In the air-conditioned world of suburban Canberra, climate change isn’t something that you would think about too much, unless you really want to. But I know I’m living in a bubble, and that there are places outside my bubble where climate change is impossible to ignore.
At the top of that list is Bangladesh – where climate change has become a matter of life and death.
A Harsh Reality
Murshad Ali Khan, a journalist for the leading English newspaper in Dhaka, The Daily Star, has been reporting on Bangladesh for over 30 years. According to him, Bangladesh’s capital, Dhaka, was once a quiet city. “The last 20 years has seen phenomenal growth. Everyday people come from rural areas [for] employment opportunities.” He cites the reasons for such large migration as economic, but that “climate is also playing a part”
Dr. Atik Rahman is one of the country’s top climate scientists. According to him, it is Bangladesh’s unique geography that makes it particularly vulnerable to climate change. It is “a play of water and land.” In a sense, when it comes to climate change, Bangladesh is geographically cursed.
Sitting at the bottom of the Himalayas, it is one of the flattest, lowest lying countries in the world. Nearly a quarter of the land is less than 7 feet above sea level. The people in Bangladesh have a long history of living with water. Some of the rivers are many miles wide, and the country has a four month long rainy season. Large scale floods are common, and have been for centuries. But global warming is making things even worse.
“We need the flood for fertility of the land, but the little extra flood is what is disastrous” says Dr. Rahman. “In the centre plain where all the three rivers meet, there has been a 15 per cent increase in the areas covered by flood over the last 20 years.” This increase is consistent with all the predictions of climate change. For Dr. Rahman, “climate change is the shift in one direction, and there are lots of examples over the last 10 to 15 years to show that it is going in one direction.”
In Southern Bangladesh, cyclones are also a fact of life. But as of late, the cyclones have been bigger, stronger, and more frequent. Four have occurred in seven years. A combination of two cyclones, Sider in 2007, and Aila in 2009, left the country in ruins. Thousands of people were killed, and over one million became homeless.
By the end of the century, climate scientists project that there will be a three-foot rise in sea levels, and the impact that will have is hard to comprehend. About 17 per cent of the land mass will be inundated by salt water. That means around 20 million people in southern Bangladesh will be forced off their land by the year 2100. It’s hard to imagine where they will all go. A lot will end up in Dhaka, which is further inland.
The City Of Dhaka
It turns out that this climate migration has already begun. Harvard professor and head of the Independent University of Bangladesh, Omar Rahman, is an expert in demography, the study of how human populations grow and change. According to him, Dhaka is changing at an astonishing rate because of migration. “Bangladesh is the size of the state of Iowa. And at 160 [million] we are half the size of the population of the U.S which is 340 million. Think of half the U.S population packed into Iowa and that’s an idea of what it’s like” says Omar.
The population of Dhaka depends on where you define the boundaries, but it’s somewhere between 15 to 20 million. It is not only the 6th largest megacity of the world, it is the fastest growing megacity. According to Omar, the population is supposed to double in 20 years.There are many factors behind Dhaka’s mind blowing growth. A big one is economic. “People have to move to the city because that’s where the jobs are, that’s where the money is” says Omar.
Bangladesh is now the world’s third largest garment exporter. For decades jobs have been a magnet, pulling millions to Dhaka. But in recent years Omar has noticed something new: rising seas and more intense storms in the South of the country are pushing people out of their homes, and into this already over populated city. “Climate change is exacerbating all of this. It is happening much faster and we’re having to deal with it in the much shorter time frame.”
Up to 2000 people arrive in Dhaka every single day. And the city is struggling to absorb them. “Climate change affects the whole world” says Omar, “but we in Bangladesh are in the eye of the storm. It’s sort of like being a canary in a mine in a way, it’s going to happen to us earlier, so how we adapt to it is going to be crucial in terms of teaching the rest of the world of how to deal with these issues.”
Bangladeshis have done almost nothing to cause global warming, especially compared to an Australian like me. But they have to pay a much steeper price. Climate change is tipping the scales for people already facing difficult odds.
Dr Tasmeen Sadiqqui is a political science professor at the university of Dhaka. She is also the founder of its Refugee and Migration Division, an organisation that fights for migrants rights. The studies conducted by Tasmeen found that 75% of of the migrants in her study moved partly because of climate related events, which had affected their ability to make a living. “Their livelihood isn’t sustainable” says Tasmeen. “So therefore they come to Dhaka so that they can have a proper income. But living standards are very bad.”
For Tasmeen, an even bigger concern in the working conditions for migrants. Many of them end up getting jobs the country’s 20 billion dollar garment industry, where they often work for less than two dollars a day in extremely unsafe factories. Proof of that is what happened in 2013 in the Rana Plaza garment factory.
Rana Plaza made clothes for many top Western brands. To increase production, the owner of the building illegally added floors and crammed people in. When the building collapsed on April 24, 2013, more than 1000 workers died in what is now considered one of the worst industrial accidents in history.
Rana Plaza doesn’t have anything to do with climate change, but climate migrants often end up in jobs like those, where security is not ensured. That was the story for Rana Plaza victim Shahidul Islam. He was trapped in the rubble of the collapsed building for eight hours before being rescued. Because of his injuries, Shahidul cannot work a physical job anymore, so he now needs to find a career that allows him to sit down.
“Because of Sidar and Aila, a lot of damage was done to my village and my family was facing a lot of difficulties” says Shahidul. “So I decided that I should help my father. But because of my accident I’m not sure I’ll be able to help my family.”
You could argue that Shahidul was a victim of bad luck – being in that factory on that day, being in the path of the two cyclones that forced him to leave his home. But how can you argue that climate change isn’t stacking the deck against people like him?
Insecurity In The South
The South is the front line in this countries battle against climate change.
When local communities are asked how they feel about the prospect of having to leave permanently, it becomes clear that they do not want to leave. But while they may not want to leave, soon they may not have a choice. As mentioned earlier, Sidar and Aila left over a million people homeless, but other more subtle changes can wreak havoc.
For Atik Rahman, a one metre rise in sea levels by 2100 is not what the average person worries about. They are worried about their next meal, and even that is being affected by climate change impacts. The people in Bangladesh have learned “a very fine tuned agricultural system” that is based on average patterns of weather events. When the rain becomes unpredictable, that system is jeopardised because plant seedlings are either not planted in time or are destroyed.
There is also another threat that cannot be seen by the naked eye: salt. With each cyclone, salt water is pushed farther north into the areas that are otherwise arable and fertile. Aila pushed so much salt inland that even five years later, remnants of it is still there. And the rising sea level only makes this worse.
This means that cyclones not only destroy trees and infrastructure, they also destroy agricultural crops. Once these areas are covered by a layer of salt, the productivity just isn’t there.
The efforts to eliminate poverty in Bangladesh will be severely hindered by the impacts of climate change. After a long history of famine, one of Bangladesh’s greatest achievements is that it now grows enough food to be more or less self sufficient. But climate change raises the question: for how long?
When the people of South Bangladesh are forced to move, their first stop will be a nearby temporary shelter. The next stage is the urban centres and nearby cities. The last stage will be to the slums of Dhaka, which are overcrowded. By 2050 to 2070, between 20 and 30 million Bangladeshis will be displaced. Where will they all go?
Other Unintended Consequences
Organisations like Friend Ship give health services to the most inaccessible places. For Runa Khan, one of the co-founders of the organisation, South Bangladeshis are not unfamiliar with harsh weather events. They know that it is a fact of life, and they prepare for it. The trouble now is that these harsh weather events are now coming irregularly, and without warning.
This is understandably bad for your health. Diarrhoea, respiratory problems, skin infections, even gynaecological problems are on the rise. Child birth becomes logistically difficult, meaning that mortality rates of the mother and child increases. For Khan, “not only is there a health issue, there is a livelihood issue.”
The rising temperatures and sea levels are often very abstract notions, but it is a reality in Bangladesh that has consequences that reach far beyond its borders. A failed Bangladesh that does not adapt to climate change is a tremendous security risk to the region, and the to the world. South Asia is already a politically volatile region. One needs to only look at a map to realise how climate change could create more conflict.
If the estimates are correct, by the end of century, tens of millions of Southern Bangladeshis will be forced off their land. If the country is not able to provide a place for them to go, that essentially leaves them with only option: India.
But India has already made it clear that it will go to great lengths to keep them out. This makes the life of climate migrants even more dangerous. Many men, women and children have been shot and killed trying to illegally cross the border into India. Yet despite this, is it often easier to go to India than to Dhaka.
The India-Bangladesh border is one of the most dangerous borders in the world. Millions of Bangladeshi’s have made it across the border, and are living and working there illegally. This had made India more serious about preventing any more from crossing. The Indian security forces have killed nearly 1000 Bangladeshis. Only up until a few years ago, a ‘shoot on sight’ policy was enforced for anyone trying to cross the border without permission.
A Sad Story
Though this is a world completely different to mine, one begins to see how connected these worlds are. The more pollution countries like Australia emits, the more people in places like Bangladesh are impacted. With 51% of the population aged under 25, these are mostly young and restless people being displaced, and I am sure many are beginning to understand the causal relationship: that it is somebody else’s greenhouse gases that is causing their hardship.
This is a phenomenon in a way. It is an issue of environmental justice and global human rights. Why are these people being displaced? Who has caused their displacement? Who is going to pay for it? And where are they going to go?
If another country came and invaded that piece of land that is predicted to be submerged under water by 2100, every Bangladeshi would give their life and fight. But who do they fight here? Somebody has to take the blame.
And somebody has to lead to the way towards a solution. Because eventually, climate change will touch all of us.
CIA World Fact Book