Climate change in Bangladesh: how rising sea levels are giving rise to poverty and sinking local culture

The effects of climate change have led to a growing sense of outrage in developing nations, many of which have contributed little to the pollution linked to flooding, rising temperatures and sea levels, but will suffer the most from the consequences. As said by Nicolas Hulot, President of the French Republic for the protection of the planet, “a changing environment, the loss of wildlife and vegetation, and the struggle to improve the quality of life go hand in hand.”

Global warming continues, and droughts spread. Sea levels are still rising, and ice caps are shrinking, while food is becoming increasingly scarce for many. We follow the stories of people in the countries most vulnerable to climate change, and how their lives are affected by climate change. This is the first part of our series, which will develop to discuss India, Indonesia and Vietnam.

Mariam Begum, 42, of Bangladesh, lost her riverside home and her husband to a powerful storm in 2009. Left without the security of income, Mariam was forced to find hard labour work to make ends meet. Despite finding work in a brick-making factory, Mariam couldn’t earn much money to provide food and basic necessities to herself or her children, and was forced to sell her son and daughter into bonded servitude.

Mariam now lives in a temporary bamboo shack that provides little protection from heavy rain. She spends her free time collecting cow dung for fuel and tries to grow vegetables in soil poisoned by salt water, working fourteen hours a day.

Mariam is just one of millions of people living in similar situations, facing extreme poverty, and counting the days until the next disaster, which could easily destroy their rebuilt lives.

Bangladesh climate change

A woman is repairing her house in the Bangladeshi coastal district Cox’s Bazar that was damaged by a tropical storm. Photo by Amio James Ascension

Bangladesh is one of the world’s most environmentally-sensitive regions, hit hard by climate change. Around 80% of the country consists of flood plains, wedged between battering sea surges and cyclones, coastal erosion, salinisation from the Bay of Bengal in the south, and Himalayan glacier outbursts causes floods from the north. These impactful natural occurrences are becoming more frequent, and will only become more severe in the coming years.

Poor communities are the first to face the havoc of natural disasters when they strike. Women like Mariam make up an estimated 70% of those living below the poverty line, and are likely to bear the heaviest burdens, with their livelihoods and security facing a disproportionally large impact, according to a UN report.

During the Bangladesh cyclone of 1991, the death rate in women was almost five times higher than men, and the women who survived were forced to work in hard labour to provide for their families – Mariam knows of women forced to involve themselves in prostitution to make ends meet.

Almost one-fourth of Bangladeshis live in coastal areas, and Bangladesh could lose up to 15% of its land area under the sea with rising sea levels. This could cause more people to move to already highly-populated areas of Bangladesh – in the last five years, 40 million people have been displaced by natural disasters.

In contrast to the recent refugee crisis, extreme weather events in Bangladesh are already displacing significantly more people than violent conflicts in the Middle East. A research group in Dhaka, Bangladesh’s capital, has estimated that as many as 1.5 million of the five million slum inhabitants in Dhaka moved from villages near the Bay of Bengal.

Its extreme effects on Bangladesh mean that climate change is no longer just an environmental issue, but a development issue, directly impacting the quality of people’s lives and the way they live, but their food, health and income.

The surplus labour migrated as a result of climate change affected areas in Bangladesh will only worsen the condition and drive down wages, in a country known for its already appalling working conditions and exploitation of labour – notably child labour.

This risks an increase in inequality and a deceleration in the poverty reduction rate, meaning the urban poor are directly in danger when these climate change-induced natural disasters occur, especially in the absence of the necessary amount of infrastructure and employment opportunities in Bangladesh’s major cities.

Previous research shows that seasonal migration does not necessarily support migrants to improve their life circumstances. Indeed, in some cases, they become further impoverished after migrating because of exploitation. Seasonal migration creates an obstacle for a child’s education as the entire household migrates to a brick kiln before their end-of-year exams at school.  Child labour also increases when parents are not able to get full employment.

Although cities situated along the coastal belt are more prone to climate change-related disasters – with around 40% of Bangladeshi’s urban population living in the slum and squatter settlements of the major cities at high risk during flooding – other cities far from the sea also face danger, struggling with floods, drainage congestion and water logging, as well as damage to key infrastructure during extreme events.

The backbone industries of Bangladesh’s economy – infrastructure, trade and commerce – are all severely affected when flooding occurs, and the usual productivity of these economies is hampered both during and after major floods. This results in further vulnerability for the urban poor.

Climate change is also threatening Bangladesh’s goals of achieving the Millennium Development Goals and the progress it has made over last two decades in increasing incomes, reducing poverty and food self-sufficiency.

On the agriculture front, it has been predicted that yields in Bangladesh could be reduced to 50% by 2020, due to climate change. With an increase in land salinity, coastal areas are struggling to produce rice – the country’s staple food. This could have an adverse effect on food security for a country with an increasing population, and increasing hunger. With two-thirds of its population engaged in agricultural activities, climate change could be devastating for those living in rural areas.

Bangladesh climate change 3

Photo by Bread For The World

The fisheries sector has also experienced an adverse affect – it contributes about 3.5% of the GDP in Bangladesh, and fish products are depended on to meet the majority of daily protein requirements. There are around 260 species of fish in the country, and almost all the varieties are sensitive to specific salt and freshwater conditions.

Over the last 30 years, the land-use patterns of the south-western coast of Bangladesh have faced significant change, with commercial shrimp farming replacing traditional rice farm at a significant rate, as it is less labour intensive. This change serves as a key reason for why women like Miriam cannot find work on farms.

Bangladesh. climate change

Gordontour, Sunderbans after cyclone damage

Climate change in Bangladesh also threatens the “Sundarbans”, the largest Mangrove Forest in the world, home to the Royal Bengal Tiger, and comprising of 577,00 hectares of land along the Bay of Bengal.

There has been a recent surge in the number of tiger attacks, notably due to the devastation on the Bangladeshi side of the swamp causing by Cyclone Sidr, depriving tigers of traditional food sources and fresh water, and pushing them towards the more populated side of the swamp.

The Sundarbans is a significant source of living for a large community – people go there to fish, collect firewood, honey and a variety of other items. However, it is these people who are attacked by tigers – even fishermen in small boats have faced attacked.

This raises the question of what the government is doing to tackle this expanse of issues resulting from climate change, one of Bangladesh’s most prominent issues. The government works with a variety of NGOs to develop strategies and resilience programs, emphasising asset-creation activities and entrepreneurship for the rural poor – especially women – to help communities to react to and recover from natural disasters.

Bangladesh Microfinance

Photo by Amir Jina

Residents of the remote island of Char live very poor lives, made worse by the effects of climate change. In 2010, the SKS Foundation – with help from Oxfam – provided training on the production of garments production for 20 women, and arranged financial support to form a cooperative, setting up a mini garment factory in Golana, with the products marketed by Oxfam, and sold both domestically and internationally. This is just one of the many ways in which communities can develop, and become stronger in the face of natural disasters.

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