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Bangladesh Is Drowning Because of Climate Change

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As we continue our dangerous experiment with the Earth's climate, it's expected that extreme weather and natural disasters will become more frequent and intense. The water cycle will become so unpredictable that droughts, floods and rising sea levels could cripple entire cities and countries. In Canada's big cities that have a temperate climate, the signals are difficult to see on a day-to-day basis, but unusual and worrisome weather patterns are nevertheless beginning to emerge.

To understand the full power of recent climate change, a comparative 'before and after' is always helpful. If we go to countries that already had a volatile climatic system long before our more recent climate change period began, it is easier to conclude that they are vulnerable to even slight changes. If there is one country that stands out as the ultimate example for this emerging trend of extreme fluctuations in weather and the water cycle, it is without a doubt Bangladesh.

Bangladesh has become the poster child for climate change for many reasons. Bangladesh is an extremely low-lying country and most of the land lies only a few meters above sea level. Saltwater intrusion into the south-west of the country is already poisoning groundwater supplies for entire towns and villages. At the present rate of sea level rise, it could take just 25 years for encroaching saltwater to waterlog the farmland and poison fresh drinking water for as many as 10-million people. The forecasted rise of one metre before the end of the century could permanently displace more than 30-million people. Entire islands are already slipping into the sea from a combination of sea levels rise and river erosion.

Bangladesh also lies right in the pathway of massive cyclones that form in the Bay of Bengal and hit the country almost every year. While cyclones have always impacted Bangladesh long before anthropogenic climate change, the rate of and intensity of cyclones and large storms has recently began to increase.

Bangladesh is also extremely reliant on a predictable pattern of monsoon rains that feed the country's rich soils. However in recent years, the monsoon has been arriving weeks earlier than expected, making it difficult for farmers to know when to plant and harvest crops.

While climate change is a major cause of these problems, it is certainly not the only culprit behind Bangladesh's overall vulnerability. Dam construction on rivers flowing into the country, combined with glacial melt in the Himalayas, are leading to extreme shifts in river flow and exacerbating river erosion. Mix all that in with poverty, corruption, political instability, lack of adequate health care and education, and you have a potent formula that makes it extremely difficult for Bangladeshis to prepare for disasters and rebuild.

Overpopulation was certainly the most visible domestic development I witnessed when my brother and I visited Bangladesh earlier this year. "Crowded" would be an understatement for a country with a population of over 150-million people and over 1,000 people for every square kilometre of land. So whenever disaster strikes, and as a changing monsoon pattern and saltwater intrusion make farmland no longer productive, millions are already being displaced.

Bangladesh has become ground zero for the most troubling social aspect of climate change -- climate migration. So far, most of the migration has taken place internally from rural areas to cities with several million spilling over into India. Many of these climate migrants have no choice but to live in the crowded slums of the capital Dhaka, taking on dangerous labour jobs pulling rickshaws or working in brick and garment factories with little hope of escaping the cycle of poverty. So the question now is: where will they go when 15 per cent of the country goes underwater in the next 50 years, and its rich farmlands along the southern coast can no longer feed its massive population?

Despite being so devastated by climate change, Bangladesh barely contributes to this phenomenon. The country has one of the lowest rates of per capita carbon emissions in the world. What makes climate change particularly cruel for Bangladesh is that it makes it even more difficult for the population to climb out of poverty.

Though Bangladesh has received considerable media attention for changes to its climate, the international community has made little progress in terms of making serious commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Will we only decide to take action when North American or European coastal areas begin to submerge?

Personally, I don't want to find out. Perhaps we don't appreciate the warnings from Bangladesh because we don't feel connected to the country and its people. I would argue that the recent events at Rana Plaza and the tag on the back of your shirt will tell you otherwise, and that we are connected to Bangladesh in more ways than we realize. What happens in Bangladesh reflects on our own country and its humanity, and that of all the nations who are the biggest contributors to climate change.

Denial and indifference are the precursors to many disasters. It's time we wake up and use our combined ingenuity and power in more productive ways.

Alex Mifflin and brother Tyler Mifflin host the award-winning TVO eco-adventure series, The Water Brothers, exploring the world's most important water stories. Watch episodes at www.thewaterbrothers.ca. To learn more about how climate change threatens Bangladesh, watch "Here Comes the Flood."

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