A project of the General Economics Division of the Bangladesh Planning Commission funded by the Government of the Netherlands

  • How do you survive in a country that is sinking?

    How do you survive in a country that is sinking?

    Bangladesh is understood to be the country most vulnerable to climate change. One third may disappear under the water if global warming is not halted. However, the country, indicated formerly as basket-case, is not waiting for it to happen, but takes action.


    Timidly Rika and Omitosh Mondol stand in the rain besides the ruined left-over of their mud house. One month ago the house was destroyed by the water of the river just behind their house, a tributary of the Padma river. They now live with their children on a muddy levee in Dacope, Polder 32, which is a flooded, silted area in the south west of Bangladesh. The area can only be reached by boat. Their family already lives here for generations, says Rika, but live is slowly becoming too difficult. Every monsoon season the river nibbles a bit of their land away. Already 70 m was lost in this manner. ‘If the government would be able to give us a piece of more elevated land, we would move there’. But they did not hear from the government in this regard. Polder 32 is a forgotten area of disaster. The dilapidated polder south of Khulna is almost permanently flooded. People took refuge on the not very well maintained dikes after the cyclones Sidr and Aila years ago. Support or help is hardly available. Nearby is the brackish wilderness of the Sundarbans, a mangrove forest which is the domain of river pirates.


    Warmer and wetter

    Bangladesh (156 million inhabitants, 3.5 times the Netherlands) always was a water rich country, but due to global warming, water is coming from all sides nowadays. Rivers are to digest the water of the melting glaciers in the Himalaya, increasing monsoon rains, cyclones, sea level rise and salinity, in this one-but-biggest delta in the world all comes together. According to many, the country is the most vulnerable to climate change in the world.

    Not that we are exactly sure how bad things will be. The climate, with already now two to three times the annual rainfall of the Netherlands, is getting warmer and probably even wetter, with more rain and stronger cyclones. An increasing drought in the north-west. Sea level rise, 98 cm this century, may inundate one fifth to one third of the country, says climate expert Dewan Quadir in Dhaka. And this can lead to 30 million climate refugees in 2100.

    But climate refugees are there already in large numbers. More and more farmers, nobody knows how many exactly, especially in the south west, give up their struggle against the water and salinity and go away, first to nearby cities like Khulna, where the problems cannot be easily handled, and later to Dhaka, the capital, where also nobody is waiting for them and they may end up in the slums.


    People like Setara Begam, in Korail, the largest slum of Dhaka, who in 2007 moved out of the delta to Dhaka with her husband, after cyclone Sidr made them loose everything. Her children left, she says, and her husband, a former day labourer, is sick. She is too old to work herself, after year-long stone crushing for road construction. Now she rents out rooms in her small slum dwelling. She does not want to go back. ‘There is nothing to go back to.’

    The climate refugees are a growing problem in Bangladesh, says Atiq Rahman, contributor to the IPCC and the most renown climate scientist of the country. ‘Of the 15 million inhabitants of Dhaka, 5 million are living in slums. At least one third could be called climate migrant. These people are living under worse conditions than earlier on in the delta. This problem will increase. Finally you’ll also be affected in Europe.’


    Flooded fields

    The increasing climate problems in Bangladesh can be seen everywhere while traveling through the country. At Chalan Beel we see endless inundated fields, with farm houses like small islands in the sea. In Mongla, the slums are inundated after heavy rains. And everywhere in the country, migrating rural people live in small temporary makeshift settlements along the road side.

    Many water problems are related to the geography. Bangladesh is a dynamic delta where the landscape is still changing continuously. Countless rivers, among which giant rivers like the Padma (Ganges), the Jamuna (Brahmaputra) and the Meghna, are bringing yearly about 1 billion tons of fertile sediment, change their courses continuously and cause flooding and river erosion. Every year, ten thousands of hectares of land and complete villages disappear in the water, and climate change will only aggravate these effects.

    The village Majkali was threatened last month by the Jamuna. About 300 meter next to the river got lost. Villagers are looking out over the enormous river, which came very close to their houses now. The Bangladesh Water Development Board reinforced the bank of the river with sandbags.

    Oh, this is nothing, an old man says. ‘Our village was flooded so many times. In 1988 the water came to my neck. When I was young, the river was 6 km away from here’.


    Human interventions

    Human interventions in the sixtis and seventies did not do well for the delta. Construction of dams (especially in the Ganges river in India) significantly reduced the discharge of river water, and the construction of embankments and polders for rice cultivation (in the time of the Green Revolution) robbed away the flood plains. The discharge reducing, the water speed in the river slowed down, rivers silted up, and salinity intrusion increased. The ecosystem of the delta, a breathing brackish tidal landscape was destroyed.

    Yes, says environmental scientist Dilip Kumar Datta in Khulna, we destroyed the delta and are now blaming the climate. ‘But all problems come down to the fact that we are managing the water, and not the sediment. We disconnected the south west with our polders, and reduced the natural sedimentation. In the past the water would come and go, but now it is no longer going. The delta landscape becomes a water dessert that is impossible to live in’.

    The situation is most serious in the polders at the coast. Salinity intrusion, the impact of cyclones, storm surges and sea level rise are strongest there. Sea level rise may be 98 cm or more, says geo-morphologist Maminul Haque Sarker. While the sea level rises, the country is subsiding, also related as the Indian plate of which Bangladesh is part, is slowly moving under the Asian. So there is a realistic chance that the delta, that now is still growing will become smaller.

    Large consequences

    All these problems have large consequences for food security, says agricultural expert Zahurul Karim. On flooded land you can’t grow a crop. Elsewhere drought is the problem. Agriculture became dependant on the winter rice, and this requires irrigation. The provision of food has therefore become more sensitive to climate, according to Karim. ‘If the global warming continues, this will aggravate, as key crops like wheat, potato and maize may then no longer be grown’.

    Meanwhile, the government of Bangladesh and numerous NGOs in the country placed climate problems high on the agenda. Various adaptation plans are being formulated to prepare the country and its people to the changing climate. These plans range from water management and agricultural innovation to disaster management.

    The battle against climate change and the one against poverty and for development are seen as two sides of the same coin. With Dutch support a Bangladesh Delta Plan is currently being formulated. Such a plan has to enhance in a sustainable manner both the adaptive capacity as well as the livelihood options for the rural population. This with the hope that people will not need to leave, and possibly even could come back to the delta, says project staff climate Catharien Terwisscha van Scheltinga of Wageningen University and Research Centre.

    The plan, with a time frame until 2100, includes a lot of attention for water management, like strengthening river embankments, development of chars (inhabited islands in the river) and land reclamation by targeted sedimentation. Along the coast, mangrove forests and cross dams are planned to be constructed which enhance deposition of sediment, which would otherwise have disappeared in the sea. At Noakhali, new land is being distributed to landless farmers. The hope is that within twenty years over 10.000 square kilometre of land can be reclaimed from the sea.


    Blue Gold

    Successful are also the so-called Blue Gold-projects, in which water management and agricultural innovation are going hand in hand. The objective is to renovate submerged or silted polders, through repair of the embankments and sluices, desalinization of water and familiarizing farmers with new agricultural technologies (like salt resistant varieties) or reintroduce old technologies (like the sarjan system with raised cultivation beds, or floating cultivation on reed).

    ‘We familiarize farmers in the climate affected areas with integrated agriculture,’ says Tahmina Begum of Blue Gold. To grow other crops, besides rice. Crops that can be sold in the market, like vegetables and fruits, ducks and poultry, to use submerged plots for aquaculture, and to start cooperatives to get better prices.

    The Blue Gold project in the district Narail assisted Minipara village to recover. There was so much water on our fields, that we could not grow anything anymore, explains Abdul Rashid, chairman of the village cooperation. Therefore we dug a small drain, to enhance the discharge of the water. The farmers got training on agriculture and aquaculture. Women farmers got training on vegetable gardening. Also five water wells were drilled, which

    provide water free of arsenic contamination. The village income has increased with 30 percent, according to Rashid.


    Dutch delta approach

    The Dutch delta approach of long-term plans and large scale infrastructure is not necessarily suitable for Bangladesh, according to many experts.

    The Netherlands is a rich, high technologically developed country with a crowded delta where water in canalized rivers might exceed the height of the embankments once in 1250 years, while Bangladesh is a developing country with a complex, active delta of enormous rivers that need to be able to flood the agricultural lands.

    ‘Your engineers have a lot of experience with water infrastructure projects, but your rivers are so much smaller than ours’, says Shamsul Alam, high level civil servant in the Planning Commission, four phones on his desk. ‘Rivers like the Padma and the Brahmaputra are in the monsoon season 15 km wide, these are almost seas of water. And besides being a problem, they are a blessing. They bring fertile sediment, enable agriculture, and reduce the heat stress. Therefore we have to keep them in a good condition.’



    Bangladesh seems, despite all problems, optimistic that it will be able to adapt to global warming. That’s not surprising, as in many ways, the country always known for hunger and extreme poverty is doing well. The agricultural production quadrupled since the seventies, and even food is being exported nowadays. De economy is growing 6% per year.

    However, against climate change itself, Bangladesh is helpless. The country supports a global reduction of green-house gas emissions, but can’t and won’t limit its own emissions yet. The country wants to be able to develop.

    That’s why we demand financial assistance for adaptation to the impacts of global warming, says Rahman. ‘It can’t be that a country, which did not contribute to the warming, now has to pay for it’.

    Written by: Ben Van Raaji (Volkskrant, Netherlands)

    Translated by: Catharien Terwisscha van Scheltinga

    www.volkskrant.nl/klimaat www.volkskrant.nl/klimaatkennis

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