February 2, 2007
Climate of Fear in Sinking Country
Global warming peril to Bangladesh
Flooding may hit 40 million by 2100
by Jeremy Page
When Iman Ali Gain first heard about climate change a couple of years
ago, he thought that it was a joke.
How could the habits of people in the West affect him, a 65-year-old
shrimp farmer in southwestern Bangladesh?
He still has no concept of the science behind global warming, which
will be outlined in a United Nations report today. But he does not
need the 2,500 experts of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate
Change (IPCC) to prove that his world is under threat. Climate change
here is a day-to-day reality that scientists say could make 17
million Bangladeshis homeless by 2030.
Over three decades Mr Gain has seen the waters around his mud house
in the coastal region of Munshiganj, where silt-laden rivers meet the
sea, rise 3m (10ft). He has been battered by increasingly violent
floods, tornadoes and cyclones, and tasted the salt seeping
relentlessly into his drinking water.
Three months ago a tidal river burst through one of the embankments
that had protected the region's rice growers, shrimp farmers and
fishermen since 1968. "The water came up to here," he said, putting
his hand to his chest, as dozens of labourers piled sticky, grey
earth into the breached embankment.
"People were shocked and very afraid. We worry about what happens in
the future. How will we live here?" Nature has never made it easy to
live in Bangladesh, a vast delta at the confluence of the Ganges,
Brahmaputra and Meghna rivers, mostly lying less than 10m above sea
Every year these waterways burst their banks as rainwater and ice
melt sluice down from the Himalayas towards the Bay of Bengal.
Cyclones and tornadoes pummel the coast annually, bringing further
misery to a country slightly larger than England, yet crammed with
145 million people. Local sea levels appear to be rising, and summer
temperatures climbing, causing droughts in the north west.
The result is a "perfect storm" of environmental factors that could
make Bangladesh the first significant country to be destroyed by
climate change. "Bangladesh is in such a difficult position because
all these factors geographical, demographic, political and
climatic have conspired together," said Atiq Rahman, head of the
Bangladesh Centre for Advanced Studies and an IPCC member. "It is a
test case for the rest of the world."
He predicts that if the sea rises by a metre as some scientists say
it will by 2100 a quarter of Bangladesh will be submerged, forcing
30 to 40 million people from their homes.
As floods have pushed sea- water far inland, contaminating paddy
fields and water supplies, thousands of farmers, like Mr Gain, have
turned their paddy fields into shrimp farms. They earn more cash, but
are less well-off because they no longer have their own food
supplies. That leads to malnutrition and disease.
Thousands of "climate refugees" are estimated to have left the region
to find work in the cities or neighbouring India. Those who stay are
slowly learning to adapt, with the help of activists such as Mohon
Mondal. "When I first told people about climate change, they thought
I was crazy," the 31-year-old geographer said. "Now they know it's
true because they see so much evidence."