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.
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."