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Bangladesh is ready with a climate change strategy

By Darryl D'Monte

Bangladesh fares better than India on many human development indicators. Now, knowing that they are nature’s laboratory for disaster, they’ve beaten us to a climate change action plan

Most Indians regard Bangladesh as a basket case and would be greatly surprised if they learnt that on many human development indices, our eastern neighbour fares much better than we do. To take only one index, as many as 85% of Bangladeshis have access to toilets as against 62% in this country. 

In another sector, Bangladesh has forged ahead in drafting a climate change strategy and action plan, which is really a blueprint for adaptation. “Bangladesh is nature’s laboratory for disaster,” said Prof Ainun Nishat, Senior Advisor, Climate Change, Asia Region, IUCN in Dhaka, who is in his country’s delegation to Copenhagen. 

“Don’t use the term ‘climate change’ for Bangladesh,” he tells Infochange, “use ‘variability’, which is also the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change terminology. There is a drought-like situation for agriculture. People’s traditional farming practices have been lost, including 5,000 rice varieties which could withstand such changes.” 

Ten years ago, NGOs attempted to revive some of these practices. These didn’t come under the rubric of tacking climate change, but to alleviate poverty. They revived floating ponds where they piled the troublesome hyacinth weed, which served as beds to grow seedlings. A Dutch TV company came to a Noakhali village and was surprised when the villagers reeled off facts and figures about climate change, about which they have been well briefed. 

Some years ago, the Bangladesh Centre for Advanced Studies, under A Atiq Rahman, held three international workshops to focus on such mitigation and adaptation actions. Soon after, the government expressed an interest. When it had to formulate “nationally appropriate mitigation actions” in UN parlance, it dispensed with consultants and set up task forces – half of which were headed by non-government experts, including one by Prof Nishat. 

By 2004-5, the government provided $200 million for these task forces, which included one on awareness-raising. It decided not to put these under a separate directorate because they were all dealing with cross-cutting issues and every ministry was involved. 

“A key issue is food security,” Prof Nishat says. “Although everyone says that 17% of the country will be under water, it is not sea level rise that we fear but the increase in salinity. By 2100, we expect salinity to spread up to 89 metres inland.” 

He concedes that he was the co-author of the paper which said, a decade ago, that 17% of the area would be affected but they were referring to how much land would be submerged without dykes. “People won’t move out because the dykes are 3-4 metres high (as they are in 24 Parganas in West Bengal). However, with sea level rise, if salinity increases, people will be badly affected.” Some are bound to migrate to India in such crises, and are already doing so. 

A task force has also been looking at cyclones and ‘storm surges’, which are growing much more frequent. Between 1960 and 2009, there were 15 major events. From 2007, there have been four. “The sea is also growing more rough, forcing fishermen not to venture out and affecting their livelihood.” 

The culmination of the ongoing work of the task forces and participatory research is the Bangladesh Climate Change Strategy & Action Plan 2009, which was published by the Ministry of Environment this September, in time for Copenhagen. As Prof Nishat adds, it is by no means a finished document but will incorporate findings from further research and activity, in which civil society is most actively engaged. 

Infochange News & Features, December 2009