Climate change: Bangladesh's case

AT the advent of the new concept called "anthropogenic accelerated climate change," there have been numerous discussions across the globe regarding highly vulnerable countries and communities, their urgent and immediate needs for response measures (partly adaptation) and institutional as well as financial mechanisms to do so.

There have been many attempts by international media as well as global scientific community to portray Bangladesh as one of the most vulnerable countries. It is claimed that climate change will exacerbate the current contexts of vulnerability that are prevailing in the country and the resulting adverse effects will challenge the development thrust.

There are reasons to believe that the low-lying deltaic country will face major changes in her hydro-geophysical aspects, which will increase the extent as well as frequency of floods, droughts, cyclones and wave interactions, salinity ingress, water logging, etc. This will adversely affect crop production, infrastructure, people's health and livelihoods, and inflict poverty on many households .

People's basic human rights, especially that of the poor people, will be violated despite the fact that their contribution to the overall sin of emitting greenhouse gases (GHG) is amongst the least in the world.

Bangladesh has been vocal internationally against such inequitable consequences of climate change. We would like to see that the cause of the "wicked problem" -- GHG emissions, primarily in advanced economies -- is addressed quickly so that our poor people do not have to deal with such consequences. We would also like to see that international assistance for their immediate as well as future adaptation requirements is committed and mobilised soon.

People are, arguably, already suffering due to climate related hazards and their consequences. There are clear scientific evidences that the current climate is no longer the same as it was some three to five decades earlier. In Bangladesh, even though there are limited data sets to deal with, it can be proved beyond doubt that a number of climate parameters have been consistently showing trends of change as a response to global warming.

However, when it is argued whether the additional effect in any observed extreme weather event can be explained scientifically as a logical consequence of change in climate system, it becomes extremely difficult to find such evidences. Since one cannot take out the "signal generated by climate change" from the background trend, the "additionality" factor appears to be an unsolved mystery towards establishing cause-effect relationship.

Those countries which have been included in Annex-1 of UNFCCC and have accepted the responsibility to promote and facilitate response measures, including adaptation in LDC and most vulnerable countries (MVC), often used this uncertainty issue to waste time.

Apparently, unless a victim country can explain beyond doubt how much of a given flood (for example) is caused by "additional rainfall" induced by climate change, it may not plead for its due share of international support to reduce vulnerability. Adaptation support has been pledged and mobilised, but not as "duty bound" as dictated by the UNFCCC. A logical Convention-bound action has now become an arbitrary gesture of pure humanitarianism!

This has placed Bangladesh in a difficult situation. Cyclones are known along the coastal zone. How many people died during Sidr (November 15, 2007) due to climate variability (i.e., usual cyclonic event) and how many due to climate induced component of the cyclone? Apparently, if we cannot find an answer to this vital question, the word compensation cannot be uttered in the discourse. Therefore, "no proof beyond doubt, no Convention-bound assistance" to promote adaptation.

In recent years, scientists have recorded over 400 cases of discernable changes which would not have occurred if climate change did not play its part in causing them. In many instances, however, the effects were benign to human systems -- at least with the current knowledge base.

While attribution to climate-induced effects has been debated heavily in international negotiations, something has started to occur along the coastal zone in Bangladesh which would not have happened without the direct influence of climate change. People along the coastal zone, especially fishermen, have been complaining about a somewhat warmer sea and frequent occurrence of rough sea events with unusually high tide at the wrong times of the year.

Scientific probing into the issue has revealed that, had it not been due to climate change, such affects would not have occurred. It is now clear that climate attribution beyond doubt is possible, which has a serious human implication.

During monsoon and post-monsoon, occasional accumulation of solar radiation (heat from the sun) generally triggers the occurrence of about 5 to 6 low pressure systems, a few turning into depression/deep depressions and even cyclones in the Northern Indian Ocean (Bay of Bengal).

That has been the usual case. From satellite data, it is found that sea surface temperature (SST) in the Bay of Bengal (BoB) has been showing a persisting rising trend for both monsoon and post-monsoon seasons over the past four decades. Certainly, it has led to further accumulation of heat energy in the ocean system in the Bay.

Since the SST is now higher than usual (about 0.5°C higher than the average observed five decades ago), enhanced by climate change induced warming, a few days of sunshine now generates enough energy to cross the threshold for producing low pressure systems.

The trend for the decade of 2000 clearly highlights that, instead of 5 to 6 lows, the occurrence of lows has doubled. Since the said period of 2007, there have been at least 14 events in each successive year. This year alone, 15 such events have disturbed coastal people's lives, and yet another is brewing in the Bay.

Increasing numbers of low pressure systems means that for an increasing number of days per annum the sea will be rough along with high tides -- which will not allow fishermen to go for fishing. In simple terms, poor fishermen will have fewer active days, less catch per annum, and perhaps less income.

In the coastal zone of Bangladesh, the estimated number of households depending on fisheries-based livelihoods ranges between 140,000 and 160,000. A fishing trip generally takes about 12-14 days (sometimes less for those who catch estuarine fish), particularly for the fishermen living in the Southeastern parts of the country.

Each fishing group generally borrows cash from money-lenders (locally known as mahajans) at very high interest rates and purchases fuel and other commodities to cover the entire fishing trip. The preparation prior to a trip takes a few days and requires healthy investments (food for the group, fuel for the return trip, nets and other equipments).

According to the Standing Orders on Disasters prevailing in Bangladesh, people must come to shore and take shelter if signal number three (3) or above is issued following occurrence of a low-pressure system. Following the issuance of such warnings/signals, fishermen along the coastal region are required to come back to the shore. If such events/episodes occur once in a while, which was the general case, fishermen could stop fishing and safeguard their lives and assets.

With the increased frequency of such episodes, the time between two successive events has lessened so much that fishermen cannot complete a trip, and their investment is wasted. Instead of making a profit, they incur loss and remain indebted, which creates a sense of desperation amongst them.

Repeated and frequent episodes of rough sea events have devastated the lives of coastal fishermen. Many boats have capsized, many fishermen have drowned and lost their lives. There have been newspaper reports that thousands of Bangladeshi fishermen were saved by the coast guards of neighbouring countries and put in jail because they did not have proper documentation.

Coastal fishing is no longer the same for the fishermen. Their sense of security has been shattered, their lives are at risk. They can no longer exercise the right to life and right to safe livelihood. The widows are living in unacceptable conditions, and their children can no longer exercise their right to education or a healthy family life.

Those who survived such rough sea events are heavily in debt and living like fugitives. The rights of all these people have been violated already, which has triggered migration from the coastal areas.

Had it not been due to climate change, had it not been due to reckless emissions from the "self identified" culprits in Annex-1 of the UNFCCC, the frequency of such lows and depressions would not have been so great.

The plight of all these people should not be seen as a mere accident. It is not business as usual. The cause effect relationship is known. The responsible parties must keep their promise and assist these people. Those who have lost their lives cannot be contacted any more. However, many more will simply perish in the near future if corrective measures are not considered now. The government of Bangladesh must raise this issues in international forums and demand justice