As Munjurul Hannan Khan, deputy secretary of the Bangladeshi Ministry of Environment and Forests told a conference in Dhaka last month, ‘For the north, [climate change] will mean a compromise with lifestyle. For us, it’s about future survival.’
But the sight from Old Dhaka is not all as grim as these projections alone suggest. While Western policymakers direct their focus toward mitigating carbon emissions, Bangladesh is one of the few countries to accept the inevitability of climate change and start tackling adaption head-on. Once the very symbol of backwardness—an ‘international basket case’ in Henry Kissinger’s infamous words—today’s Bangladesh may well soon be leading the way into a shared future of climate insecurity.
Saleemul Huq, a senior fellow at the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED) in London, says Bangladesh, with its relatively high levels of education and a burgeoning awareness of climate change issues, was well placed to establish a ‘comparative advantage’ in adaptation research. ‘Over the course of the next ten years, this is where the world will learn how to deal with climate change,’ he says. ‘This is ground zero.’
Later in the year, Huq is relocating to Dhaka to head a new International Centre for Climate Change and Development (ICCCAD), based at the city’s Independent University. The aim, he says, is to use Bangladesh’s current situation as a means of training researchers and policymakers from other developing countries. ICCCAD will initially offer short courses, he says, but hopefully expand soon into a fully-fledged international Masters program in climate change adaptation studies. ‘The demand for knowledge and training on climate change is now mushrooming. People understand the problem and now they want to do something about it,’ he says.
Huq says adaptation could encompass a wide range of measures, including efforts to bolster anti-flood infrastructure and improve cyclone detection systems, draw migration away from Dhaka through regional job creation initiatives and encourage the resettlement of villagers dwelling on chars, river islands seen as particularly vulnerable to floods and rising sea levels.
Indeed, the country already has a firm adaptive foundation, having faced more than its fair share of devastating natural disasters. Today, as a result of early-warning systems and emergency evacuation plans, deaths from cyclones and tropical storms have fallen sharply: the Bhola Cyclone killed as many as half a million people when it made landfall in Bangladesh (then East Pakistan) in 1970; in 2007, when Cyclone Sidr was detected in the Bay of Bengal, around two million people were evacuated ahead of time and the death tolls—cited at 3,447 by one official—were correspondingly lower.