From: Sebastian Strangio, The Diplomat
Published May 28, 2010 09:34 AM

Bangladesh—Eco Symbol?

From the port of Sadarghat, the Bangladeshi capital Dhaka unfolds itself in an inclement palette of greys and browns. The Buriganga River, stretching out in each direction like a puddle of mercury, is dotted with hundreds of river craft, some dredging trash from the riverbed, others weighed down with passengers and piles of vegetables.


Moored nearby, bleeding rust, sits the country's fleet of 'rockets'—colonial-era paddle steamers fitted with belching diesel engines that ply Bangladesh's extensive network of waterways. The road running along the riverbank, the old Buckman Bund of the British colonial era, is today a bottlenecked mass of overladen trucks and tinkling rickshaws.

A magnet for rural migrants, low-lying Dhaka—already one of the most densely populated megacities on earth—is likely to come under increasing strain as the country comes face-to-face with the effects of global climate change. The UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says Bangladesh is likely to face cyclones, drought and flood events of increasing frequency and intensity as global warming sets in. In its 2005 report, the IPCC also estimated that a one metre rise in sea-levels could put 17 percent of the country underwater and cut its food production by 30 percent by 2050. Much of Dhaka, which lies in a flood plain protected only by giant embankments along the Buriganga could be engulfed by even a 'slight rise' in sea level, according to another report by UN Habitat. It described the megacity—largely unplanned and lacking basic infrastructure—as a 'recipe for disaster.'

In May last year, Cyclone Aila lashed the southern part of the country, breaching giant embankments and flooding large tracts of low-lying farmland with salt water. Of the 900,000 families affected by the storm, about 100,000 people are still living in makeshift camps on top of the flood embankments—the only place beyond the reach of the floodwaters. Luigi Peter Ragno, a project manager at the International Organisation for Migration who is working with communities affected by Aila, says an expected spike in extreme weather events due to global warming will likely accelerate the age-old flow of rural poor to the cities.

'Looking at the future, you can see that environmental degradation can have a cascade effect into the cities and the urban areas,' he says. 'Everybody will be affected.'

As Munjurul Hannan Khan, deputy secretary of the Bangladeshi Ministry of Environment and Forests told a conference in Dhaka last month, 'For the north, [climate change] will mean a compromise with lifestyle. For us, it’s about future survival.'

But the sight from Old Dhaka is not all as grim as these projections alone suggest. While Western policymakers direct their focus toward mitigating carbon emissions, Bangladesh is one of the few countries to accept the inevitability of climate change and start tackling adaption head-on. Once the very symbol of backwardness—an 'international basket case' in Henry Kissinger’s infamous words—today's Bangladesh may well soon be leading the way into a shared future of climate insecurity.

Saleemul Huq, a senior fellow at the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED) in London, says Bangladesh, with its relatively high levels of education and a burgeoning awareness of climate change issues, was well placed to establish a 'comparative advantage' in adaptation research. 'Over the course of the next ten years, this is where the world will learn how to deal with climate change,' he says. 'This is ground zero.'

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