Friday, 27 August 2010

Climate Change in Bangladesh

‘We used to have six seasons, now we can barely recognise four’, say many farmers in Bangladesh. Talk to any person working in the development sector about weather, and the same sentiments are expressed through the language of climate change. While discussions are not always based on accurate information, overall there is enough truth in there for you to understand the cause of this new obsession. While they recognise that Climate Change is something they did not contribute to (today, it represents 0.2% of global greenhouse gas emissions), the general public are too busy worrying about its immediate impacts to focus on what the West is or rather is not doing to help.

But before crying a climate change tear for Bangladesh, we need to get a few things straight.
Firstly, because of its position in the Bay of Bengal Bangladesh is the most vulnerable country in the world to cyclones. The majority of the country lies less than 5 metres above sea-level. It is home to the second largest delta in the world (the Ganges, the Brahmaputra and the Meghna all enter the Bay of Bengal here). Annual monsoon rains often cause major flooding. Over 70% of the population below the poverty line and it is the most densely populated country in the world (ignoring places like Monaco, and rightly so!).

The topography, geographical feature, tropical climate and population density of Bangladesh mean that it will forever be home to cyclones, flooding, seasonal drought and other climate related problems. If climate change never happened, this reality would not change greatly.

Secondly, all of these features (bar the ole cyclones) are an essential part of Bangladesh. Flooding and monsoon rains are essential for food security and the agricultural sector which employs 70% of the population. The tropical climate makes its countryside a place of infinite beauty as harvesting season closes in; the source of inspiration for most of the country’s great literature and equally the main reason why Bangladeshis love their country more than any other people I have ever met. It gives the people the most delicious fruits from Pineapples, Litchi,
Mangoes and so many more. In truth, in the same way as Ireland would not be Ireland without the rain, Bangladesh would not be Bangladesh without its tropical climate and infinite number of waterways. Bangladeshi’s do not necessarily want their climate or country to change; they would just like to be able to manage it better. And, in fairness, they have taken some measures over the past 40years to do so.

But the unfortunate reality is that the climate has already begun and will continue to change on the back of mostly Western CO2 emissions. The UNFCC (UN Institution responsible for climate change analysis and more) predicts that Climate Change will bring unpredictable monsoon rains, greater intensity to cyclones, tidal waves etc, sea-level rise of 20cm by 2050 and increased river volume through Himalaya ice-cap melting.

Over the past 30years, Bangladesh has suffered 60 cyclones, with most of there coming in the last 20years (a 40% increase on ‘normal cyclone activity’). It has seen river volumes rise leading to increased flooding and salinity creep inland as sea levels rise. It has seen precipitations levels fluctuate beyond recognition with certain parts of the country wondering if the monsoon season is one of those seasons which is also disappearing. The impact of all of this is staggering.

Natural flooding is key to making soil fertile but prolonged flooding or as it is called here, water logging makes soil unsuitable for growing most crops especially the staple paddy of Bangladesh. Increased volumes of silt cause river beds to rise, making embankments pointless. Increased salinity is another threat to paddy cultivation while also rendering drinking water unsafe. 9months without any rainfall when it used to 6 is push previously food secure areas close to famine. And while improvements have been made in relation to protecting lives during cyclones, the most recent cyclone Aila, still killed 300people. But it is in terms of livelihoods and basic human rights that cyclones do their most damage: livestock, seasonal cash crops, fruit and vegetables, fish reserves, firewood, infrastructure, communications, homes, schools, police stations all swept away. On top of this, the area most prone to cyclones is home to the Sundarban Mangrove Forest, the largest in the world and a world heritage site. Repeated cyclones have stripped the forest of its protective force leaving local communities exposed to the full brunt of the cyclone while simultaneously greatly undermining the forest’s biodiversity.

Yet it is in terms of the overall development of Bangladesh that climate change will have its greatest impact. Imagine an unstable government struggling to meet the expectations of its people who want development today not tomorrow. Now imagine that challenge with the impacts of climate change described above (never mind security issues, war crimes tribunals, fundamentalism, massive electricity and gas shortages, the persecution of indigenous communities etc etc) – the challenge facing Bangladesh is frightening and in a way depressing. How can anyone expect countries to fight the development war and the climate war at the same time?

With current development funds and global policies, we simply can’t. On the one hand western countries support developing countries through official development assistance (IrishAid, DFID , Unicef, UNDP etc). Yet on the other they are both unable and unwilling to change national policies to reduce CO2 and refuse to provide developing countries like Bangladesh with the resources (financial, technical and human) to adapt to changes caused by climate change. There is no real room for argument about this. Efforts to reduce CO2 emissions in western countries have been piecemeal and in some ways simply token efforts. The total climate change adaptation funds promised back in Copenhagen December 2009 would barely be sufficient for one country facing problems like Bangladesh never mind all of the least developed countries. It is completely contradictory and a waste of the tax payers money and developing countries’ efforts.

We simply have to join up global development thinking with climate change adaptation and mitigation. This does not mean that we just integrate climate change adaptation activities into current development assistance programs (as many western states propose) but that we supplement this integration with the necessary funds (ring fencing them if necessary). Simultaneously, we need a dramatic shift in domestic and international policies towards sustainable development – a paradigm which has been proposed mainly by the developing countries since the mid-nineties. A commitment to this change has to begin in November at the latest ‘last hope’ intergovernmental climate change conference.

Suspended in our petrol and consumption driven bubble; we don’t seem to care too much about the impact which Climate Change is having and will continue to have on our futures, but surely we are not going to stand by and watch developing countries suffer the brunt of our mistakes. To do so would be the single greatest injustice to developing nations and their peoples since colonialism. And given that it was this same colonialism which drove the industrial revolution which marked the beginning of this mess, for those of us who will live to see it, that would be the ultimate irony.

Friday, 13 August 2010

6 month syndrome?

It’s been over a month since I’ve written anything for this blog and it would seem that’s the way things are going to continue probably up until my last month here.

During the first few months I was really energised by writing, by the idea that I could bring my views of what’s happening in this country to whoever might take the time to read it. The aim of course was to raise a little awareness about the challenges facing developing countries in general but obviously Bangladesh in particular and of course to help me get my head around the situation in which I found myself. But, as my freshness has faded somewhat so too has my enthusiasm to write about things which are now part of my every day life. The mosquitoes and cockroaches, the weather, the people, the poverty and the human rights abuses are all now pretty familiar to me and on the level on which I was writing, I feel like I’ve exhausted much of my material.

Of course there are still major themes which I want to address like Governance, Climate Change, the Garment Industry and Islam but I think after a certain period in a country, you begin to accept that things are so complicated and multi-layered that simple observations become an injustice to those issues and repetitive for both the reader and the author. While Governance and Climate Change seem pretty straightforward in so far as they can be explained in a sensible and somewhat neutral manner, I’ve lost the will to do that.

6 months is a long time in Bangladesh. My work here has ensured that the time has passed quickly but being confronted with these issues again and again makes you question things at a much deeper level. And in the same way as the author of a book I’m currently reading says she needed 30years to find the maturity to write about colonialism, so too do I need more time to find myself and my own stand on matters which go way deeper than statistics or anecdotes. Faced with such an extreme situation, poverty and injustic;, proposing solutions such as say, the need for the amendment of the constitution to prevent future military coups, or funds to help people adapt to the impact of a changing climate is no longer enough. Rather it leaves you questioning the nature of humanity and the possibility of widespread just development ever happening. It makes you look at the individualistic foundations upon which western societies are founded and question the whole concept of religion and equality.

If I am able to form personal views on these issues over the next few months, I’ll be sure to share them but holding one’s breath may not be a very good idea.