Bangladeshi climate change: Their consequences for our actions

For years the world has been sowing the seeds of climate disaster, so why is one of the least responsible countries reaping the consequences?

Bangladesh is completely reliant on the rivers that flow through it, but now they’re resulting in significant floods across the country. Photo credit: DRIK/Tapash Paul

The lives of well over a hundred million people are under severe threat. Although climate change is coming for us all, Bangladesh can truly be considered one of the first in line. There is a near unending series of factors which cause the country to be under such severe threat, forming into a perfect storm – and that storm is brewing in the Bay of Bengal. 

To understand what makes Bangladesh so vulnerable to climate change, you need to understand the geography of the country. While most countries are made up of land with rivers flowing through, Bangladesh is more aptly described as rivers with some land around them. Two massive rivers, the Brahmaputra and the Ganges, rush through the country into the Bay of Bengal to the south. The Ganges Delta, the largest river delta in the world, makes up nearly half of all the landmass within Bangladesh. This delta is one of the most fertile areas anywhere on the planet and consists of massive rice paddies and tea farms, as well as breeding grounds for fish. In short, this delta is the lifeblood for everyone in Bangladesh.

The source stream of the Ganges, the Bhagirathi River, found deep in the mountains in Northern India. Photo credit: Vishnu Prasad.

NGO Efforts in Bangladesh

According to Adnan, an employee of WaterAid working in Bangladesh, “It’s pretty bad here. In my experience if you haven’t been to the Global South, or any Small Island Developing States (SIDS), it’s really hard to capture the actual reality of how climate change is impacting these places. When I was in Canada, I had a hard time talking to people about climate change because the impacts are not that visible compared to here – things are really tragic here.”

Adnan, almost thirty years old, has been in this line of work for seven years, and he says it has only become more difficult. “It does take a mental toll, it does. I wouldn’t say depression, but sometimes you feel helpless.”

“It’s scary, but at the same time it’s sad, you can’t help everyone out. You do feel helpless most of the time. We do reach out to people and we’re trying to make positive impacts. I won’t say that most people aren’t getting help – I think the coastal belt of Bangladesh are getting the most help from different NGOs, but it’s not equal in terms of interventions, and sometimes people are left behind.”

Bangladesh’s prosperity being tied to the Ganges Delta wouldn’t necessarily be a problem. However, Bangladesh is one of the lowest lying countries in the world, with over two thirds of the landmass being less than five metres above sea level. This essentially includes the entire delta, the home of over a hundred million people. While the delta is known as the Green Delta due to its unparalleled fertility, temperature increases threaten to reverse that. As the effects of climate change become more and more pronounced, Bangladesh will face an increased impact from two forces – rising sea levels, and tropical storms.

Since the country is so low lying, the sea has already begun threatening crops and freshwater fish, inundating essential farmland and the Ganges River with saltwater. As the seas continue to rise, this will lead to massive famines across Bangladesh, a country completely reliant on the fertility of the Ganges Delta. Often, villagers leave an affected area not because of the direct impacts of climate change, but because of debts they accrue either directly or indirectly from climate change. These debts can come as a result of a failed crop, or a river fisherman who no longer has anything to bring to market to sell. Adnan discussed this as an issue WaterAid is currently dealing with.

Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh, in the early morning. Photo credit: KM L

Adnan lives in Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh, and spends most of his time moving back and forth between the city and the coast to work. “If you look into the coastal belt of Bangladesh, the major problem right now is salinity intrusion. We have some data on how much the water is rising – it has already risen and that can be seen through the salinity intrusion. So, what happens with that is a large quantity of saline groundwater is affecting the aquifers and the soil there. What we are facing in the coastal belt is acute water shortages, and we are running out of potable drinking water there. If I give you a clear micro-picture, the people on the ground mostly have to fetch water from long distances.”

“It’s particularly bad for that group of people because they’re the vulnerable people – far below the poverty line. We have a term we use, “Hardcore poor” or “Ultra-poor”. They have to spend around 20 Taka, around 20p, which is a lot for them because their minimum earning is around that figure as well. Imagine spending your entire income just to fetch water. It’s especially difficult for women as well, they have to walk long miles to fetch water and that’s not safe for them. They face a lot of discrimination because our society is patriarchal and that cultural issue is still really prominent in Bangladesh, so they do get harassed.”

Meanwhile, tropical storms – which are already becoming more prevalent – endanger the millions of Bangladeshis living anywhere coastal, destroying villages and important infrastructure. Bangladesh does not have an effective early warning system, and the citizens are often reliant on the warning systems of Myanmar, their neighbouring country. This also impacts women more than men, since women in Bangladesh are much less likely to possess the tools needed to receive early warnings, such as a mobile phone or a radio. Also, the infrastructure in place to protect people from tropical storms is not widespread or close enough for many to reach in time, especially the hardcore poor and the elderly.

“As we’re speaking right now there’s another cyclone depression forming in the Bay of Bengal, the second this year. The worst part is we’re still recovering from Cyclone Amphan that happened last year. It’s already waterlogged, and these people are going to face the brunt of it again.”

“The elderly people in the coastal belt for example, during the last cyclone they got stuck, and most of them usually tie themselves up to trees when cyclones are coming, when they can’t reach the cyclone shelters. You have multiple problems – storm surges, cyclones, salinity intrusion in the coastal belt.”

Contrastingly, the problem in some of the north of Bangladesh is the stark opposite – not enough water. The temperature is rising quickly, and there is not nearly enough rainfall to compensate. Even though Bangladesh is known as the ‘Land of Rivers’, the aquifers in the north are drying up. While this is happening in the north and northwest, the northeast is suffering from far too much rainfall, flooding homes.

“If you travel to the north of Bangladesh, we have drought. The aquifers there are drying up. It’s drying up really fast. If you go to the north-eastern area, you see a large amount of rainfall. Last year, the flood was so bad it killed around 93 people.”

“It’s not because we don’t have good infrastructure, we have good infrastructure, but we can’t keep up with the erratic changes. For example, it’s still raining now, it’s almost fall but it’s still raining, which is really abnormal for Bangladesh.”

In Bangladesh, WaterAid helps provide necessary resources to people who’ve been displaced by the climate crisis. Photo credit: WaterAid/BM Erman

Despite being committed to his work for WaterAid, Adnan worries about the future. For someone so heavily involved in aid work related to climate change, he finds hard to ignore how bad things are getting, and how quickly it’s happening.

“In terms of classes, the upper middle classes are well off. I come from an upper middle-class family; I know I can always get out of the country if things get bad in the future. But for the people who are below middle class, or the hardcore poor, its uncertainty, that’s for sure. It doesn’t look good for them. Even if we keep the temperature below 1.5, even if we have a big success in COP26 (an international climate conference scheduled for between October 31 and November 12), even if we get sufficient climate finance, it’s inevitable that these people will face the brunt of the problems. World leaders are not keen on taking refugees or migrants. It’s affecting the economy, the social infrastructures – even the grey infrastructures, buildings, housing. It is having ground level impacts between different groups of people.”

Although Bangladesh is facing severe hardship in the near future, Adnan manages to remain positive in his work. “If we had this interview 5 years ago, I would say there is anger, but in the last 5 years our government has really ramped up their effort. We should give credit where it’s due and I would give credit to our government for acting up compared to other governments. Sometimes I’m angry, but I would say positive most of the time. I am not happy about the coming decade, but I am hopeful things might change.”

Regarding Population Density

This brings us to another problem: Population density. The small Southeast Asian nation is one of the most densely populated countries on the planet, only outdone by micronations and small islands. The United Kingdom, for example, is nearly 100km2 larger than Bangladesh, but has a hundred million fewer citizens. This makes Bangladesh one of only six countries with a population density of over one thousand people per square kilometre – four times that of the UK. And people say we’re crowded.

As the largest city in Bangladesh, and very densely populated, Dhaka’s streets are always busy. Photo credit: Niloy Biswas

Combine a country this densely populated with a landmass that is rapidly shrinking into the sea – estimates suggest as much as 17% of the country’s landmass could be underwater by 2050 – and you have a serious problem. As the sea starts to reclaim the southern coast of Bangladesh, and tropical storms become even more vicious, the people living there are going to have to move inland. Current data points to around 30 million Bangladeshis being displaced by 2050. But where can they go? Bangladesh is already a tiny country all things considered, and without the crop from the Ganges Delta there is simply no way for the nation to support so many internally displaced people. Without support from both neighbouring countries and the international community, Bangladesh is like to experience one of the first great levelling events caused by climate change, an example for the rest of the world.

Although the majority of displaced people are moving from rural to urban environments, the cities are by no means safe either. Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh, is fewer than five metres above sea level, and could become uninhabitable with just a couple degrees of warming. The city sits on the Ganges Delta, and is subject to occasional flooding, but this will only worsen with time. Bangladesh is not a wealthy enough country to create long lasting flood defences to protect large cities like Dhaka, which means much of Dhaka’s flood protection was paid for with foreign aid. Foreign aid is a somewhat unpopular expense in the UK, and a significant number of Britons supported reducing the amount spent on it during the pandemic. Bangladesh is not able to rely on income which is mandated by other governments, and this could lead to less effective flood defences at a time when this is more important than ever. As well as this, corruption in local Bangladeshi government is commonplace – according to Michael Hough, a professor of environmental studies, “the priority is making money, not making a better environment.”

Walid is a young man who moved to Dhaka from Noahkhali around three years ago. He’s hoping to study physics at the University of Dhaka, but sometimes he goes back to his hometown.

“Noakhali was more on the rural side. There were a lot of trees and water bodies like ponds here and there. Nowadays when I go and visit, I don’t see any of that. It’s really sad. When I was younger there really wasn’t anything noticeable going on. I initially learned about climate change through our textbooks. But nowadays its more apparent. The weather cycles all wrong. Winter is basically a few weeks when it used to be 2-3 months.”

“I do want to work with green energy, eco-friendly, pollution damage control and what not. I don’t want to stay in Bangladesh [because of] education and infrastructure, definitely the whole climate change thing. There’s an inside joke in my family where everyone says: ‘in 50 years Bangladesh is gonna be under the ocean so why invest in this country at all?’ Which is just a joke, but it has a grain of truth to it I guess.”

The Buringanga River flows through Dhaka, and is an important travel route through the city. If the river bursts its banks and breaks the flood walls, it could spell disaster. Photo credit: Simon Reza

Externally Displaced – What are the options?

Bangladesh borders just two countries, India and Myanmar. Since at least some Bangladeshis are likely to leave the country as conditions worsen, these are the two countries they will at least have to travel through, if not settle in. Unfortunately, India’s government is currently having some severe issues regarding their treatment of Muslims, a religion which the vast majority of Bangladeshis practice. The current Prime Minister of India, Narendra Modi of the Bharitya Janata Party (BJP), is a proponent of Hindu Nationalism, an ideology which promotes the Hindu ethnicity above all others. In this way it is not at all dissimilar to other kinds of ethno-nationalism such as those practiced by fascist European states in the mid-20th century.

In 2002 in India, the Godhra train burning – an arson attack caused by a mob of around 2,000 Muslims, caused the deaths of 59 Hindus. This incited a three-day pogrom against Muslims committed by Hindus, causing around 2,000 deaths and numerous violent sexual assaults against Muslim women and girls. Muslims homes were systematically burned, while Hindu houses next door remained unscathed. This violence was initiated and encouraged by the BJP – most notably Narendra Modi. Given that this violence was being driven by a man who is now in such a significant position of power in India, there is clearly growing danger for any vulnerable Muslims in the country. A massive influx of poor and hungry Muslim refugees from Bangladesh can only serve to ignite the tensions further.

Myanmar, on the other hand, isn’t really any better. Firstly, the border between Bangladesh and Myanmar is very short, around 270km, compared to the border between Bangladesh and India which is over 4000km. This border is to the far southeast of Bangladesh, and far from any large population centres – the city of Chittagong is the largest city near the border, but it is still closer to the border with India. With such a small border, and so much of it near the coast, Myanmar is already a much less likely candidate than India for most refugees to travel to, but Myanmar has its own internal problems which will also dissuade people who have been displaced. Myanmar is currently embroiled in the world’s longest civil war, starting in 1948, with intermittent and short-lasting ceasefires. This conflict has recently brought with it a genocide against the Rohingya people, a Myanmar ethnic group consisting primarily of Muslims. Despite being from Myanmar, the Rohingya have been made stateless, and many have fled across the border into Bangladesh. Although there’s no saying how much longer this conflict or the persecution against Rohingyas will last, there’s no indication that Myanmar will be a safe country for displaced Bangladeshis at any point in the future.

Without swift and decisive action, and commitments made on an international level, Bangladesh is in for an incredibly tumultuous few decades. While it’s unlikely that the tide can be turned completely in terms of sea levels rising, there is much that can be done by governments and NGOs alike to help rehouse and save the millions of Bangladeshis who are in harms way. The work towards this needs to start now, and government policy on climate displacement needs to go hand in hand with measures to mitigate the worsening effects of climate change, such as investment in renewable energy. For the rest of the world, countries like Bangladesh will stand as a stark reminder of what will happen to them if more is not done to prevent climate change reaching even more threatening levels.