By Naimul Haq
Bangladesh is one of the world’s countries worst affected by the global warming impact of climate change caused by from greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions – extreme weather events such tropical cyclones, severe floods, rainstorms and river erosion, extreme heat waves and unexpected droughts on vast stretches of land are on the rise.
The country’s coastal regions face a rising sea level, higher tides and saline water intrusion which is already encroaching further inland and destroying agricultural opportunities.
The effect of greenhouse gas emissions along Bangladesh’s coast is already evident and experts predict it could be “catastrophic” if appropriate action is not taken now.
Despite efforts to increase resilience, climate challenges continue to result in large economic losses, reducing economic growth and slowing progress in reducing poverty.
The bright side is that non-governmental organisations (NGOs) in cooperation with the Bangladesh government have been tackling the crisis, in particular by addressing food security which is the number one threat in coastal areas.
According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPPC), it is estimated that by 2050 rice production in Bangladesh will have declined by 8 percent and wheat by 32 percent compared with 1990 production levels. Both crops are staple food in Bangladesh.
One of the leading NGOs in Bangladesh – the Coastal Association for Social Transformation Trust (COAST) – which has over 35 years of experiences of working mostly in the coastal areas, has been in the forefront of supporting the livelihoods of marginalised people.
Md Jahirul Islam, a senior COAST official in Char Fasson, a remote coastal region barely 30 cm above sea level in the coastal district of Bhola, told IDN-INPS that “ancestral agricultural practices here are threatened, largely due to salt water intrusion. High salinity is toxic to many plants and we are now forced to seek alternative ways of growing crops.”
However, the Coastal Integrated Technology Extension Programme (CITEP) being implemented by COAST in Char Fasson has been helping farmers since 2003 with alternative farming practices to improve crop production in the face of climate change.
As part of its capacity-building programmes, CITEP encourages farmers to use long raised rows of soil about one metre wide and 90 cm high for cultivating varieties of vegetables. The trenches between the rows are filled with water into which various types of fish are released for maturing. The water for irrigating the plants comes from nearby lakes filled with freshwater drawn from the Meghna River.
The advantage of using this technique is that it protects the crop land from inundation during storm surges, tidal waves and flash flooding and avoids high salinity.
Mizanur Rahman, CITEP project coordinator in Char Fasson, told IDN-INPS that “these low lands, about 30 km from the sea at the confluence of the Bay of Bengal, are prone to tidal waves and storm surges. So the new farming technique has been designed to protect them.”
According to Aktar Hossain, a local farmer who is already benefitting from this alternative farming practice, “indigenous farming practices on flat land show that they are no longer reliable because saline water intrusion damages crops … the new farming technique has not only proved that it is risk-free from hazardous weather but also offers opportunities for fish farming which gives individual farmers extra earnings.”
The new farming practice has turned out to be very popular in Char Fasson, where over 9,000 farmers are now using it. Many farmers have also formed self-help groups where members benefit from sharing each others’ experiences, while the government has been supporting adaptive measures such as fishing which fetches extra income.
Manzurul Islam, a local official of the government’s agriculture department in Char Fasson, told IDN-INPS that “at the beginning, the challenges were huge because farmers refused to adapt to the new technique but, now that they have realised the benefits, farmers are convinced.”
Losses of crops on flat lands are disastrous. Sadir Ahmad recalls three years ago “when crops on about 5,570 hectares of flat land were damaged from four months of sea water inundation. Early this year in Razapur and Katiya, I witnessed huge chunks of land devoured by river erosion. Agriculture on huge areas suffered badly.”
Sea level rise is already evident in coastal Bangladesh. Estimations and projections show that 97.1 percent of coastal areas and over 35 million people living in coastal Bangladesh are vulnerable and exposed to multiple climate change hazards.
The Climate Change Vulnerability Index (CCVI) for 2014, which evaluated the sensitivity of populations, the physical exposure of countries, and governmental capacity to adapt to climate change over the following 30 years, ranks Bangladesh as the number one economy in the world at risk to climate change.
Globally, emissions of carbon dioxide and chlorofluorocarbons into the atmosphere are growing at a rate of 5 percent annually, according to a joint publication by COAST and the Equity and Justice Working Group (EJWG) on ‘Climate Change Impact and Disaster Vulnerabilities in the Coastal Areas of Bangladesh’.
Rezaul Karim Chowdhury, Executive Director of COAST Trust and one of the authors of the joint publication, told IDN-INPS that “climate change is a serious issue for Bangladesh and there is no time for hypothetical analysis. We have already witnessed the damages and the ‘slow poison’ could prove catastrophic.”
“In preparing for the worst situation,” Karim continued, “we are placing the emphasis on building the capacities of the local community so that internal migration does not put pressure on an already overwhelmed urban economy. These capacities include promoting salt tolerant crops, creating jobs through the establishment of new industries and increasing activities that reduce disaster vulnerabilities.”
Dr Jiban Krishna Biswas, Director-General of the Bangladesh Rice Research Institute (BRRI), told IDN-INPS that the institute “is already in the process of developing varieties of practices adaptable to fragile environments. With the changing frequency and intensity of climate-related events, we are now focusing on adapting to more modern technology in agriculture to confront the challenges.”
Speaking to IDN-INPS, Dr Atiq Rahman, Executive Director of the Bangladesh Centre for Advanced Studies (BCAS) said that “sea level rise in Bangladesh is already evident and various adaptive measures are clear signs of it.” Dr Rahman, who is well-known globally for his pioneering role and contributions to the environment, nature conservation and the climate change debate, added that “it is presumed that by now about 20-28 cm of sea level rise has already taken place.”
He noted that the IPCC has predicted an 86 cm sea level rise by the end of the century, “but more recent data shows that Antarctica is melting very fast, which is obviously of great concern. This new data adds to the previous predictions. We anticipate it would be more than one metre by the end of the century. And this rise is not necessarily linear over time for every place.”
Asked about the impacts of climate change in Bangladesh’s coastal regions, eminent environmentalist Professor Ainun Nishat disagreed with those experts who claim that internal migration may have already started due to the effects of climate change.
He told IDN-INPS that “the land protection embankment at Char Fasson is 14 feet (over 4 metres) high [Bangladesh has similar embankments across its 700 km stretch of coastal zone], while the threat of storm surge or tidal waves is about 3 feet (90 cm). So, it is quite absurd that people would migrate in fear.”
However, he added, “I agree that Bhola is an area which is definitely impacted by climate change. By the turn of the century, the global temperature is predicted to increase by 0.8 degree Celsius. The impact of climate change has just started and there are indications of sea level rise in many parts of coastal Bangladesh.”
According to Professor Nishat, “at the moment, Bangladesh is 85 years ahead of the impacts that we are predicting. During the last two years, greenhouse gas emission is under control and Bangladesh is well prepared. What we need now are more funds and technology to improve our climate change strategies.”