How Global Warming Threatens Millions in Bangladesh

The effects of climate change are already increasing the hardships for an impoverished nation.

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Khajura, Bangladesh—In this obscure village perched on the rugged coastline along the Bay of Bengal, climate change exudes a taste. It is the flavor of salt. As recently as five years ago, water from the village well tasted sweet to Mohammed Jehangir. But now, a glassful, flecked with tiny white crystals, is briny. Like other paddy farmers in this southern village, Jehangir is baffled by the change. But international scientists aren't surprised to see such effects, as global warming causes sea levels to rise. It is a sign that the brackish water from the Bay of Bengal is encroaching, surging up Bangladesh's fresh-water rivers, percolating deep into the soil, fouling ponds and the underground water supply that millions depend on to drink and cultivate their farms. Salt is slowly, yet inexorably, making its way to the rice paddies of farmers like Jehangir, destroying their only source of income.

Khajura is on the front lines of climate change, and some of the poorest of the world's poor are feeling the consequences of the fossil fuel emissions by industrialized nations half a world away. There is little chance of, literally, turning back the tide. The implications are dire for many millions living here and for others in low-lying areas around the world.

Bangladesh tops the 2009 Global Climate Risk Index, a ranking of 170 countries most vulnerable to climate change compiled by Germanwatch, an international nongovernmental organization that works on environment and development issues. The nation is particularly at risk because it is a vast delta plain with 230 rivers, many of which unstably swell during the monsoon rains. This geology, combined with river water from the melting Himalayan glaciers in the north and an encroaching Bay of Bengal in the south, makes the region prone to severe flooding. The situation is made worse by the prevalence of intense storms, a marker of climate stresses. Sidr, the Category 4 cyclone that ravaged southern Bangladesh in November 2007, killed some 3,500 people, displaced 2 million, and wiped out paddy fields. Sidr was followed by two heavier-than-normal floods that killed some 1,500 people and damaged about 2 million tons of food. The United Nations warns that a quarter of Bangladesh's coastline could be inundated if the sea rises 3 feet in the next 50 years, displacing 30 million Bangladeshis from their homes and farms. If that happens, the capital, Dhaka, now at the center of the country, would have its own sea promenade.

But beyond the existential peril, an immediate threat comes from soil salinity that jeopardizes food output in Bangladesh, a country where 40 percent of its 150 million people live below the poverty line. In the past few years, because of rising soil salinity, Jehangir has begun noticing a white film of salt that envelops his paddy farm. "These white particles severely impede rice productivity," he complains, darting his finger at a patch of mud covered in traces of white. Paddy husks take on an abnormal red coloration before drying and wilting away, he says. "The poor quality rice doesn't sell much. It's becoming increasingly difficult to feed my family." To boost his declining income, he may follow the example of many of his neighbors, who switched to home-based shrimp farming, monetizing the salty water awash over Khajura's fields. In an occupational shift, shrimp farming is becoming more popular than cultivation. But this has come with its own share of problems. Because it is less labor-intensive, shrimp farming has contributed to unemployment, compelling some residents to migrate to cities.

Recognizing the plight of farmers, the Bangladesh Rice Research Institute has increased research efforts on salinity issues. "This is a growing problem in Bangladesh," says Mohammed Firoze Shah Sikder, BRRI's executive director. "This is severely affecting crop production." A 2007 report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change estimates that the production of staple foods could drop steeply by 2050 because of soil salinity. This would be devastating in a country where agriculture is the key economic driver. This sector accounts for about 22 percent of the nation's economic output, with an additional 33 percent derived from the rural nonfarm economy, which is also linked to agriculture, according to the World Bank. Around 65 percent of the population is employed in agriculture.