This is another piece in a story series highlighting the challenges of the earth’s changing climate and its effect on the world’s poorest and most vulnerable.
Bangladesh is home to more than 160 million people. It’s the 8th most populous country in the world.
Bangladesh is also one of the most vulnerable to natural disasters, including floods and cyclones.
Climate change is intensifying those disasters, leaving many without options.
The future of Bangladesh–and its people–all comes down to a matter of measurements.
Worldwide, sea levels are on the rise. Bangladesh, located on a low-lying delta and very susceptible to flooding, is a country that is most at risk.
“Sea level rise is a global phenomenon, but it is not uniform across the world,” says Ainun Nishat, climate change specialist and Professor Emeritus at BRAC University.
"On Bangladesh coasts, a recently completed study shows that on the southwestern side, the average sea level rise over the last 20 years has been between 6 to 8 millimeters," continues Nishat.
"If you go to the central part of the Bangladesh coast, it is between 10 to 12 millimeters. And if you go to the coast on the southeastern side, it can be as high as between 16 to 20 millimeters."
"A 20-millimeter rise would mean that the coastline has moved in significantly, which is causing an increase in salinity," says Nishat.
In Bangladesh, about 20 million people along the coast are experiencing increased salinity.
Having fresh water mix with salt water means less usable drinking water, disturbed agricultural productivity, fewer fishing opportunities, and increased migration.
“The cyclones, the storm surges with a height of 5-7 meters (16-22 feet), bring in saline water from the coastline, from the sea, and inundate the whole area. High winds destroy the properties. Riverbank erosion has increased,” says Nishat.
“If you lose your home and land by riverbank erosion, you’re losing all your assets. The rural people are dependent on land. So Bangladesh is already a high population density with low income country. The resilience is low, and increasing natural disasters impact the resilience,” he says.
While some erosion is inevitable on the coast, erratic weather patterns and climate change are disrupting the balance.
The poor are affected the most. They are losing their homes, their livelihoods, and, in some cases, their lives.
“Climate change brings lots of unpredictability in natural disasters. We know their intensity and frequency are going to increase, as is the impact on the poorer segment of the society. The impact is even higher on the women and children,” Nishat says.
Bangladesh has been at the forefront of many disaster management and climate change adaptations.
Major focus has been put on advanced pre- and post-disaster preparations, in addition to warning systems. Communities are learning how to save ahead of time and protect their families.
In parts of Bangladesh, a dike system attempts to increase the resilience of coastal populations. But often it’s not enough and people need to leave.
“In Manpura, the embankments have a height of 4 meters (13 feet). We need to raise it to 6-7 meters (19-23 feet), and we need billions of dollars for that,” says Nishat.
“Living conditions are difficult. Migration is due to poverty. Migration is due to overpopulation. Migration is due to lack of employment. Now, this is being aggravated by climate change,” he says.
South Asia is also very affected by rising global temperatures. Bangladesh, in particular, has been called a hotspot.
Communities around the world are already feeling the impact of climate change today, with the planet only 0.8 ºC warmer than in pre-industrial times.
Many of us could experience the harsher impacts of a 2ºC warmer world within our lifetimes–20 to 30 years from now–and 4ºC is likely by the end of the century without global action.
“Bangladesh would be really miserable. If it goes above 3ºC, the present varieties of rice would not grow," says Nishat.
Some of the world’s poorest are being pushed to the edges of livable land. In Bangladesh, many live in low-lying areas with poor drainage and often inadequate protection from extreme floods, more intense cyclones, rising sea levels and high temperatures.
Experts say this is only the beginning, and the world’s richest and poorest must work together to build a more stable and better world.
“Climate change is in its infancy. It is showing what is going to come in the next 30, 40, 50 years,” Nishat says.
“There are still people who say the Earth is flat. There are still people who say that the sun revolves around the Earth. We should ignore these type of people," he continues.
"All 195 countries of the world officially have accepted climate change is real and are working toward controlling it."
"So I will not waste time in giving response to the people who say climate change is not real."
Living on the Edge of Climate Change
Rising Waters, Rising Concerns
Photography by Ismail Ferdous for CRS
Written by Rebekah Lemke, CRS
Produced by Chris Denney, Mark Metzger and Bryan Prindiville, CRS