From Denial to Disaster: Bangladesh and the Reality of Climate Change

Flooding in Bangladesh.
Flooding in Bangladesh.
Flooding in Bangladesh.
Flooding in Bangladesh.

The year 2016 was a tough one. Brexit. Fidel Castro. Andrew Sachs. Donald Trump. From the politically catastrophic to the downright depressing, as the year drew to a close there did not seem all that much to smile about. One issue that springs to mind, however, is US President Trump’s supposed (and now evidently illusory) backtracking on climate change. After making a lot of noise (as he does) about how global warming is somehow fictional, the man seemed to come to some partial sense (an unprecedented event) on at least keeping an “open mind” on such matters, even to the point of apparently being willing to listen to experts on the issue.

As sea levels rise, the already low-lying landmass of Bangladesh is doubly threatened. Much of the country is less than five or so meters above sea level, constituting one of the most vulnerable areas on the planet when it comes to potentially devastating environmental change.

We know how that’s turning out. Yet, bizarrely, this got me thinking about a piece of art. I recall some years ago hearing about a particular exhibit, water-born no less, that holds striking relevance to the issue of climate change and its ongoing severity.

Floating alongside the banks of Lake Carter in Britain, the artistic creation consisted of a bamboo frame hosting what appears at first to be a make-shift garden with a bedding of artificial grass, a picket fence, red roses and a privet hedge. If all this seems a little surreal, closer inspection revealed the entire piece was arranged to represent the green and red flag of Bangladesh. And the entire purpose of this was to convey a single message; Bangladesh is sinking.

This work by artist Christine Dawson possibly no longer exists. But the message retains vital relevance. Bangladesh IS sinking, and has remained a focal point for climate catastrophe for some time.

There’s a good reason for this focus. As sea levels rise, the already low-lying landmass is doubly threatened, with the silt-intensive soil proving ill-suited to withstanding saturation by the high salt yielding water. Much of Bangladesh is less than five or so meters above sea level, constituting one of the most vulnerable areas on the planet when it comes to potentially devastating environmental change.

This is further compounded by the salinization of the soil as sea water permeates the landscape, in the process endangering vital sources of fresh water. In brief, we’re looking at an escalating scenario where fresh water dependent aquatic life dies off and soil is rendered barren, without any fish or crops.

Flooding is, it must be said, a natural course of events in this region. A large segment of the land involved is classified as a flood plain, with the monsoons being a regular occurrence for the locals since time immemorial.  Yet this has been undeniably compounded by the as yet unchecked course of climate change. The desolation of previously fertile land is a case in point.

In 2014, five out of nineteen of Bangladesh’s coastal districts were experiencing serious problems, with half of the existing arable land found to have unacceptably high levels of salt. Attempts to compensate with hardier crops have thus far met with mixed results, something expected to be rendered fruitless altogether if existing trends continue. In some regions, total agricultural production is believed to have been cut in half.

Thus far the rate of despoliation is frankly alarming, with over six thousand additional hectors of soil being affected each year.  This raises the concern of hunger and famine. Out of a total population of over one hundred and fifty million, around a third of those are reputed to have trouble obtaining adequate food. Around forty one percent of Bangladeshi infants suffer from malnutrition. While this is in part due to disconcertingly high rates of poverty, mounting food insecurity due to environmental factors is a growing concern.

Water is Life

Yet there are additional worries. As rivers become inundated with salt they become increasingly unusable as a means for obtaining drinkable water. In small doses a little extra salt may be bearable. Yet high blood pressure from too much salt can lead to serious health problems. Indeed, a 2011 study carried out within the coastal zones of Bangladesh revealed that swathes of the population appeared to be suffering from dangerously high blood pressure, compounding or creating additional issues such as heart disease.

Pregnant women were also found to be at heightened risk. Medical facilities in coastal areas, specifically, have reported an increase in patients diagnosed with “pre-eclampsia,” a condition causing complications in pregnancy directly associated with raised blood pressure due to repeat consumption of fluids from compromised water sources.  While the condition is treatable, worst case scenarios involve the onset of serious repercussions involving dangerous, in some instances fatal, seizures. Stunted intrauterine growth, premature birth and liver and blood problems are also all associated with increased salt consumption and pre-eclampsia, and, unsurprisingly, are notably present in coastal regions.

This is not a small scale phenomenon. Additional medical research undertaken last year found that some thirty five million people in Bangladesh were at risk from the salinization of local water sources. This also intersects with wide scale economic privation, where impoverished communities, being without means of importing fresh water from elsewhere, remain reliant on local sources already affected by rising sea levels.

Indeed, poverty is more than evident here, with some 9.9 million individuals in the southwest alone being officially classed as below the poverty line. Whereas this is terrible news in any context, when coupled with increased water salinization it proves a redoubled malady, as those already without means are rendered unable to provide for themselves given the growing unsuitability of local water sources for use in agriculture.

This confirms earlier findings linked to climate change. As much as some might like to persist in their fantasies that climate change is somehow a “myth”, river salinity in the southern districts of Bangladesh has increased by forty eight percent from the mid-twentieth century onwards. Coupled with a corresponding rise in CO2 levels (and the undeniable fact that sea levels have simply risen) climate change deniers seem to have little room for maneuver.

There are a few other factors to consider. Given the situation along the coast, some appear to have attempted to escape the situation by fleeting further inland.  The rural areas of the country have long suffered from a lack of development and employment opportunities, something that constitutes a natural “push” factor in causing migration to urban locales. What is quite specific in this instance, however, is just how climate change is playing a sizeable or even decisive role.

An extensive study from 2013 cited fresh water salinity as a prime cause behind the movement of persons from impoverished rural areas, coupled with river erosion, overt increases in sea level and the depletion of crops. In the latter case, this is causing a partial switch from farming to fishing, in the process contributing to additional problems as over fishing renders entire areas devoid of marine life. Whereas any of these occurrences would be calamitous in their own right, when combined they apply even greater pressure on areas long accustomed to both poverty and hardship.

Given that youth unemployment in Bangladesh is exceptionally high, immigration from rural areas into the cities may also be serving to compound an already unbearable burden. Jobs may be hard to come by, and the influx from outside the urban centers shows little sign of abating. As of 2014, it was estimated that around one and a half million of the five million slum dwellers in the capital, Dhaka, had moved there to escape conditions along the coast. Taking all of the above into account, the situation seems clear. Climate change is a reality. Bangladesh proves that.

Solutions?

Yet such things may be easy enough to ignore within the confines of the global north. After all, economically as well as environmentally people in the north are often shielded from many of the events otherwise devastating lives elsewhere.

This cannot, however, allow us to forget the role our respective nations play in their contribution to degrading the global ecosystem. With the alarming exception of China, the “first world” easily contributes the lion’s share of harmful pollutants contributing to environmental destruction.

Given the wide scale presence of western capital across the globe, the role western business interests play in exacerbating the situation in areas far outside of their nation of origin is also worth scrutiny. After all, foreign investment tends to be drawn to areas with “business friendly” governments endeavouring to cut through red tape on labor costs or environmental protection. The results are often a veritable nightmare for those caught in the middle.

Industrial agriculture and the incessant consumption of animal products has also been well documented for the catastrophic role it continues to play in the ongoing environmental crisis. Coupled with government intransigence (the erratic Trump administration being a case in point) it may be time to look beyond petitioning generally uncaring institutions for solutions.

A more holistic method may be necessary, one that challenges our far-reaching societal/political impasse while proposing a more sustainable and mutually respectful approach to the planet and its myriad inhabitants. I personally view the theory and practice of social ecology to be one such potential solution. Still somewhat unknown on the broad spectrum of politics, social ecology is a remarkably fecund approach to both environmentalism and political organisation, rooting popular protest and struggle within the need to reshape society, at home, in our communities and the indeed the biosphere. The end view is a radical form of municipal democracy geared towards the maximum inclusion of all citizens in the political process and a more harmonious union between town and countryside. I’d encourage any and all to investigate further.

What is for certain, however, is that we can’t afford to equivocate. Last year an Arctic hunk of ice the size of my country of birth (UK) thawed out; a terrifying event that again serves to reinforce the calamity we are facing. Radical, even seemingly utopian measures may thus no longer seem so unworkable. Given the severity of the situation they may be just what we need.

Daniel Read is a UK-based journalist specializing in human rights and international affairs. He originally studied journalism at Kingston University, London, prior to obtaining post-graduate degrees in both human rights and global politics. He blogs at uncommonsense.me and tweets at @DanielTRead.