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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Rice is the country's lifeblood. Rice purchases often constitute 30 to 40 percent of the total expenditures of an average Bangladeshi family, according to the International Rice Research Institute. Even a small increase in price can have a serious impact on the household food security of the poor. According to a study by IRRI, a 25 percent increase in the price of rice translates into a 7 to 10 percent drop in the real income of Bangladesh's poor.

New techniques. Experts say that to enhance production of rice and other food crops, Bangladesh needs to develop the ability to grow food in the tidal saline areas using so-called sweet-water harvesting. That practice sets aside in canals fresh river water to use during periods of increased salinity. BRRI is developing water management technology to capture fresh water during the monsoon season, when soil salinity is less prevalent, to be used for irrigating rice.

But with soil salinity spreading quickly, experts say the key to survival lies in developing "climate-resistant agriculture." BRRI is developing salt-tolerant strains of food crops, especially rice. For use during Bangladesh's wet season, when rice is grown under rain-fed conditions, BRRI has developed rice varieties that withstand low to moderate levels of salinity. For the dry season, when rice cultivation needs irrigation, BRRI has been able to breed only one salt-tolerant variety. Scientists from BRRI are also striving to breed Saltol—a gene on the rice chromosome that confers salinity tolerance at the seedling stage—into different varieties of rice.

Bangladeshi officials are appealing for more aid from fossil-fuel-burning industrialized countries, the largest emitters of greenhouse gases, to help Bangladesh adapt and avoid calamity, if that is possible."We're not a polluter, but we are a victim of climate change," Hasan Mahmud, Bangla-desh's minister for foreign affairs, told visiting Danish Climate and Energy Minister Connie Hedegaard in February. "We want compensation from the developed nations that are polluting the atmosphere through emission of greenhouse gas." She said the compensation issue will be raised at the 192-nation U.N. Climate Change Conference planned for Copenhagen in December.

Bangladesh has so far invested more than $10 billion to reduce vulnerability to natural disasters by building embankments and cyclone shelters. But it needs billions more to build similar infrastructure in the next 15 years to mitigate the threats, along with enhancing research on climate-resistant agriculture. Compounding the problem are predictions that the accelerated loss of Himalayan ice fields, which flow into rivers providing the main source of fresh water for Bangladesh, may lead to catastrophic drought in less than a generation. At a press conference in Dhaka in November, United Nations Secretary General Ban ki-Moon exhorted developed countries to not let the global financial crisis impede efforts to fight climate change. "The leaders of the developed countries should not neglect the issue of global warming," he said.

Jehangir, 62 and a father of six, like most subsistence farmers in Khajura, doesn't comprehend lofty concepts like carbon footprints or greenhouse effect. But he is perceptive to the environmental changes. His paddy yields are rapidly shrinking. The little he produces, being low quality, isn't worth much in the market. Twenty-six people died in Khajura when Sidr struck in 2007, four of them his relatives. The unforgiving floods that followed swallowed his house. Thrown by one environmental disaster after another, he ascribes his misfortune to God's retribution for his impiety. "Maybe we are cursed," he says.

Cursed they are, adds Tanjir Hossain, a livelihood security specialist with Action Aid, an international aid organization. "These poor people," he says, "have not created the greenhouse gases that bring them so much misfortune."

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