Insights from Bangladesh on Climate Change
December 2, 2009
The ringing of the phone in the early hours of July 31, 2007, woke me up from a deep slumber. I could hear the rain still beating on the windowsill. The call is from Nabinur, the Campaign Manager for CARE SHOUHARDO. 'Didi (sister), he says, 'We'll have to cancel the workshop.' He was referring to the workshop that was scheduled to be held on 'Access to Natural Resources at Rangpur' at the regional office of CARE Bangladesh, situated in the northwest part of Bangladesh. Nabinur continues: 'There is news that some of our working areas situated along the river are to be affected by floods. There is a meeting in the office at 7 o'clock to prepare the first team that will go to assess the situation.'
A few hours later, we're driving in the CARE vehicle to Gaibandha from where we take a boat to Fulchari. We are told that villages in this sub-district have been most affected. The chug, chug, chug sound of the country boat is much slower than my heartbeat. The fast-moving, swollen river is dark brown, indicating that the situation upstream is much worse. Chief Executive Rassel Ahmed Liton, from our partner organisation SKS Foundation, informs us that his organization is well prepared to respond to disasters. 'Doesn't Bangladesh have the dubious reputation of being one of the world's most disaster-prone countries?' I ask Liton bhai (brother). 'Yes that's true,' he says, 'But, in these past few years, floods have been recurring more frequently.'
The '100-year floods' seem to be recurring every 15 years. He adds: 'While we, Bangladeshis, are known for our resilience, we will not be able to take the burden of this repeated threat to our lives and livelihoods'. He is equally quick to point out that 92 percent of the water that flows through Bangladesh originates outside the country. He further tells me that the country is situated at the head of the Bay of Bengal. This bay, which is a haven of innumerable resources, is also prone to active weather and produces tropical storms and cyclones that are devastating the country time and time again causing a lot of damage to crops, lives and livelihoods.
The scene passing by is extremely distressful. A huge banana tree has just floated past. We can see the thatched roof tops of some of the huts. The boat comes to a halt near an island – but is it really an island? Or is it just a piece of land that has not gone underwater like the rest of its surroundings? I can see three huts builton it, but there are many adults, children, goats and hens all huddled together. 'Can all these people belong to one family?' I wonder. An expectant hush descends upon the group as the boat comes to a halt. Liton bhai breaks the silence by asking the gathered group if all family members are safe. Rabeya a member of the group, recognizes our boat as the health boat – a facility of the SKS Foundation that carries medicine and medics to these remote villages. She informs us that her neighbors along with their livestock have taken shelter on her homestead.
Rabeya says that a number of people have been affected. Last year wasn't as lucky for Rabeya and her family as they lost many of their assets. But this year they have survived the floods since their homestead had been raised. This was done through our SHOUHARDO programme. SHOUHARDO is one of the largest food security programs in the world, funded by the USAID and reaching out to 400,000 households in 18 of the most vulnerable and hard-to-reach districts of Bangladesh. Rabeya has food stored in a ceiling that was built and thus will be able to feed her family and guests for the next four to five days. But she asks us, 'Can this intervention be done for all families living in vulnerable areas like theirs?' This is a question for which we have no answer, at least not at this moment.
In the two years since the floods of 2007, cyclones SIDR, BIJLI and AILA hae devastated communities in South Asia bringing home to us some realities that were published in the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) report of 2007. The numbers in the report predict that Bangladesh will lose eight percent of its rice and 32 percent of its wheat production by 2050. If the sea level were to rise by one metre. it would engulf 17-20 percent of Bangladesh's land, displacing 20 million people. This brings us back to Rabeya's question about providing adaptation support for these communities and countries which are extremely vulnerable. Why are countries that are responsible for high emissions not ready to take on the responsibility of paying for this?
Before the climate change conference in Copenhagen, civil society in Bangladesh has met more frequently than ever, preparing for side events, and preparing delegates who are part of the government delegation.
My appeal to the world leaders, and in particular to leaders of the least developed countries, is to push for a legally binding agreement such that when ratified and translated to domestic law, people can call to attention the government in their countries to act on the agreement.
By Seema Gaikwad
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