From the port of Sadarghat, the Bangladeshi capital Dhaka unfolds itself in an inclement palette of greys and browns. The Buriganga River, stretching out in each direction like a puddle of mercury, is dotted with hundreds of river craft, some dredging trash from the riverbed, others weighed down with passengers and piles of vegetables.
Moored nearby, bleeding rust, sits the country’s fleet of ‘rockets’—colonial-era paddle steamers fitted with belching diesel engines that ply Bangladesh’s extensive network of waterways. The road running along the riverbank, the old Buckman Bund of the British colonial era, is today a bottlenecked mass of overladen trucks and tinkling rickshaws.
A magnet for rural migrants, low-lying Dhaka—already one of the most densely populated megacities on earth—is likely to come under increasing strain as the country comes face-to-face with the effects of global climate change. The UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says Bangladesh is likely to face cyclones, drought and flood events of increasing frequency and intensity as global warming sets in. In its 2005 report, the IPCC also estimated that a one metre rise in sea-levels could put 17 percent of the country underwater and cut its food production by 30 percent by 2050. Much of Dhaka, which lies in a flood plain protected only by giant embankments along the Buriganga could be engulfed by even a ‘slight rise’ in sea level, according to another report by UN Habitat. It described the megacity—largely unplanned and lacking basic infrastructure—as a ‘recipe for disaster.’
In May last year, Cyclone Aila lashed the southern part of the country, breaching giant embankments and flooding large tracts of low-lying farmland with salt water. Of the 900,000 families affected by the storm, about 100,000 people are still living in makeshift camps on top of the flood embankments—the only place beyond the reach of the floodwaters. Luigi Peter Ragno, a project manager at the International Organisation for Migration who is working with communities affected by Aila, says an expected spike in extreme weather events due to global warming will likely accelerate the age-old flow of rural poor to the cities.
‘Looking at the future, you can see that environmental degradation can have a cascade effect into the cities and the urban areas,’ he says. ‘Everybody will be affected.’
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.
David Lewis, a Professor of Social Policy and Development at the London School of Economics, says the Bangladeshi government has also ‘taken the lead’ on climate change adaptation, becoming the first nation to create a National Adaptation Program of Action, part of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, in 2005. In October last year, the national parliament approved the Climate Change Strategy and Action Plan, which maps out key strategies for adapting to the effects of global warming, including infrastructure development, the strengthening of disaster management systems, measures to improve food security and health and the bolstering of climate research. A Climate Change Trust Fund has also been established as a repository for donor money, to which it has contributed $100 million of its own funds.
Even on the mitigation front, Bangladesh has taken steps that seem drastic considering its modest emissions levels. Plastic bags are completely banned throughout the country and Dhaka is free from cars running on petrol or diesel (the use of compressed natural gas is mandated by law). ‘There are some bottlenecks, but climate change is on top of the agenda of the Bangladeshi government,’ the IOM’s Ragno said.
Of course, Lewis notes bad governance and the country’s endemic levels of corruption—Transparency International rated Bangladesh 139th out of 180 countries in its 2009 Corruption Perceptions Index—pose daunting challenges to the creation of a fully effective policy framework. ‘It’s too early to say whether these [measures] are yet having an impact,’ he said of the country’s adaptation plans.
But even Bangladesh’s notoriously quarrelsome politicians appear to be preserving the bipartisan character of climate change policy. When power changed hands at the 2008 election, instead of reversing the previous government’s policies (the usual pattern in its fractious political system) Dr. Huq said the new Awami League government actually redoubled its commitment to the issue. Lewis adds that with government coordination and proper international support, there was certainly the potential for Bangladesh to break new ground and export its lessons abroad.
While many daunting challenges remain, Huq says the widespread foreign perception of Bangladesh as a ‘basket case’—compounded by its extreme vulnerability to climate change—underestimated the adaptive resources of the country’s people. And whether or not Bangladesh succeeds, its experience will pave the way for future actions by other nations.
‘It’ll be a struggle, but we’ll get better and better at it, and the rest of the world can come and learn from us,’ he says. ‘Bangladesh has always lived on the edge of an apocalypse, but somehow it doesn’t ever fall over the edge.’