|Volume 5 Issue 06 | June 2011|
The Vanishing Habitat
ZIAUDDIN CHOUDHURY explores the challenge of climate change in Bangladesh and what we can do to face it.
National Geographic magazine recently covered an issue focusing on the impending threat to Bangladesh's landscape from climate change. Climate change is affecting different parts of the globe in different ways, from rise in temperature to melting of glaciers, to rise of water level. The article warns that the most damaging impact on Bangladesh is from rising sea level.
The article took me back to my firsthand experience of what rising water level could do based on work I did decades ago about shrinking land masses in the coastal areas of Bangladesh.
The offshore Islands of Bangladesh often exist in the peripheral vision of the rest of the country. Names such as Bhola, Sandwip, Hatiya, etc., make national news only when periodic natural disasters like cyclones and tidal waves hit the coastal areas. We hear and fear for these islands when warnings of impending disasters are broadcast by the weather service, and people wait anxiously until the disasters either descend on the shores or simply go away. We go about our ways once the disaster is over, until nature repeats itself. It is because these islands do not usually lure your average tourist to their shores, nor are they specimens of some exotic places that other islands around the globe which attract people.
One may ask then why I am alluding to these offshore Islands, forsaken by all as they are. I am referring to these islands not because of their undiscovered tourism potential (which they actually have), or because they are neglected second cousins of the mainland. I am writing about them because these islands are stark evidence of climate change with their gradually vanishing size and landscape. These islands are, in a way, harbingers of a dire future that may await our own mainland as suggested by the National Geographic magazine and environment experts.
Consider the statistics of these islands to get an assessment of the ravages of climate change. In 1965, Bhola -- our biggest island (now a district) comprised a territory of about 3,970 square miles; it is now half its original size. In the early '50s, Sandwip was a large island of about 150 square miles; it has now shrunk to about 80 miles. Kutubdia, a small Island in Cox's Bazar has also been reduced to half its size in the same period. Hatiya, another big island off the coast of Noakhali has lost nearly one-fourth of its land area over the last 30 years. During the last three decades, nearly 200,000 islanders displaced by erosion have fled to the Chittagong mainland including the Hill Tracts and elsewhere in the country.
In the 1960s and '70s we took it to be a course of nature that resulted in erosion of land in one area and accretion of land on another side of our coast. I happened to work in two coastal districts of Bangladesh in the mid and late seventies -- Noakhali and Chittagong -- where I would get familiar with almost daily depletion of two of our densely populated islands -- Hatiya and Sandwip -- from sea erosion. Farmland, homesteads, and in some cases a whole village would be devoured by the sea in a matter of months. In some years, the erosion was fast; in other years, relatively slow. But the shrinking would continue; by one estimate we are losing approximately 100 square kilometres to coastal and river erosion every year. If the erosion continues at the same rate, Bhola and a few other islands will completely disappear over the next four decades according to experts who carried out the research for The Coast Trust, a Dhaka-based non-governmental organisation.
River erosion is a perennial problem in Bangladesh which is criss-crossed by a network of 230 rivers; about six million people out of the country's population are displaced each year due to river erosion. What has exacerbated the erosion in coastal areas is the rising sea level.
About a third of our land area is in the coastal regions including the islands, with close to 30% of our population living in these areas. Add to this the fact that the average elevation of this one-third of our land is near or a few metres above sea level, with much of our land being only about 10 metres above the sea. A mere rise of another two to three metres of the sea level would wipe away a fourth of the land area in a matter of years. Consider this further in a scenario where our population rises to double its current size, as it is expected to do naturally over the next four decades (even with a low projected growth rate of about 2% annually).
Now the displaced population from the coastal areas escapes to higher lands and urban areas. Where will this population go, if the doomsday scenario really occurs? Run further upstream and end up with people living like sardines in a tin? Or migrate to India? In fact, the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change predicts exactly such a scenario. As the sea level rises, the panel estimates another 35 million people from Bangladesh will cross over into India by 2050. Shall we wait to see this end or do something now to prevent it?
Climate change is already a reality of life. Because of this change, world temperature is going up, glaciers in the North and South Poles are melting, sea water level is rising, drought conditions are spreading, freshwater supply is declining, and cyclones or hurricanes are escalating.
We have to face up to the fact that climate change will affect us more severely than other nations in ways more than we could imagine. The doomsday may not happen, but we will continue to be squeezed further and further in our already crowded speck of a habitat. We need to bring ourselves up to meet this challenge.
There are at least several fronts that we have to address to meet the challenges of climate change. These are more prudent land management, better planning and preparation for disaster management, training of people for adaptation to changing habitat, relocation of erosion affected population and management of population growth.
Things we can do nothing about are losing our land from rising sea level or river erosion. What we can certainly do is make better use of the land that is left, and put to use land that is being added to the coast through natural accretion. It is said that newly accreted land takes several decades to become stable for cultivation in the natural process; but it could be accelerated if proper technology and efforts are used. A proposed structure to halt the erosion of Sandwip Island and Char Pir Baksh and induce the accretion of new land did not materialise due to lack of funding. We may look to revitalise this project if only to offset our losses of land in other islands.
While efforts need to be taken for better land management and more efficient land use, we need also to be cognizant of the unrelenting effect of climate change on our land and its further damage from natural causes and calamities. Our people have shown great resilience and ability to adapt in the worst of natural disasters. We need to assist these people with better forecasting ability of natural disasters, quicker relocation when disasters strike and innovative ways to make a living in semi-submerged habitats.
Our achievement in controlling population growth has made us a good model for other developing countries. However, even with the current low fertility rate we are predicted to double our population in another four decades. It is still a tremendous challenge for Bangladesh that must be addressed on a high priority basis. We need to bring the growth further down, while at the same time pursue aggressively a universal literacy plan that will train our people better to make a living away from agriculture and other traditional vocations.
With a concerted effort from all sections of our society, I am confident that we can meet the challenge of climate change for our country. To quote from the National Geographic magazine, “One commodity that Bangladesh has in profusion is human resilience. Before this century is over, the world, rather than pitying Bangladesh, may wind up learning from her example.”
Ziauddin Choudhury works for an international organisation in USA.
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