Monday, September 7, 2009

Bangladesh surrendering to a hungry sea

By 2025 one-thirds of Bangladesh is set to disappear under water. Tropical cyclones formed in the Bay of Bengal and accompanied storm surges take the highest human toll in the country. Between the melting Himalayas and the Khasi-Jaintia Hills in the north and the rising Bay of Bengal and Indian Ocean in the south, Bangladesh faces the risk of extinction. Barely a meter rise in sea level will swallow the entire coastal zone of the country and force upon the world a refugee problem beyond solution.

This coastal zone comprises 47,201 square kilometers, which is 32 per cent of the country’s total landmass (almost 5 sq-km more than that area of Denmark). Bangladesh is one of the most crowded nations in the world, with 35.1 million people living in the coastal areas alone. Half of them survive below the darkness of the poverty line. Fishing, agriculture, tourism and shrimp and salt farming are their main sources of livelihood. The mangroves of Sunderbans provide subsistence to 10 million of them. They have never known any other way of life.

If the land vanishes from under their feet they will have nowhere to go; the rest of the country is already bursting at the seams with a density of 1000 people per sq-km. Ironically, Bangladesh contributes a minuscule 0.06 per cent to the global carbon emission, but will have to pay the price with a minimum of 35.1 million lives if the world continues to be the way it is.

On top of this unimaginable tragedy, the gradual rise in sea level is reducing fresh water availability through salt intrusion. Whatever landmass escapes drowning will be largely rendered uncultivable. The initial stages of this salt water contamination forced people to switch from rice cultivation to shrimp farming. For that Bangladesh has had to pay a very high premium: loss of staple food production and hence food insecurity.

The world was a witness to the wrath of Tsunami in areas devoid of mangroves. Bangladesh avoided Tsunami but wasn’t lucky enough to counter Cyclone Sidr. The fact that the fall of Sunderbans will result in loss of biodiversity and a productive eco-system is altogether a separate tragedy.

In the aftermath of the death and destruction left behind by the category-4 Cyclone Sidr in 2007, the courageous people of the coastal belt tightened their belts to give life another start. Little do they know that a one-meter rise in sea-level is ultimately going to turn them into environmental refugees.

As Bangladesh is a small player in the emissions politics, there’s not much it can do to mitigate the effects of green house gasses. What it can do, and is trying so, is to find ways to adapt in the short term. In the long term if global warming is not halted or reduced significantly, Bangladesh could disappear by the end of the century. There’s only so much a country with extremely limited resources can do to protect the future of its people.

For this coastal community there are three matters that require immediate attention: sustaining aquatic livelihood, managing agriculture and building homes that can survive the rise in sea level.

The livelihood of fishermen can be ensured by finding salinity tolerant species of fish and by adopting advanced fish-farming techniques.

For farmers, floating agriculture in low lands must be introduced and popularized. This soil-less farming includes dried hyacinths piled on a floating structure and seedlings planted on it. Salinity tolerant aforestation must be made a part of this attempt.

The third is to ensure construction of houses that can stand the tide of time. In the coastal areas of Bangladesh, houses are usually built on walls of earth, but these dykes are constantly threatened by erosion. With a one-meter rise in sea-level, flood waves can go up to 9 meters. The dykes need to be raised significantly.

One ray of hope remains in indigenous attempts to channelize huge silt and sand from upstream areas to flood-prone and low-lying belts. Experimental efforts in this field gained Bangladesh 600 acres of land in Beel Bhaina, 55 kilometers upstream from the Bay of Bengal. The once flooded area is now cultivable. But a silt diversion programme along the entire coast will be very costly. It requires not only the will of Dhaka, but also foreign assistance in terms of funds and technical expertise. However, even if that is all made possible today, silt diversion alone will not be able to help the people of Bangladesh hold out against the wrath of nature for long. Not only can silt shift with time, there is the additional threat of river flooding when mountain ice begins to melt more sharply.

For the survival of Bangladesh, a two-prong strategy is urgently needed; modifications can come later. In the south, the construction of barriers or levees along the Dutch model, and in the north digging strategic water channels to reduce river flooding. This would have to be accompanied by the construction of well-placed reservoirs for holding the extra fresh river water that could be used for down-river cultivation.

Even the contemplation of such a huge project requires international intervention. The world community must come together and help Bangladesh with funds and expertise to adapt to the effects of climate change. Bangladesh alone cannot avoid the looming threat of death by water.