Sunday, February 13, 2011

Bangladesh, India, and Their Shared Future

Bangladesh would appear to be the poster child for an advertisement of coming climate change. Its existence is tenuous in the best of times.

“A warm and humid monsoon season lasts from June to October and supplies most of the country's rainfall. Natural calamities, such as floods, tropical cyclones, tornadoes, and tidal bores occur almost every year, combined with the effects of deforestation, soil degradation and erosion. The cyclones of 1970 and 1991 were particularly devastating. A cyclone that struck Bangladesh in 1991 killed some 140,000 people.”

“In September 1998, Bangladesh saw the most severe flooding in modern world history. As the Brahmaputra, the Ganges and Meghna spilt over and swallowed 300,000 houses, 9,700 kilometres (6,027 mi) of road and 2,700 kilometres (1,678 mi) of embankment 1,000 people were killed and 30 million more were made homeless with 135,000 cattle killed, 50 square kilometres (19.3 sq mi) of land destroyed and 11,000 kilometres (6,835 mi) of roads damaged or destroyed. Two-thirds of the country was underwater. There were several reasons for the severity of the flooding. Firstly, there were unusually high monsoon rains. Secondly, the Himalayas shed off an equally unusually high amount of melt water that year. Thirdly, trees that usually would have intercept rain water had been cut down for firewood or to make space for animals.”
In her recent book, The Weather of the Future: Heat waves, Extreme Storms, and Other Scenes From a Climate-Changed Planet, Heidi Cullen highlights Bangladesh as one of the spots on earth to be most affected by the changing climate.

It is not hard to understand why Bangladesh would be sensitive to climate change.
“....two-thirds of Bangladesh is less than 17 feet above sea level; only in the extreme northwest will you find an elevation of more than 100 feet. And in this small, densely packed, low-lying country there are 230 rivers. Three of them—the Ganges, the Brahmaputra, and the Meghna rivers—come together to form a large floodplain. Eighty percent of Bangladesh sits within that floodplain, and everyone who lives there knows that in any given year, roughly one-quarter of the country will be flooded. And everyone knows that every few years Bangladesh will experience a severe flood that inundates more than 70 percent of the country.”
Cullen assumes that green house gases will continue to grow, although reduced rates of growth are possible. She is not concerned much with the politics of carbon emission, nor does she jump to an apocalyptic scenario (although the dust jacket seems to show Manhattan under water), her intention is to alert us to changes that most of us are likely to see in our lifetimes (projections are out to 40 years). The book is actually rather positive in the sense that mankind seems to survive as long as it is willing to invest in responses to the changing climate. Bangladesh may be the one exception to that statement.

What the future holds in store is more variable and more extreme weather, rising sea levels (and in some cases lowering land levels), and more severe storms. Bangladesh is extremely susceptible to all of the above.

Much of this region of Asia is dependent on monsoon rains which generally come between May and October.
“During these months, the total rainfall varies from 4 feet in the northwest of Bangladesh to 11 feet in the coastal areas, and to more than 16 feet in the northeast.”
These are rather extreme “average” conditions. One can see that increased variability can cause excessive flooding. The issue is complicated by the number and size of the rivers flowing through the country. These flows are also subject to climate change as well as human-initiated interventions. The major rivers are fed my ice melt from the glaciers in the Himalaya’s.
“The current trends of glacial melt suggest that the Ganges and Brahmaputra, which crisscross the northern Indian plain, could run dry during the summer months in the near future as a consequence of climate change. And the IPCC report indicates that India will reach a condition of water stress before 2025.”
Floods, droughts, and cyclones will continue to worsen, but the most serious issue is the rise in sea level. This rise is a worldwide phenomenon, but in Bangladesh it is complicated by the overuse of ground water leading to land subsidence.
“....the rate of rise in sea level during the last twenty-two years is many times higher than the mean rate of global rise over a hundred years; this suggests that regional subsidence could be making the situation worse.”

“A 3.3 foot rise in sea level would inundate about 20 percent of Bangladesh’s total land, directly threatening 11 percent of the population with inundation....the backwater and increased river flow from sea level rise could affect 60 percent of the population.”
Over the coming decades many millions of people will be forced to migrate due to these changes. A glance back at the country map indicates that if you wish to leave Bangladesh, your options are limited. India is the only place to go.
“It’s also estimated that more than 10 million Bangladeshis have already made the move to India during the past twenty years. This issue is a constant source of tension between the two nations, and climate change isn’t helping....India is in the process of building a fence to keep them out....The fence runs along India’s porous 2,500 mile border with Bangladesh. It is high, and it is made of heavily reinforced barbed wire.”
India would claim that the fence is necessary to control illegal immigrants who could include smugglers and Islamic extremists. While India certainly has a right to build this fence, its behavior at this border does not bode well for a future in which mass migrations could become necessary. One report indicates that Indian border guards have been given a license to kill.
“Over the past 10 years Indian security forces have killed almost 1,000 people, mostly Bangladeshis, turning the border area into a south Asian killing fields. No one has been prosecuted for any of these killings, in spite of evidence in many cases that makes it clear the killings were in cold blood against unarmed and defenceless local residents.”

“Shockingly, some Indian officials endorse shooting people who attempt to cross the border illegally, even if they are unarmed. Almost as shocking is the lack of interest in these killings by foreign governments who claim to be concerned with human rights. A single killing by US law enforcement along the Mexican border makes headlines. The killing of large numbers of villagers by Indian forces has been almost entirely ignored.”
India will suffer severely from climate change as well. It will face the choice of sharing the grief with its neighbors, or it can decide to sit behind its fence and decide that every country must fend for itself.

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