Climate change in southwest Bangladesh

The southwest coastal region of Bangladesh is the most disaster-prone area in Bangladesh and is very vulnerable to the effects of climate change. The Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics (1999) reports that the region is home to an estimated 10 million people (647 people per square kilometre). Poverty in the region is as much shaped by the ecological condition as it is determined by socio-economic dynamics. This page gives an overview of the impacts and Uttaran’s suggested responses to climate change in the southwest coastal region of Bangladesh.

Background

The region is part of an inactive delta of large Himalayan Rivers and is protected from tidal surge by the Sundarban mangrove forest. Cyclones, tidal surges, floods, repeated water-logging and land subsidence are common in this part of Bangladesh, shaping the lives and livelihood patterns of the people living in the area. The southwest coastal region has been identified as one of the parts of the world most vulnerable to the effects of a rise in sea level caused by climate change. It is estimated that the sea level in the region has been rising by 3-4 mm per year for last 30 years. However, the impact of climate change has been compounded by the water management policies successive Governments with support and funding from international agencies.

The Coastal Embankment Project (CEP), implemented in the 1960s to increase agricultural production, irreversibly changed the region’s ecosystem. The CEP and subsequent flood control and irrigation projects converted the wetlands in the region to dry land to facilitate introduction of high yielding variety rice which requires controlled irrigation. These interventions disconnected the wetlands from the rivers and prevented sediment formation inside the wetlands which gradually caused the drainage congestion of the rivers as the sediments deposited on the river bed. In many places the river bed became higher than the wetlands in the surrounding basins. Similar projects implemented in the 1980s and 1990’s, like the Khulna-Jessore Drainage Rehabilitation Project (KJDRP), have worsened the situation.

How does climate change affect the region?

Flooding and water logging
The incessant heavy down pours of the rainy season causes flooding in the region. This water cannot be drained because of rising sea levels and the consequences of CEP, leaving vast areas water logged. Each year more than 144,521 hectare of land goes under water for 6-8 months. The problem of stagnant water is gradually approaching down river to the south/coast as it follows the declining slopes of the river basin, spreading fast and inundating more areas. It is estimated that each year ten-twelve thousands hectares of land is becoming permanently waterlogged and the rate is rapidly increasing.

This September, heavy monsoon rains have stranded hundreds of thousands. Seven hundred and thirty eight villages in the region have been affected by the current floods. Over two hundred and forty five thousand of the poorest and most vulnerable individuals in Bangladesh have been left homelessness and are facing a severe shortage of food. This is the tenth consecutive year that floods have hit in this region and the local communities believe the duration and depth of the floods is increasing cumulatively.

Reduced access to safe drinking water
The floods and water logging often leave tube wells and latrines submerged and the rise in sea level creates more saline (salt water) intrusion, making safe drinking water scarce and access to it difficult. In addition, there are few ground water aquifers in this region due to a natural shortage of heavy sand particles beneath the ground. Because of the excessive extraction of ground water through deep tube well irrigation, aquifers of this area are often contaminated by arsenic and further affected by a decrease of the water level under the ground. Arsenic has now become a major problem in this region. According to the Groundwater Arsenic Calamity survey conducted by Uttaran , a local NGO, almost 79 percent of aquifers of the southwest coastal region are contaminated by arsenic.

Unstable livelihoods
Agriculture and shrimp farming are the major areas of employment and livelihood in the southwest coastal districts. Around 85% people of in the region are employed in agriculture and landless farmers make up almost 66% of the population. The height of the sea level is increasing and consequently in many places the saline water from the Bay of Bengal is seeping into the land. The land and environmental degradation caused by this create serious problems for agriculture (i.e. severe soil degradation caused by erosion, contamination, compaction, losses of organic matter through improper farming practices, land transformation and deforestation). Water logging means that for long periods large areas of land cannot be used for agricultural production, significantly reducing employment opportunities in the region.

Lack of food security
The southwest region of Bangladesh is a food deficit area where net food production and diversity of food production have declined significantly over recent decades. Environmental degradation caused by irresponsible and flawed government structural development projects and the trend for increasing environmentally unfriendly shrimp production have reduced diversity and quantity of food production pushing vulnerable people further on the verge of extreme suffering and abject poverty.

Uttaran’s view on what action could be taken to respond to climate change?

Mitigation in Northern countries
Countries in the South have the least responsibility for the energy consumption and emissions that have caused climate change. It is therefore only fair that Northern countries do more to mitigate the effects of climate change. The Government of Bangladesh (GoB) must lobby at a global level for stronger legislation by Governments in Northern countries designed to mitigate climate change in there countries. The GoB should also advocate global mitigation policies that ensure actions taken by Northern countries to reduce their emissions do not impact negatively on Southern countries.

Disaster risk preparedness and response
More needs to be done to ensure the communities of the southwest coastal region are prepared for the increased regularities of ‘natural’ disasters such as cyclones. GoB and international agencies have to be better prepared to respond to disasters and quickly release resources and funds to the communities.

Tidal River Management: The people’s solution
The communities of southwest Bangladesh have developed their own solution to offset the effects of climate change – it is called Tidal River Management (TRM). This method allows tidal flow into the wetland basin and releases the tidal flow back to the river. As a result of this process, sediments carried by the tidal flow are deposited on the wetland basin instead of the riverbed. This process may continue for several years (usually three years, though the duration depends on the size of the wetland basin). The TRM prevents sediment accretion on the riverbed and ensures drainage of excess water during monsoons. It also creates better navigation in river channels.

The communities in the region, with support from Uttaran, have been campaigning for proper implementation of TRM across the coastal zone of southwest Bangladesh for many years and have gained recognition of the effectiveness of TRM from the Asian Development Bank. So far there has been a very limited implementation of TRM by the GoBs who continue to focus on unsustainable programmes that are opposed by the local communities (i.e. dredging of the rivers to reduce levels of silt).

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