Bangladesh and Climate Change: Recipe for Disaster

Bangladesh, at the triangular tip of the Bay of Bengal, is home to an astonishing 40 percent of the world’s storm surges. In 1971 and 1990, it experienced two of the deadliest such storms in history, killing 500,000 and 140,000 people respectively. It is arguably the world’s most vulnerable country to climate change.

In 2018 alone, Bangladesh’s Meteorological Department issued 12 cyclone warnings, preventing the country’s fishermen from going to see for a total of 75 days. With a long coastline that is basically at sea level at the confluence of the Ganges and the Brahmaputra River, and much of the rest of the country just 10 meters above the Bay of Bengal (the exceptions being the Chittagong Hills and the Low Hills in Sylhet, which top out at 104 meters) massive flooding during the monsoon and now in pre-monsoon is becoming the norm, a situation that is causing greater numbers of people to swell into cities like the capital Dhaka.

But climate change is responsible for more than just flooding near the coast. Unpredictable weather is causing the heavy rains to arrive ahead of schedule, flooding rice fields and other crops, wiping them out even before harvest. This is now happening even in the northeast, which is usually arid in the dry season. With flash-flooding in the parched northeast and rising sea levels on the mangrove coast of the Sundarbans, the people of Bangladesh might be looking for an ark for salvation.

The only place to run to, though, are cities, with 300,000 – 400,000 rural migrants lighting out for the urban areas as a direct result of environmental and economic problems every year. While there are many causes for urbanization and migration, and while these have been trends throughout Asia in recent decades, Bangladesh, due to its geography and location, stands out as a unique example of a country on the move because of climate change. Shifting weather patterns and torrential downpours are inflicting so much havoc on the country that some experts predict that Bangladesh could lose as much as 25 percent of its landmass in the coming years.

Boats ply where scooters and bicycles once passed, saltwater from the sea soaks rice patties that were once watered by timely monsoon rains, rain gushes down in places it was unexpected at times it shouldn’t, cattle are drowned, riverbanks and coastlines are eroded, crops fail, cities swell. This is what climate change looks like. The nation is becoming like a nearly-soaked sponge leaking water from its edges and with its few remaining dry spots (the cities) unable to absorb rising numbers of internally displaced citizens.

But all is not well in the city, particularly in Dhaka. Dengue fever has exploded in the capital, and while the mosquito-borne disease has always existed there, it is usually only problematic during the rainy season from June till September, during which time it claims a handful of victims. But in recent years those numbers have spiked, with over 7,000 cases reported in 2018, compared with fewer than 100 in 2014 (see chart).

How might climate change be exacerbating this scourge? Rainfall, temperatures, and rapid unplanned urbanization are all factors that influence how bad dengue will be during a given year, and with Bangladesh experiencing more of all three of those factors thanks to climate change, a perfect health storm is brewing. For villagers fleeing the soggy countryside for a better life in the city, it could well be a case of out of the frying pan and into the fire.

Climate change is also causing some Bangladeshi islands, such as Kutubdia, where coastal erosion is bringing the ocean into people’s homes, washing away mango and betel nut trees, and even knocking down mosques. With no electricity, the Kutubdia islanders probably have among the lowest carbon footprints in the world, but like many low-lying islands, they are paying the heaviest price for a problem they didn’t cause. Tens of thousands of these islanders have headed to the mainland, and many will likely end up in Dhaka.

The ongoing results of climate change in Bangladesh are likely to result in human tragedy. International development assistance has helped the country reduce poverty from more than 50 percent to less than a third. It has managed to meet Millennium Development Goals in maternal and child health and has made meaningful progress towards food security despite a government regarded as thoroughly corrupt and repressive. Climate change could reverse much of that.

The shifting environmental conditions will likely see farmers (who can no longer plant crops on flooded and salinized land) turn to fishing, which can quickly becoming over-fishing, threatening unique wildlife species such as the South Asian River dolphin, which is already undergoing a decline thanks in part to overfishing.

Tiger populations in the Sundarbans are crashing, down to just 100 from 440 in 2004, partly because “years of worsening conditions for farming have forced thousands of desperate farmers deeper into the Sundarbans to tap bountiful resources of honey, fish, and building materials”— that translates to habitat destruction and loss of prey base for tigers. Fishing and crabbing boats have increased more than tenfold in the Sundarbans, thanks in large part to farmland degraded and salinized by rising sea levels. In short, some of the rarest wildlife in the world is also under threat in Bangladesh as a side effect of climate change.

To make matters worse, Rohingya refugees fleeing persecution in neighboring Myanmar are encroaching on the habitat of Bangladesh’s population of Asian elephants. Refugee camps are located smack in the middle of elephant corridors and large-scale deforestation is taking place where elephants once roamed under the shade of the jungle, putting major stress on the forest giants.

There are some bright signs for the nation’s wildlife, however, with tribal people in the Chittagong Hills confirming through camera-trapping the presence of rare species such as dholes and clouded leopards, and in the process being trained as “parabiologists.” Nonetheless, pangolins are barely clinging to existence in the country, and the overall situation regarding conservation is challenging there.

The country could be viewed as far away and off the radar to many people, even in Asia, but Bangladesh can and should be seen as a symbol of what can happen to other low-lying places such as Miami, New York, Shanghai, London, and Amsterdam, and also to India, which shares a similar topography in that region and which shares a dependency on the regular monsoons to water it crops and feed its people. The world may not be as far behind Bangladesh as we imagine.

Gregory McCann is the Project Coordinator for Habitat ID and the author of the book Called Away by a Mountain Spirit: Journeys to the Green Corridor. He is a regular contributor to Asia Sentinel