Bangladesh weathers climate storms

Financial Times

December 14, 2007

Dhaka –For generations Mohammed Alam Khokshabari and his forebears lived in a village near the mighty Jamuna River in Bangladesh. Each year this farmer from Sirajgonj district nearly four hours north of Dhaka had weathered the annual floods that inundate this densely populated country of nearly 150m.

But he and fellow villagers were not prepared for two devastating floods this summer that radically changed the landscape.

Standing on the edge of a sandy embankment, 40-year-old Mr Khokshabari points to what appears to be a lake. Miles of water have replaced what used to be his village, where thousands farmed, raised livestock and made hand-loom textiles. Today, a wooden boat drifts over what used to be fertile land. If the water recedes, villagers could move back to their land, but until then they simply wait.

Mr Khokshabari has just a vague idea of what climate change is. But he does know that annual monsoon rains and flooding have worsened over the past dozen years.

Indeed, weather-related disasters are intensifying around the world. A report from UK charity Tearfund pointed out that t he UN issued 15 emergency appeals in 2007, fourteen of which were weather-related. Two years ago only half the international disasters dealt with by the UN were linked to climate.

Bangladesh is one of the countries most vulnerable to the effects of climate change.

The low-lying country is largely a delta of south Asia’s biggest rivers, and bears the brunt of cyclones rising from the Bay of Bengal. Large swathes of Bangladesh would be submerged if global temperatures rise.

A 3-4 degree increase could cause floods that would displace 70m people in Bangladesh, according to a UN Development Programme report last month.

Other coastal areas, especially heavily populated “mega-deltas” such as those in Vietnam and Egypt, will be at greatest risk.

Already about 75,000 people in Sirajgonj district were rendered homeless by this summer’s floods, said Bangladeshi non-governmental organisation National Development Programme, a local partner of UNDP.

Yet Bangladesh and other poor nations generate a fraction of global emissions linked to climate change. Its per capita carbon dioxide emissions totalled 0.1 tonnes in 2004, compared to 20.6 tonnes in the US and 9.8 tonnes in the UK. India, the world’s fourth-largest emitter, generates 1.2 tonnes per capita.

The disparity between emissions generated by rich countries and developing nations and what action each group should take is at the heart of the UN summit on climate change under way in Bali. More than 180 governments last week [DEC 14] began talks to forge a successor to the Kyoto protocol, the emissions reduction agreement that expires in 2012.

Currently, targets to cut emissions apply only to developed nations. But high-growth emerging markets such as China and India are coming under fire as their energy consumption accelerates on the back of rapid economic growth.

Bangladesh’s delegation at Bali urged emission cuts from developed countries and pressed for funding to adapt to climate change. Tearfund estimated a t least $50bn per year is needed to help developing countries adapt.

Steps are already being taken in Bangladesh. In some flood-prone parts of the country, aid agencies and NGOs are helping people build homes on higher ground, raising well and building platforms to store food and seeds. The Bangladeshi government has also heavily backed cyclone and flood warning systems.

But while rich countries can fortify themselves against the threat of floods and storms, poor nations like Bangladesh lack the money and resources to do so on a large scale.

In Sirajgonj, villagers had little protection against the rushing floodwaters this summer. Torrential monsoon rains caused the Jamuna to overflow and within hours homes were submerged beneath at least 15ft of water.

A technical institute, the only sturdy multi-storeyed building in view, sheltered 10,000 people for 45 days, says Paresh Chandra Sarker, programme co-ordinator with the National Development Programme.

In the three months since the last flood, aid groups have distributed food and supplies and are helping to rebuild roads and embankments.

But Mr Khokshabari says he and his fellow villagers have no steady work or savings. He has thought of moving but is unsure where. If aid ceases, says Mr Khokshabari, he thinks he would move for the survival of his family.

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