In 2019, Greenland lost a record 1m tonnes of ice sheet per minute. This kind of climate-driven loss undoubtedly pushes up sea levels (The ice-cap being the biggest contributor to the rise). Subsequently, during monsoon seasons, coastal communities across the globe are battered by swelling floods. The risk of tropical storms, ill-timed floods, and land erosion exists beyond monsoon as well because of increasing temperatures in the atmosphere.
Bangladesh, a riverine country, is no stranger to such hostile climate conditions. From tropical storms, cyclones to deluges, the country has witnessed varying degrees of destruction before and after its liberation in 1971. The November cyclone of 1970 (which directly affected over 3.6 million people) and the 1998 floods (which inundated 75% of the country’s total area) are some key events etched into our collective psyche.
To visualize the rising heat, I used The New York Time’s interactive climate platform, where it shows that during the birth of Bangladesh, the capital Dhaka could expect 105 days per year to reach at least 90 degrees Fahrenheit. However, the scenario today is much grislier than before: now, on average, Dhaka can expect 174 days at or above 90 degrees per year. It further shows that by the time the country is 80, that is, by 2051, there could be 222 such days.
As predicted by an analysis conducted by The Climate Impact Lab for The New York Times, the capital Dhaka is likely to bear the brunt of soaring heat levels even if countries across the globe take actions to curb greenhouse gas emissions. “If countries continue emitting at historically high rates, the future could look even hotter,” it warns.
In May, Bangladesh witnessed the havoc wreaked by Cyclone Amphan, which has killed at least 20 people and displaced many from the coastal districts, causing financial losses worth 1,100 crore Bangladeshi Taka. As per reliefweb, 55,667 houses were completely damaged, and around 162,000 partially damaged. Approximately 149,000 hectares of agriculture lands and fish farms worth about BDT 3.25 billion were also destroyed.
In June, one-third of Bangladesh was underwater as torrential rains made 53 rivers overflow. About this situation, UNICEF said that more than 2.4 million people are estimated to be affected by flooding, including around 1.3 million children. It also said that half a million families have lost their homes. The annual monsoon season left more than two million people in Bangladesh in need of food assistance, sanitation, shelter, and water. Coupled with the consequences of the ongoing pandemic, the victims are being dealt a double blow.
Take, for instance, the story of 50-year-old Abdul Majed. After cyclone Amphan destroyed embankments, high salinity seeped into the cropland and turned it unsuitable for agriculture. As a result, Abdul moved to various cities before finally moving to Munshiganj, which is 260 km away from his home. He drove a truck there to earn. However, because of the Coronavirus pandemic, he had to return to his village with his family of five due to unemployment. He is working as a part-time hawker now, earning less than Tk500 ($6) a day—just enough to pay rent (Dhaka Tribune).
It is worth mentioning that Bangladesh contributes (as of 2018) to only 0.23% of global CO2 emissions as shown in Our World in Data. Even though Bangladesh does not belong to the list of top ten carbon dioxide emitting countries, its coastal citizens are left to put up with the widespread ravages of a heating climate, over which they have no control.
Rising salinity, failing crops, river erosion, and migration
The annual mean global temperature is likely to be at least 1° Celsius above pre-industrial levels (1850-1900) in each of the coming five years (2020-2024) and there is a 20% chance that it will exceed 1.5°C in at least one year, according to new climate predictions issued by the World Meteorological Organization (WMO).
As temperatures rise, melting ice caps and causing the sea to swell, coastal areas are being inundated with saltwater.
The total amount of salinity affected land in Bangladesh was 83.3 million hectares in 1973, which rose to 102 million hectares in 2000 and further to 105.6 million hectares in 2009. Ever since, it is continuing to increase, according to the country’s Soil Resources Development Institute (SRDI). In the last 35 years, salinity increased around 26 percent in the country.
The intrusion of salt into large swathes of agricultural farms as well as water bodies renders agriculture, as a source of livelihood, useless. This causes agriculture-dependent people to migrate to cities (a major focus mainly being the capital Dhaka) in search of jobs. It is not just salinity, though, that prompts migration. Natural disasters, uneven rainfall and flooding, and river erosions are also deeply embedded into the mechanism. Stories of people who have had their homes swallowed by the raging river and who have been subsequently displaced populate the news regularly. As described by the journalist Tim McDonnell, “Every year, an area larger than Manhattan washes away.” Over the last decade, nearly 700,000 Bangladeshis were displaced on average each year by natural disasters, according to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre.
As migration is propelled by the climate crisis, the capital Dhaka grapples with a boom in population. A 2018 World Bank Report says that by 2050, 13.3 million people in this country of more than 160 million could be displaced by the diverse impacts of climate crisis. This could be the sole reason behind most of the internal displacements then. 400,000 low-income migrants arrive in Dhaka every year as reported in an article written by Tim McDonnell. With each passing year, the article suggests, the burden could exhaust the capital’s capacity to contain so many people. According to the International Organization for Migration, up to seventy percent of the slums’ residents moved there due to environmental challenges, McDonnell writes when referring to the squalid slums that are mushroomed across Dhaka.
In the light of such a grim scenario, the country is testing (the port city, Mongla, for instance) the theory of “secondary cities”, aiming to accommodate climate migrants. Investments in sea walls and rigid infrastructure are, among other factors, driving the urban-planning behind the theory. In July, the Prime Minister inaugurated the biggest housing project equipped with modern amenities for climate refugees in Cox’s Bazar.
The period between 2010 and 2019 has been declared Earth’s hottest decade on record. Scientists warn that things could escalate quicker than they are if global emissions of green house gases are not radically maintained. The Paris Agreement, which aims to keep the increase in global temperature well below 2 degree Celsius above pre-industrial levels, has been signed by 194 states and the European Union, as of February 2020.
A thorough implementation of the agreement is what countries like Bangladesh need, so that the already dismal predictions and conditions do not worsen soon. The stories of people living on the coast and adapting to the new realities ushered in by climate crisis serve as a sobering reminder of the horrors of a warming planet. Losing homes to a raging river, coexisting with encroaching water inside one’s compound, building makeshift huts using tarpaulin and bamboo poles, keeping hunger and diseases at bay, ensuring sanitation and clean drinking water are only some of the many chilling aspects of those realities.