As the news on climate change takes a sharp turn for the worse, questions are being asked about the global impact. In May, scientists announced that a large portion of Antarctica had begun to collapse. It is the largest and most catastrophic Antarctic cleaving to date – taken as a sign that extreme changes to the global environment are imminent and inevitable. The nation facing the greatest calamity is literally half a world away from western Antarctica: Bangladesh.
Predictions of looming environmental catastrophe have lingered over Bangladesh for decades. Many predictions of the small, densely populated, impoverished nation’s fate have involved Malthus’ famous theory, which posits that exponential population growth will outstrip linear increases in crop yields, provoking mass hunger and social breakdown. So far, Bangladesh has proven neo-Malthusian doomsayers wrong. Poverty and malnutrition are in decline, and the nation of 160 million is self-sufficient in the production of rice and wheat, its staple foods.
Climate change predictions are a different matter entirely. The risk is not overpopulation, but rather myriad adverse changes induced by rising temperatures and global changes. The combined risk of rising sea levels, droughts, and chaotic storms lands the country at number one on the global Climate Change Vulnerability Index. The impact may soon provoke the violent social breakdown long feared.
The country’s geography makes environmental vulnerability inescapable. Bangladesh is a flat country surrounded on three sides by India and on the fourth by the Bay of Bengal. It’s a delta, a massive drain for three mighty rivers that flow through the Indian subcontinent (the Ganges, Brahmaputra, and Meghna), for the Himalayan glacial melt, and for the area’s annual monsoon rains. Indeed, annual flooding helps to restore the nutrient-rich soil on which the country’s agricultural self-sufficiency depends. But the waterlogged land loses 18-75 percent of its area to temporary flooding each year – which kills some 5,000 Bangladeshis annually, causes homelessness for many more, and disrupts the lives of the rural-dwelling majority. Rising waters will mean losing habitable land.
And the water will rise. The announcement of Antarctic continental fracturing included a prediction of a three-meter sea level rise within the next century. Just one meter of sea level rise – a rise now forecast as inevitable within current lifetimes – will displace millions of Bangladeshis from their land. It would be sufficient to reduce Bangladesh’s land mass by 17.5 percent, according to a 2007 academic paper by Golam Mahabub Sarwar and Manunul H. Khan.
The loss of the Sundarbans will remove a natural barrier to storm surges – just as the world begins to experience increases in chaotic weather. Already the most cyclone-vulnerable country in the world, Bangladesh faces a near-certainty of catastrophic storms. Sea level rise will also force seawater inland, contaminating Bangladesh’s water table and leaving some coastal areas without potable water. Changes in weather are also likely to exacerbate droughts in the northeast. Overall, climate change is set to test communal resilience and force Bangladesh’s people off a significant portion of rural land and into cities.
But while researchers are certain that environmental migration will occur, few can quantify the human tide. Sarwar and Khan have suggested, in a number echoed elsewhere, that 40 million Bangladeshis will be displaced by one meter of sea level rise in the coming decades.
That is a quarter of the current Bangladeshi population, and it is likely that large-scale migration is already beginning. Environmental migrants are not often recognized as such in Bangladesh, but researcher Thomas Homer-Dixon suggests this is common. “The term environmental refugee is often misleading [because] it suggests that people will move out of their homelands in vast and sudden waves.” This ignores the many whose migration is impacted by a complex combination of environment and economics, and those environmental migrants who move due to slow, permanent changes such as saline intrusion.
Nonetheless, migration is unmistakable. Dhaka, the country’s capital, has experienced a population explosion. Migrants arrive from other areas of Bangladesh at a rate of 400,000 per year – one of the fastest growth rates of any city in Asia. The capital has swollen from four million to fifteen million people within a few short years. Already ranked the second least livable city in the world for its severe overcrowding, Dhaka will hold an additional 25 million people by 2050. Migrants far outstrip the city’s ability to accommodate them.
Their impoverishment can be intractable, too. Having lost the opportunity to use their agricultural skills, new arrivals often fill the area’s garment factories and tanneries, where work conditions can be deadly.
The result is a kind of pressure cooker, primed for intensive upheaval. Thomas Homer-Dixon’s book Environment, Scarcity, and Violence describes the relationship between climate and conflict: a pattern of agricultural loss that drives migration and economic marginalization – followed by an explosion of violence. Amidst resource challenges, it would be unsurprising if Bangladesh’s fault lines undergo dangerous shifts.
In rural areas, where environmental tensions can be most clearly felt, they arguably already are. For example, Bangladeshi Hindus were the targets of a two-month long spate of attacks in December 2013 to February 2014. The proximate causes were Islamic fundamentalists’ anger over a contested election and war crimes tribunal; the violence was widely decried by moderate Muslims. But the violence is part of a long-running persecution of Hindus, and victims noted that some attackers appeared mostly interested in grabbing Hindu land and property. While political losses were the spark, poverty and resource scarcity were the dry tinder for the attacks.
The attacks looked much like the circumstances that preceded the Rwandan genocide of 1994 – a conflict caused in part by resource scarcity, per scientist Jared Diamond’s seminal book Collapse. Ongoing climate change threatens to increase the potential for Muslim attacks on Hindus inside Bangladesh. As Nazmul Hussain, a Bangladesh Army staff officer deployed with a peacekeeping force to Rwanda during the 1994 genocide, says, “I can see a similarity about potential threats in Bangladesh like Rwanda…. there is an ominous sign of potential outbursts anytime.”
If the threat is from Muslims to Hindus inside the country, though, the dynamic is reversed across the border. To speak of emigration to India is anathema to Bangladeshi tastes, despite ample evidence of long-standing Bengali Muslim migration into India’s West Bengali, Tripura and Assam states, motivated by a quest for arable farmland. Mass immigration sparked interethnic conflict in Assam in the early 1980s, and in 1983, Assamese militants massacred several thousand Bengalis in a single day. While that struggle narrowly predates a quarter-century of climate change warnings, more bloodshed has occurred as recently as 2012. The cross-border tension over migration has never truly abated.
In fact, pressures are increasing. Although Khatun insists that “no data are available” of whether climate change will induce Bangladeshis to move abroad, it’s logical that some of the displaced millions will cross borders. Meanwhile, India’s newly elected prime minister, Narendra Modi, has publicly voiced his acceptance of migrants from Bangladesh – but only if they are Hindu. An outcry for inclusion from India’s leftist politicians notwithstanding, the stipulation reflects long-standing Indian discrimination against Muslims. It may, in the end, cause international difficulties impacting millions.
While problems loom, they remain open to mitigation. Modi’s administration is too new for clear answers on international diplomacy, and Bangladesh’s governance is often poorly managed (as Nazmul Hussain puts it: “Corruption is rampant, so this is an ominous sign.”)
Nonetheless, the Bangladeshi government created a climate change action strategy in 2009. While it does not directly refer to violence, it could reduce the overall likelihood of conflicts by addressing climate change-induced instability in country.
Judging by current behavior, though, human concerns are taking a back seat to myopic preoccupations with money. The country hasn’t received promised financial support from wealthy nations to enact the plan. But at the edge of the country’s delicate delta, foreigners are funding a new, ultra-polluting coal plant.
M. Sophia Newman, MPH, was a 2012-2013 Fulbright grantee to Bangladesh who lives in Dhaka and works as a freelance writer.