In the Bangladeshi village of Boyarshing women queue for hours with their vessels at the only public tap, in a line that moves agonizingly slowly despite the fact that they are surrounded by water, the last monsoon rains having left large swathes of farmland inundated.
“But we can’t use this water for drinking or cooking,” Kulsum Begam told IPS, glancing around at the roughly 50 other women standing around with hundreds of empty buckets waiting to be filled. “There is too much salt in it.”
Bangladesh grapples with the many and varied impacts of climate change, from recurring droughts and floods, to sea surges and salinization of agricultural lands. The Asian Development Bank (ADB) explained that Bangladesh is “really feeling the pinch” of a warmer climate. If global temperature increase passes the two degrees Celsius mark, Bangladesh will lose the equivalent of two per cent of its gross domestic product (GDP) annually until 2050 on climate-induced spending. Thereafter, the losses will be steeper, reaching around 8.8 percent of GDP annually by 2100, according to ADB assessments. Between now and 2030, Bangladesh will require 89 million dollars annually to make sure the country is resilient. By 2050, the annual adaptation bill could rise fourfold to 369 million dollars. And financial stress is only one piece of the larger picture; extreme weather events pose an even greater challenge.
A one-metre rise in sea levels could leave 14 per cent of Dhaka, the capital, inundated regularly. In Dhaka, home to over a tenth of the bulging population, flash floods are now a common phenomenon. “Every time it rains for half an hour the city gets flooded; it takes another three hours for the water to recede, and by then I have lost a day’s earnings,” Hussain Mohamed, a rickshaw puller in Dhaka, lamented.
Increased natural disasters mean the 47,000-sq-km coast, home to 36 million people (roughly one-fourth of the population), will have to brace for storm surges, cyclones and increasing salinity. Rice production could fall by between 17 and 28 per cent, which could be catastrophic for the agricultural sector that contributes around 20 per cent of this country’s GDP and employs 48 per cent of a labour force of around 60 million people. “Right now the priority is to feed 160 million Bangladeshis,” Abdul Qayyum, secretary to the Department of Disaster Management in Bangladesh, told IPS. He estimates that one-fifth of the population lives in cyclone-prone areas – and the bulk of them are poor. “Are these people safe, do they know they are safe, can we make them safer? These are all questions we need to answer,” he said.
Bangladesh has been successful in reducing deaths due to cyclones dramatically – by over 100-fold in the last four decades alone. “When there is a high level of community involvement, then resilience programmes work better,” said Afrif Mohammad Faisal, an ADB environmental specialist in Bangladesh. This is precisely what residents in Chenchuri, a small hamlet in the Narail District in southwest Bangladesh have done. a water management committee of 572 local members manages the water that flows from the Chitra River. “When we need water for our crops, either the committee decides, or villagers use mobile phones to communicate with the committee,” said Raiza Sultana, a peasant whose family depends on rice cultivation. The combination of the million-dollar investment with off-the-shelf low technology has worked well here. Villagers regularly use a simple, 70-dollar salinity monitor to test the waters and when the levels indicate that salt content is rising, they block the water flow to prevent damage to crops. “Rice production here has increased by four times and people are earning more and are in control,” Munsheer Sulaiman, chairman of the water management committee, tells IPS, adding that it used to take two days to get hold of the right person just to open the sluice gates. “They were used to the old setup where the government managed everything,” a regional engineer named Masud Karim said. “We had to convince them that the government has neither the money nor the capacity to do this now.” Now the committee employs a permanent gate operator, paying him out of funds collected from the beneficiaries spread out across the 2,400-hectare area that is served by the dam.