By Mohammad Rakibul Hasan
DHAKA, Sep 1 2023 (IPS)
Bangladesh, a picturesque land of rivers, lush green landscapes, and a vibrant cultural heritage, faces one of its most significant challenges ever — climate change.
Situated in South Asia, with a population of over 160 million people living in an area the size of the US state of Iowa, Bangladesh is among the most vulnerable countries to the effects of climate change. Rising sea levels, extreme weather events, and changing rainfall patterns are already profoundly impacting this nation, with potentially devastating consequences for its people and environment.
The country is a low-lying delta formed by the confluence of several major rivers, including the Ganges, Brahmaputra, and Meghna. This geographical feature makes Bangladesh prone to flooding, and as global temperatures rise, the situation only worsens. One of the most immediate and visible impacts of climate change in Bangladesh is the rising sea levels. Approximately 80 percent of the country is less than 5 meters above sea level, and a 1-meter rise in sea level could displace millions of people, submerge vast areas of agricultural land, and inundate significant cities like Dhaka, Chittagong, and Khulna. This poses a severe threat to the country’s economy and social stability.
Bangladesh is also experiencing increased extreme weather events such as heatwaves, cyclones, storms, and heavy rainfall. The frequency and intensity of these events have risen in recent years, causing widespread damage to infrastructure, homes, and agricultural land. The cyclone-prone coastal areas are particularly at risk. Climate change alters rainfall patterns in Bangladesh, leading to erratic monsoons and prolonged dry spells. These changes affect crop production, causing food insecurity for many. Additionally, altered river flows disrupt livelihoods dependent on fishing and agriculture. Agriculture is the backbone of Bangladesh’s economy, employing nearly half its workforce and contributing significantly to its GDP. Rising temperatures, changing rainfall patterns, and increased salinity in coastal areas reduce crop yields and make traditional farming practices unsustainable. This has far-reaching consequences for food security nationally and globally, as Bangladesh exports rice and other agricultural products.
Dhaka, the capital city of Bangladesh, a bustling metropolis known for its vibrant culture and dynamic economy, is also vulnerable to the impacts of climate change-induced weather patterns.
A case study of Gabura, a union of Satkhira District, Bangladesh, adjacent to the Sundarbans, comprises twelve villages and an island near the mainland, the most vulnerable places in Bangladesh. It is home to more than 35 thousand people that was washed out by cyclone Aila in 2009. Hundreds of people, cattle, trees, and wild animals drowned and died in the water. Many people went to the nearest cyclone centers to survive, but many survived by climbing the trees or standing on the roofs of houses made of wood. Even after the cyclones, people were too poor to rebuild their homes and lived on the dams for over two years.
The study noted that along with the flood, the cyclone brought seawater that caused permanent salinity. Regular water sources were damaged, and crop fields created food insecurity. The land became barren, and trees couldn’t sustain themselves due to soil salinity.
Flooding also impacts the region. Because of the geographical setting, Bangladesh receives and drains a massive volume of upstream water. The flows of significant rivers originate from the Himalayas; due to the temperature rise, melting glaciers cause floods, and areas become waterlogged. Floodwaters seep into supplies used for drinking and washing, and latrines are washed away, allowing raw sewage to increase the threat of diseases such as cholera.
Women in developing countries like Bangladesh mostly live in poverty and natural disasters. These are making them more vulnerable, affecting their livelihoods and security. In general, women are responsible for household work. The impact of climate change around coastline areas of Bangladesh has made women more prone to poverty.
The effect of climate change impacts indirectly on people, especially women and children.
Physical vulnerability may include death, injury, diseases, physical abuse, chronic malnutrition, and forced labor. Social vulnerability includes loss of parents and family, internal displacement, risk of being trafficked, loss of property and assets, and lack of educational opportunities.
Women contribute to both household maintenance and work in agriculture. “Up to 43% of rural women devote their time to aquaculture and agriculture, which are spheres likely to be affected by weather variability” (Hanifia et al. 2022), and when catastrophes hit either in rural coastal areas, income declines directly affect women’s agency, quality of their diet, and wealth and this in turn impacts the children.
Safe drinking water sources have become scarce in coastal areas because of groundwater salinity. Women and children must collect drinking water from distant places, and even many cases, they collect water crossing rivers. Frequent cyclone hits, food shortages, and inadequate water supply make women’s lives difficult, and as a result, school dropout rates and child marriage rates are high across the coastline. Malnourishment and diseases also impair learning. Extreme climate change-related disasters threaten school buildings and educational materials. For example, cyclones Sidr and Aila caused massive damage to school buildings and wiped out teaching materials around Sundarbans and its locality.
The coastal areas of Bangladesh have completely different geophysical features from the other parts of the country. It also has socio-political patterns that are not seen in the rest of the country, which elevates risks and vulnerabilities of the people who live across the coastline territories.
The coastline brings challenges for earning income. Thus, the poverty margin accelerates many risks and human security factors immediately impacting its inhabitants, as do frequent natural catastrophes.
“A vast river network, a dynamic estuarine system, and a drainage basin intersect the coastal zone, which made coastal ecosystem as a potential source of natural resources, diversified fauna, and flora composition, though there also have an immense risk of natural disasters,” Shamsuddoha and Chowdhury (2007) noted.
Every year people are displaced from the coastal areas of Sundarbans. The tidal floods and cyclones bring seawater to destroy sweet water sources such as ponds, rivers, and land groundwater. Over the last two decades, the increase in salinity has been high. Paddy and various vegetable fields have failed, and this has resulted in food scarcity exacerbating many diseases. The International Centre for Diarrheal Disease Research Bangladesh (ICDDRB) researchers have noticed an alarmingly high rate of miscarriages in the small village of Chakaria, near Cox’s Bazaar, on the east coast of Bangladesh (Haider, 2019). Studies and research on the other part of the coastal areas around Sundarbans on fertility and uterus cancer that may be linked to climate change and salinity rise are underway because there is evidence that consuming saline water harms the skin, menstruation, and, more seriously, unborn children.
The Asian Disaster Reduction Center (ADRC) reports have indicated the increasing ferocity of weather patterns throughout the years, documenting the environmental and social impacts of each disaster.
People around coastlines near Sundarbans constantly search for food, catching excessively young shrimps from rivers and degrading the marine ecology and biodiversity. As the places around coastlines are affected by salinity due to climate change, people’s usual professions are replaced by alternatives to survive in hostile conditions. Due to the lack of work opportunities, women have no choice but to catch baby shrimp from coastal rivers; they sell them in the local market. A significant number of agents work for big shrimp firms that buy undersized shrimps.
Fishing communities in Bangladesh report that the availability of many local species has declined with riverbeds’ silting up, temperature changes, and earlier flooding. Communities are coping by selling labor, migrating, and borrowing money from lenders. The unemployment rate has increased as local peasants lose their jobs due to the scarcity of agricultural land. Shrimp farming needs much less labor than agriculture. As a result, many migrate to wealthier areas, while others depend on Sundarbans’ forest resources.
The government has invested in constructing cyclone shelters and early warning systems, reducing the loss of life during cyclones and storms. Efforts are underway to promote climate-resilient agricultural practices, including developing drought-resistant crop varieties and better water management. Expanding access to renewable energy sources, such as solar power, in rural areas reduces the pressure on traditional biomass fuels, mitigating deforestation minimizes the stress on conventional biomass fuels and mitigates.
Bangladesh has sought international support and partnerships to fund and implement climate adaptation projects, including efforts to protect coastal areas from sea-level rise. The country’s efforts to adapt and mitigate the impacts of climate change are commendable, but the scale of the problem requires sustained international cooperation and support. The world must recognize that Bangladesh is not alone in this battle; the consequences of climate change here are harbingers of what may come in other vulnerable regions if global action is not taken promptly. To protect this beautiful nation and its people, we must act decisively to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and support those on the front lines of climate change, like Bangladesh.
Mohammad Rakibul Hasan is a documentary photographer/filmmaker and visual artist. He was nominated for many international awards and won hundreds of photographic competitions worldwide, including the Lucie Award, the Oscar of Photography, the Human Rights Press Award, and the Allard Prize. His photographs have been published and exhibited internationally. He is based in Dhaka, Bangladesh.
Note: Research for this article comes from:
- Hanifia S.M. Manzoor Ahmed, Menon NIDHIYA, and Quisumbingc AGNES. 2022. ‘The impact of climate change on children’s nutritional status in coastal Bangladesh.’ Science Direct Volume 294, February 2022.
- Shamsuddoha, Md. and Chowdhury, Reazul. 2007. ‘Climate Change Impact and Disaster Vulnerabilities in the Coastal Areas of Bangladesh.’
- Haider, Reaz. 2019. ‘Climate Change-Induced Salinity Affecting Soil Across Coastal Bangladesh.’ Reliefweb [online].
- Asian Disaster Reduction Center. 2007. ‘Bangladesh: Tropical Cyclone.’ IPS UN Bureau Report
Bangladesh faces one of its most significant challenges ever — climate change. Rising sea levels, extreme weather events, and changing rainfall patterns are already profoundly impacting this nation.