“Game On” in Bangladesh

In Bangladesh, where I went to speak recently, the effects of the changing climate are already obvious. And the results—people piling into cities as their rural lands and livelihoods wash away—are obvious too. After landing in Dhaka about midnight, I got a good look at this as we slipped into a jerky stream of traffic, the drivers using their horns like sonar as massive trucks, cars, motorcycle taxis, and bicycle rickshaws all jockeyed for position. Often billed as a Third World success story (despite its government, some would argue), the home of the Nobel-prize winning Grameen Bank-Telecoms-IT conglomerate and a formidably young and entrepreneurial workforce is facing challenges that sometimes must feel like living in New Orleans without a levee—and at other times, like Oklahoma without a well.

Bangladesh, you see, is essentially all river delta—living and dying by its river and monsoons, and seldom lying more than a few feet above sea level, but needing regular, seasonal flooding to survive. In nature it is a delicately balanced system, and the balance has already changed, in four key ways:

  • Recurring, intense weather events, largely cyclones
  • A newly erratic monsoon—too much one year, too little the next, and no longer reliably timed so as to link naturally with agricultural cycles
  • Salinity incursion into cropland from cyclone surges (and in due course sea-level rise)
  • Receding glaciers at the headwaters of the key river systems merging into Bangladesh

Although there has not been a truly catastrophic event recently, the effects are already clear. There has been marked stress on the protective mangrove of the Sundarbans (the largest such forest on earth). Riverbank erosion and resulting land loss have forced many farmers into cities. Bangladesh, the most densely populated non-city on earth, has enormous farming intensity (three crops per year, often) so even a slight loss of land results in significant decreases in productivity, pushing farmers to urban centers. Erratic river flows, especially the lows in the dry season, chase away still more people and production. Rampant salinity and contamination in ground source water (attributed to sea level rise and overpumping) cause yet more production and livelihood loss. And finally, an additional key livelihood—fishing from rivers—is also dwindling in saline-affected areas (as well as others, from various other causes).

These are the current realities. But the local analysts and policymakers with whom I spoke worry at least as much about the threat of natural disaster as they do about the forced urbanization and loss of farm productivity. Both far too much water and far too little are very concrete risks that Bangladesh is essentially powerless to stop.

Too much water might be driven by a really big cyclone surge (as has happened in the past) or by the opposite—a river-borne tsunami coming down as large glacial melt lakes far upstream break loose. There are several thousand of these lakes, with over 1,000 already categorized as dangerous. Such floods shaped America’s Columbia River basin after the ice ages—and in flat Bangladesh, they could be immensely destructive.

On the too-little water side, the erratic monsoon patterns threaten huge food issues. And within a generation or so—predictions vary—water from glaciers needed during the dry season may be significantly reduced, and may not even get to Bangladesh given the long passage of the water through India and current and planned diversions. A dry season without water for 170 million people would be catastrophic.

Bangladesh has always flooded, some will say. It has experienced unusually dry monsoons before, to some degree. This is true, and has led to a can-do attitude. Bangladeshis are not bemoaning climate change and other stresses that are changing their world. They are trying to develop strategies to adapt, since they cannot prevent. These include driving up productivity on the land that is left and creating alternative livelihoods by methods such as microfinance and training to help small-acreage farm households, agricultural extension projects, drip irrigation, and integrated pest management. For Bangladesh, it’s game on against climate change.