young Bangladeshis to convert solid waste, which is about 80 percent food waste in Dhaka, into marketable compost and provide employment. The remaining 20 percent of solid waste is inorganic consisting of plastic, paper, aluminum, glass, etc. and most of this is already recycled. Their public-private partnership model has attracted attention internationally. Grameen Shakti, which is affiliated with Noble Peace laureate Mohammad Yunus’ Grameen Bank, has for several years provided solar panels to rural villages to supply their modest electrical needs.

The government has also encouraged the use of renewable energy and solar panels were recently installed on the roof of the Prime Minister’s Office. The scale of renewable energy is unlikely to meet Bangladesh’s needs any time soon but in the near term these efforts can help prevent the already frequent power outages from becoming worse.

Q: Bangladesh will receive a portion of the $100 billion annual green climate fund approved at the Copenhagen summit, although the larger amounts of the aid is not expected to roll in until 2020. What critical issues simply can’t wait for money to trickle in? What can be done in the meantime?

A: What is already being done is work on protective infrastructure guided in part by the government’s climate adaptation master plan. As part of its adaptation efforts, the government has established a fund under its Ministry of the Environment which provides grants to NGOs and the private sector to undertake approved adaptation projects. Those approved thus far have primarily involved the building of embankments and other protective structures along the coasts to protect from sea level rise. The international community is closely watching how these funds are used as a test of Bangladesh’s ability to absorb larger funding flows and implement such projects in a transparent, accountable and sustainable manner.

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