By Fairuz Ahmed
NEW YORK, Feb 17 2020 (IPS) - For any riverine country, the state of the water body around big cities and conditions of major rivers hold a leadership position in the overall climate effects and how the water body is protected and preserved impacts the entire economy and living standards of that country. Bangladesh is renowned for the geomorphic features that include massive rivers flowing throughout the country. Within the border of Bangladesh lie the bottom reaches of the Himalayan Range water sources that flow into the Bay of Bengal totaling the number of rivers by a count of 700. The length of river bodies is about 24,140 km. There are predominantly four major river systems: the Brahmaputra-Jamuna, the Ganges-Padma, the Surma-Meghna, and the Chittagong Region river system. The Brahmaputra is the 22nd longest (2,850 km) and the Ganges is the 30th longest (2,510 km) river in the world. The river system works as a backbone for agriculture, communication, drinking water source, energy source, fishing and as the principal arteries of commercial transportation in Bangladesh. During the annual monsoon period between June and October, the rivers flow about 140,000 cubic meters per second and during the dry period, the numbers come down to 7000 cubic meters per second.
As water is vital to agriculture, more than 60 percent of the net arable land, some 9.1 million hectares, is cultivated during the monsoon. Besides having the massive river bodies Bangladesh is also home to nearly 165 million people and is the 8th most populated country with a land area spanning 147,570 square kilometers (56,980 square miles), making it one of the most densely-populated countries in the world. The country’s flat topography, dense population, and weak infrastructure make it uniquely vulnerable to the powerful and unpredictable forces that climate change compounds. The threat is felt from the flood and drought-prone lowlands in the country’s north, to its storm-ravaged coastline along the Bay of Bengal. Along with 6 million climate refugees, around 12 million of the 19.4 million children most affected by climate change, live in and around the powerful river systems which flow through Bangladesh and are regularly affected greatly by river erosion. Coastal residents in Bangladesh are losing their homes and farmland at an astonishing rate due to riverbank erosion, which affects roughly 1 million people and displaces 50,000 to 200,000 every year.
Over 14.8% of the population here live below the poverty line, 3.25% of the rural population lack access to water and almost 53.14% of rural population lack sanitation. Lack of access to safe water and improved sanitation facilities in rural areas, overcrowded conditions, and a lack of healthy ways of disposing of waste in urban centers, all contribute to the water and sanitation crisis in Bangladesh. Although 97% of the total population has access to water, the quality of water is questionable. Groundwater is also not as safe as the threat of arsenic contamination is very high all over the country.
Land degradation, dwindling wetlands, ever-increasing pressure on forest areas, air pollution and climate change has become a major focus for the survival of Bangladesh. In spite of these challenges, Bangladesh has become one of the world’s five fastest-growing economies, averaging more than 6% annual growth over the last decade. The country is moving on a development pathway to becoming a middle-income country and dreams to go beyond.
A Pentagon commissioned US military report on climate, points to Bangladesh being the most vulnerable country when it comes to the escalating effects of climate change. As one of the least developed countries in the world, Bangladesh is making one of the smallest contributions to global emissions. (10) Yet, being one of the most densely populated nations on the planet, the huge population os Bangladesh is paying some of the highest prices for intensifying weather patterns.
The Bangladesh government accepted climate change a decade back and has become one of the most proactive governments in the world in dealing with it. They are working on building resilience and adaptation strategies to better cope with the pressing situation. In 2009, the government of Bangladesh brought local experts together and the Bangladesh Climate Change Strategy and Action Plan were created as a result. Over the last ten years, the minister of finance has been putting $100 million into promoting these actions and the research to tackle climate change. Dr. Saleemul Huq, a Bangladeshi scientist, director of International Centre for Climate Change and Development (ICCCAD) who has been named among the: World’s 100 Most Influential People in Climate Policy for 2019 has remarked that: “In our formulation of the narrative of Bangladesh, we used to be the most vulnerable country in the world. We still are. But, we are on our way to becoming the most resilient country. We are actively going up the learning curve on how to deal with the problem very fast.”
On a visit to Bangladesh in July 2019, the former United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon commented that: “Bangladesh is the best teacher in climate change adaptation. We are here to learn from Bangladesh’s experiences and vision when it comes to adaptation, our best teachers are opened doors who are on the front lines of climate change,” He also said that if the sea level rises just by one meter, almost 17% of the country would be underwater by 2050 and while the rest of the world debate climate change, for Bangladesh adapting to a warmer, more violent, less predictable climate is a matter of absolute survival.
The Government has amped up the efforts of fighting climate change and environmental pollution and undertaken a number of initiatives such as Green Growth Strategy, Bangladesh Environment Conservation Act and the Bangladesh Climate Change Strategy and Action Plan. Rigorous monitoring and enforcement activities are in place to curb environmental pollution by compelling industries to set up and maintain the Effluent Treatment Plant. Much emphasis is also given on the conservation of biological diversity through the implementation of a Coastal and Wetlands Biodiversity Management Project.
Bangladesh is among the few countries that have a separate court on the environment. So if a river is polluted or encroached upon, those affected by it are able to go to court seeking remedial measures. The Government has also intensified drives in the capital city of Dhaka and elsewhere to evict river grabbers. The High Court has declared rivers as a “legal entity” and this is aiding in freeing rivers from enrichment and in combatting pollution. According to an article published in The Daily Star, multiple laws are there in place for river conservation. If the High Court’s judgment per case by case is carried out along with police involvement and empowerment paired with the vigorous implementation of the laws by the custodians, the rivers can be conserved and be protected from grabbers.
Both the government and the people of Bangladesh are recognizing the climate change issue, and are actively trying to tackle it because the problem is large and complex. The government of Bangladesh is open to adaptation and are revising their plans to tackle the situation even better for the future. With community efforts, general awareness of climate change and its effects, proper implementation of laws, along with Government monitoring, intervention and maintaining the acceptable water quality of rivers and the overall water body of Bangladesh can be hoped to be reversed gradually.