Bangladesh Fights for Survival; Climate Change Spurs Search for Solutions

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), October 18, 2009 | Go to article overview

Bangladesh Fights for Survival; Climate Change Spurs Search for Solutions


Byline: William Wheeler, Anna-Katarina Gravgaard and Ashish Kumar Sen, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

NOAKHALI, Bangladesh | After his home slipped into the powerful currents of the Meghna River four years ago, Monoranjab Dus came looking for new land along this waterlogged stretch of coastline slowly emerging from the sea.

I lost my home to river erosion, said Mr. Dus, 50, standing barefoot on a squishy riverbank where he was fishing crabs from gray-brown mud, with the consistency of wet plaster. Behind him stretched a field of bright green rice shoots. I was bound to come here.

Good land is hard to come by in Bangladesh, a low-lying developing nation that is one of the most densely populated - and vulnerable to climate change - countries in the world. River erosion alone displaces more than 50,000 families each year.

But the swift currents that course down from the Himalayas also bring opportunity: a rich bath of fertile silt that, when it reaches the Bay of Bengal, settles along the coast, gradually forming new land called chars. The district of Noakhali has actually gained more than 28 square miles of land in the past 50 years.

The Bangladeshi government is finishing up the largest phase of a decades-long effort to develop nearby chars as well as building a new dam to speed up the process of creating new land for settlers like Mr. Dus.

The Bangladeshi rivers carry silt unlike any others and an intervention is all that is needed to create new land, said S.R. Khan, a government water engineer. Bangladesh is the only country in the world that can physically grow.

That process begins when the silt from the swirling, tea-colored waters begins to gather in mud flats that gradually rise above the sea. Without intervention, the process takes more than 20 years, after which the forest department plants mangroves to hold the fragile land.

But often people can't wait that long. For decades settlers have been moving in early on their own. Mr. Dus had heard the government was distributing land in 1.5 acre allotments. So, like many settlers, he staked an appropriately sized parcel, cut down the 3-foot mangroves growing on the land and dug a small pond for bathing.

His life is a daily struggle with the elements. The coast is soaked by tidal surge and battered by seasonal cyclones like the one that killed more than 3,000 Bangladeshis in 2007 and one last spring that destroyed Mr. Dus' home.

This is lowland, he explained. People here are suffering a lot.

Bangladesh is extremely vulnerable to sea-level rise, as well as increased storm intensity, floods, droughts and other consequences of climate change. This environmental scenario illuminates the paradox confronting much of the developing world, in which nations that contribute few emissions are disproportionately burdened by climate change, without the money or technology that industrialized nations have to mitigate its impacts.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), an organization created by the United Nations two decades ago to study the human impact on climate trends, predicts South Asia will be particularly hard hit.

For example, the IPCC says the region can expect an increase in monsoon rainfall, resulting in higher water levels in the rivers. The situation will be compounded by melting Himalayan glaciers. Eventually, sea levels will also rise.

Keya Chatterjee, U.S. acting director of the World Wildlife Fund's Climate Change Program, said low-lying countries such as Bangladesh are already experiencing devastating effects from climate change.

They are terrified about what will happen when we begin to experience the additional warming that the planet is already locked into, based on previous and existing pollution, she said, adding, They are even more terrified of what will happen if the world does not aggressively pursue a global clean-energy economy.

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