Climate ground zero: 6 things you need to know about Bangladesh

Bangladesh is ground zero for climate change. It's also remarkably complicated. In our three weeks there, we met climate justice campaigners, a microfinance exec, COP15 attendees, peasant organizers, a Linux social entrepreneur, aspiring novelists, gay techies, a singing environmentalist, and journalists galore. Everyone had a point of view about Bangladesh and climate change, sometimes difficult to reconcile. We could spend a year there, investigating the threads.

1. Climate change is painfully real

In Bangladesh, climate change is in the newspaper multiple times, every single day. The full political spectrum is represented in the All Party Parliamentary Committee on Climate Change. Bangladeshi climate debates are about strategy, not is-it-really-happening. (All this while in the US, the Republicans are wedded to climate denialism, and in India, the environment minister casts stones at the IPCC.)

Why the difference? Bangladesh is the #1 country most affected by extreme weather events over the past decade, including floods, cyclones, precipitation, and drought. Climate change is pushing this along, and it's only going to get worse. 60% of Bangladesh lies under 5 meters above sea level. A sea level rise of 1 meter could turn 30 million Bangladeshis into climate refugees.

But this isn't about disaster movie drama. The biggest climate impacts are slow and quiet, felt only by residents, farmers, fisherpeople. For example, increased soil salinity from tidal flooding is harming food production and drinking water supply. Low-lying coastal areas are particularly vulnerable. The Sunderban's rich biodiversity is threatened by encroachment of sea water into the mangrove swamps; the loss of the mangroves, which provide a vital layer of protection against storms, will increase the devastation caused by cyclones.

2. Bangladeshis want to preserve the Bangladeshi Way of Life

Forget every argument you've heard on developing nations battling for the right to increase emissions for development purposes. In Bangladesh, where the majority of the population is rural, many Bangladeshis would be delighted just to retain the status quo.

If Americans seem collectively unwilling to compromise the American Way of Life, Bangladeshis are equally intent on safeguarding the Bangladeshi Way of Life. Bangladeshis in the agriculture and fishing sectors are seeing the collapse of environmental constants that held their lives together. The ability to continue to fish for a living, raise the crops one's ancestors grew, and not have to deal with a sped-up cycle of natural disasters is not that much to ask.

We spoke to folks from the Bangladesh Krishok Federation (BKF), which represents landless peasants, often the first to feel these impacts. Says Badrul Alam of BKF, "My way of life involves living safely in my homeland, eating culturally appropriate foods -- when we talk about climate justice, we need the temperature to return to normal rates." The Campaign for Sustainable Rural Livelihoods's constituency isn't fighting for high-carbon cars and hamburgers, only the opportunity to live sustainably off the land and sea, free of traumatic climate variability.

3. Tremendous amounts of money are involved

Because Bangladesh is one of the most vulnerable nations, it also has a strong case for getting a meaningful share of climate finance. Even under the atrocious Copenhagen Accord, there's going to be tens of billions of dollars in play; any sliver of that would be a massive amount of money in a developing nation like Bangladesh. It's sometimes alleged that some Bangladeshi political parties and NGOs are interested in climate issues primarily to get their hands on inter-governmental and private funds. After all, Bangladesh's corruption rates it #139 on Transparency International's annual rankings.

But potential secret corruption is rivalled only by the very real possibility of World Bank consultants publicly "managing" Bangladesh's adaptation funds. Members of PRAN, a research and activist group in Noakhali, told us the story. The British and Danish governments are pushing to funnel adaptation funds through a Multi Donor Trust Fund managed by the World Bank--which might charge a 10-15% management fee. Local civil society groups opposed the plan, as "the Bank has a long history of imposing economic conditions on developing countries, fuelling unjust debts and promoting dirty development." Nurul Masud from PRAN worried that foreign funds might go mostly to pay for expensive foreign gadgetry, instead of supporting those most impacted.

We believe in "polluter pays," (i.e. climate debt), which is why it's frustrating to see climate polluters arbitrarily impose conditions on climate victims. Pressure from groups like EquityBD and Jubilee gave a climate-vulnerable nation the strength to stand up to powerful funders: Bangladesh threatened to reject a £60 million (US$94 million) British aid offer funneled through the World Bank, insisting that climate debt should be channeled through the more democratic UN. This is one of the most intense struggles we've encountered on our trip. Sadly, as of the most recent talks, Bangladesh hasn't been able to escape the World Bank, though the fees may be capped at 1%; campaigners aren't giving up.

4. Money can't buy security: only we can save Bangladesh

Money's not enough. Again and again, Bangladeshis told us that paying back climate debts wasn't as important as actually reducing emissions. This surprised us. US climate justice groups are very focused on mitigation (reducing future climate change) over adaptation (dealing with impacts, paying climate debt). Traveling in Asia, we found groups focusing on both. But Bangladeshis are like us; they know the only thing that matters is shutting down climate change.

A rural participant in a BKF climate change awareness workshop said it best: "We've survived natural disasters. We can look after ourselves. But we have no power over mounting emissions -- only you can stop that."

Reducing GHG emissions by 90+% will be politically and personally difficult for those of us from developed nations. But having seen some of the communities that will be drowning for our climate sins, it's painfully clear that our systems make us party to dispossession and murder by proxy. And it's not just developed nations at fault. Journalist Mahtab Haider told us how India and China had been pressuring Bangladesh to focus their attention at Copenhagen toward Annex I nations (e.g. US, UK, EU). "But carbon is carbon," Mahtab told us; "once in the atmosphere, Chinese or Indian carbon is just as destructive as American carbon."

Bangladeshis aren't willing to be bought off, because they can't eat money. They don't mean this figuratively; young climate activist Rizwan Hassan told us how after cyclone Sidr, Bangladesh wasn't able to buy as much emergency rice from neighboring India as they had hoped, because India had food demands of its own. This is only going to get worse. Nothing stops climate change impacts like stopping climate change.

5. Adaptation is easier said than done

How do you survive climate change? Bangladeshi institutions are incredibly busy "adapting" to a world of floods, cyclones, and crop failures. Commonly proferred solutions includes: resilient buildings, cyclone shelters, crops better suited for a changed environment, and coastal management like planting mangroves and creating flood embankments. But the devil lies in the details. For example, Bangladeshis have been building embankments around islands to keep out floods; unfortunately, embankments also interrupt natural cycles, while trapping water that gets inside, which increases soil salinity and makes farmland uncultivable.

Members of Architecture for Humanity (AFH) and PRAN told us about the tremendous interest in collecting indigenous knowledge, in the hopes that understanding hyper-local architecture, farming, and living practices can help build a catalog of adaptive strategies. But indigenous techniques are often optimized over centuries for specific cultural and environmental conditions, which may not apply anymore, there or anywhere else, particularly as climate instability creates conditions like simultaneous flooding and drought. It's an important idea, but easier said than done.

Bangladeshis are incredibly resilient to disasters like cyclones. Imrul Kayes from AFH described how New Orleans residents visited Bangladesh after Hurricane Katrina, to learn about dealing with the psychological burden of natural disasters. But resilience has limits. The climate is changing faster than culture can adapt. Communities face having everything ripped away from them: their homes, the foods they eat, the way they live. You can hand every resident of an inland village a diagram for a houseboat, but that doesn't mean they'll line up to live in a Waterworld-style future.

6. Climate change isn't the only threat

While we were interested in climate change, we also found that Indian dam policy may have just as much impact on Bangladesh. We didn't know very much about this issue; as Indians, learning about it made us more conscious of the power an upstream regional superpower can have over a poor downstream neighbor.

India built the Farakka dam on the Ganges in 1975. India and Bangladesh signed agreements on water sharing, but they haven't always been in force or respected, to devastating effect. Bangladesh's northern rivers would run dry most of the year and see heavy flooding in the rainy season when the Indian dam couldn't contain the water; this rendered Bangladeshi rivers unnavigable, harming agriculture, fishing, trade, and transport.

India's new Tipaimukh dam is strongly opposed by Indians and Bangladeshis downstream. Per Mahtab Haider, "Water experts and ecologists have warned that the dam will cause desertification, water-logging and overall food [in]security"; this, along with river cycle disruption, displacement of people, and methane release from rotting submerged vegetation. The issue has turned into a major Bangladeshi foreign policy crisis. Given that the impacts may be as big as (and more immediate than) climate change, we're surprised that the issues gets nearly zero international coverage. Climate change is an important lens to understand Bangladeshi environmental issues, but by no means the only one.

I've been writing about my experiences in Bangladesh on my own blog:


Thanks so much for documenting your experiences and travels. I love reading your guys' posts, especially since they are so well written and insightful!

A well-written document, rich in new information. Thank you!

A situation that is very much like ours. There's little we can do without help from the bigger countries.

PakAlert had some comments on the crisis that you just do not see in western 'media'- some of which sounds insane/erratic/worse to people conditioned by public education and the corporate press. I won't replicate their posts : search should tell you everything that I might and more. But the context of 'denialism' is very much an unscientific promotion of flimflam posing as science by pitching mud at a necessity of inquiry : dialogue.

Interesting and impassioned. Where can I find the data showing the frequency of extreme flooding and drought in Bangladesh, say, from 1900 to the present day please?

Hi John. Thanks for your interest. To begin with, you can read more background on drought and flooding processes in Bangladesh at Banglapedia:

* "Flood" on Banglapedia
* "Drought" on Banglapedia

But to get a sense of what that means on the ground, and particularly the impacts on farming communities, read the FAO's excellent "Climate variability and change: adaptation to drought in Bangladesh" handbook.

It's important to keep in mind that there are a wide variety of local man-made factors that can mitigate or exacerbate the scale of flooding. Flood management practices have changed over time, and have had substantial successes and failures.

I haven't found large datasets in the wild, but you may want to check the sources cited by Mirza et al in "The Implications of Climate Change on Floods of the Ganges, Brahmaputra and Meghna Rivers in Bangladesh" (see page 293). Among their six sources, is the Bangladesh Water Development Board; here's an example of some of the BWDB data, though take a look at Shamsuddin Shahid's paper to learn more about the ins and outs of the data, and how to fill in gaps. There's an archive of papers on Scribd on Bangladeshi precipitation patterns that may be worth looking at.

If you're really interested, look at the Climate Change and Bangladesh Annotated Bibliography, which summarizes 300+ papers and reports dealing with issues related to Bangladesh and climate change.

Thank you for asking!

Thank-you for your insight on this most serious problem. I am thinking of coming to this country to retire and teach as a volunteer. I wish the world powers to give proper attention to the real need here! Of course my teaching here is not the solution either. It's what I know. Maybe if we ship in oil, other's would pay attention as they should without it. Sad how greed is the motivator for most nations. Many thanks for your careful report helping others understand better.

Sea level rise is not a problem in Bangladesh. "When sea level rises, the delta builds-up rather than out into the ocean and thus stays more or less balanced with sea level."

So why didn't they ratify the Kyoto protocol?

Bangladesh is a Kyoto Protocol signer, and publicly advocates for it.

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We're a landscape architect (Barnali) and tech geek (Anirvan) from San Francisco spending a year trying to travel across continents aviation-free while talking to people exploring solutions to transportation and the climate crisis.

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