Dangers in Bangladesh: On the Front Lines of Climate Change

By in Char Bangla, Bangladesh

Many people in southern Bangladesh have never even heard of climate change. Yet should ocean levels rise even slightly, their existence would be imperiled. A visit to the global warming trenches.

Shahidul Mullah really doesn't have any time. Along with his friends from the island Char Bangla, he's perched on the bamboo frame of a roof that will eventually cover a new barn he is building for his cows and chickens. But time is a luxury Shahidul doesn't have. As he knows all too well, monsoon season is on its way -- and when it arrives, virtually the entire island will be flooded. The barn has to be ready by then, especially the thatched roof.

During the flood season, Shahidul and his family will hold out for weeks on the meter-high clay plateau on which his hut and new barn stand. Once the waters recede, they will then plant chili peppers and turnips in the fertile mud left behind. It’s been like this as long as Shahidul Mullah has lived here. So he has to hurry.

The word climate change is one that Shahidul -- who has no electricity, no television, and can't read -- has never heard before. Yet while the debate on global warming and its likely consequences rages across the globe, the 32-year-old farmer lives on the absolute frontline of climate change. His char, Bengali for island, stretches out deep into the Bay of Bengal like a finger. Flowing past it is one of the 13 rivers that make Bangladesh into a giant delta, sandwiched between the glaciers of the Himalayas and the bay. Just 20 meters from his house, a glittering mass of water moves peacefully in the direction of the nearby ocean. Any rise in global ocean levels will hit Shahidul and his family first.

Indeed, southern Bangladesh, where Shahidul lives, is one of the most vulnerable places on Earth to creeping sea levels. “Even if people stopped emitting carbon dioxide tomorrow, large regions of the South would soon be under water,” says climate expert Atiq Rahman. Approximately 10 million people live in parts of Bangladesh lying less than a meter above current sea levels. The rivers add to the problem, providing rising seawaters easy access to the country's interior. If average sea levels rise by only a few centimeters, Shahidul Mullah’s island will cease to exist -- and a rise of this magnitude is already regarded as a certainty.

Even without television and newspapers, Shahidul can sense that something just isn’t right about the weather. “It gets warmer every year, there are more storms and the monsoon doesn’t come on time,” he says. The water level in front of his house also rises a little every year. “When I moved here, we still had three fields in front of the house. Now there are only two,” Shahidul goes on. “I’m afraid the water will take another piece away from me this year.” As a precautionary measure, he had the platform for his little barn built half a meter higher. “You never know what will happen.”

Only few people in southern Bangladesh know that there is such a thing as climate change. Even the local correspondent of the Daily Prothomalo, the region’s largest newspaper with a circulation of around 300,000, describes reports on global warming as “rumors.” Libtom, a well-groomed man in his mid-thirties, says he heard something recently about a report on his transistor radio. What he means is the most recent climate change assessment by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

“Right now we’re trying to find out more about it,” says Libtom. Erratic weather is completely normal in the region, he says. People know how to deal with it. The government sees things similarly, having only just established a working group to look into the IPCC study.

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