Dhaka - Low-lying Bangladesh with its 230 rivers and dense population of over 150 million has long been prone to flooding, soil erosion and saltwater intrusion, but climate change could aggravate the situation, experts and government officials warn.
In a report entitled A Global Report: Reducing Disaster Risk: A Challenge for Development, the UN Development Programme (UNDP) has identified Bangladesh as the country most vulnerable to tropical cyclones and sixth most vulnerable to floods.
According to data from the government’s Centre for Environmental and Geographic Information Systems (CEGIS), two-thirds of the country is only five metres above sea level, rendering it particularly vulnerable to sea level rises and tidal waves.
Melting Himalayan glaciers and an encroaching Bay of Bengal in the south, further increase the risk of flooding, experts say.
The fourth assessment report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) predicts that an increase in monsoon rainfall across South East Asia and melting Himalayan glaciers will result in increased water volumes in rivers that flow into Bangladesh from India, Nepal, Bhutan and China.
Low-lying southern coastal regions are the most vulnerable, despite being protected by a 5,107km-long network of flood embankments.
Almost half of this embankment network was damaged by recent cyclones (Sidr and Aila), leaving the whole region vulnerable to the tides, according to Bangladesh’s Comprehensive Disaster Management Programme.
High population density means many Bangladeshis are forced to live on and cultivate flood-prone land.
“Our fields are dying because of the salty water… It is impossible to grow anything in them any more,” lamented Abbasuddin Mollah, a 60-year-old farmer from the coastal district of Bagerhat.
“Without the dykes to protect us, the tides rush in twice daily and swamp the croplands,” he told IRIN.
"This is the sort of effect rising sea levels will have on Bangladesh. We are fighting climate change on the front line," said Ainun Nishat, one of the country's leading environmentalists.
But according to Hasan Mahmud, state minister of environment and forestry, the government is working to address the issue.
A massive river dredging project at an estimated cost of US$2 billion has already been undertaken by the government in order to conserve water, increase the capacity of the rivers, and channel more fresh water into them to decrease their salinity.
“There are four indicators to measure the extent of damage that a country will have to face due to global climate change: the direct harmful impact of climate change; increasing natural disasters; the number of people facing these dangers; and the measures already undertaken by that country to reduce the negative impacts of climate change. Bangladesh is eligible on all counts,” Mahmud said.
The 2009 Bangladesh Climate Change Strategy and Action Plan published by the Ministry of Environment predicts that within the next 50 years, over 20 million people could be displaced and become “climate change refugees”, if sea and salinity levels rise.
The Plan recommends combating the effects of climate change by focusing on social security, disaster management, infrastructure development, research and knowledge management, low carbon development options and institutional capacity development.
Meanwhile experts warn of the increasing frequency and/or intensity of tropical storms in the Bay of Bengal.
“For Bangladesh, effects of climate change are no longer a future threat. It is already a reality for us,” State Minister Hasan Mahmud said.