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Bangladesh is highly susceptible to climate change. Floods, cyclones and droughts are likely to increase as the Earth warms. Poor farmers are already trying to adapt.
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Melting glaciers, droughts, rising sea-levels – these are just some of the environmental disruptions that are likely to worsen with climate change. But dangerous climate change is not just something that might happen in the future. The earth is already warmed by almost 1 degree Celsius since the dawn of the Industrial Age – the effects are already being felt now. Vulnerable communities are trying to adapt.
Bangladesh is more at risk from climate change than almost any other country. It’s prone to flooding, cyclones and drought. Climate change may already be exacerbating those things. Bangladesh sits at the bottom of a Delta plane were three main rivers converge. It’s straddled by the melting Himalayan glaciers in the north and the rising waters of the Bay of Bengal in the south. That makes it highly susceptible to flooding. In 2009, cyclone Aila tore through Bangladesh, uprooting trees, flattening homes and destroying crops. Along the southern coastal regions the storm left behind salty water in areas it had inundated. Fields that had once support agriculture were deemed useless.
To adapt to their newly saline environment, locals have had to change their source of food production. Through a project funded by the World Bank villagers have switched to raising crabs which thrive in saltwater. Villagers rear the crabs and sell them at a local market where they’re then resold by buyers who shipped them to Dakha.
Adding to this problem, in some areas farmers deliberately inundate their lands with salty water so they can farm shrimp rather than crops, which is more profitable but problematic for the environment. But the salinity creates another daunting problem – it pollutes local groundwater and makes it more difficult to access safe drinking water.
Climate change is worsening this effect. Cyclones are more common, river flow has diminished, and salty water from the Bay of Bengal has been reaching ever farther into the coastal lands travelling up rivers and polluting freshwater supplies that are used for drinking and irrigation.
NGOs working with the Community Climate Change Project has sought to address this problem. They’ve provided water tanks so locals can harvest rainwater and have helped fund a desalination plant that provides clean drinking water.
In the north of the country, local livelihoods have also been threatened by water. Many villagers are beholden to the rivers. When the rivers flood, the soil used for agriculture has disappeared. Not only have they lost their homes and their crops but also their means of survival.
In Ranpur, villagers have learned a new farming technique that works on sandbars or chars where all the soil has been eroded. Farmers dig out holes in the char fill them with compost and plant pumpkins. Pumpkins are preserved and can be sold during the rainy season providing income throughout the year.
Adaptation projects such as the ones being carried out in Bangladesh have had a huge impact on those involved but Bangladesh is not the only place where the effects of climate change are already being felt and adapted to. Rotterdam is building floating pavilions to pilot a city that rises with its sea levels. London will improve the Thames Barrier so it can better protect the city from floods. A decade ago adaptation was almost taboo in international discussions about climate change because it was believed to distract attention from the vital task of stopping global warming altogether. Now those are recognized as important.
But can keep them in poor countries like Bangladesh adapt quickly enough? We don’t know yet. Richer countries are better able to withstand the potential shocks that climate change will bring. If change is slow enough, it gives people more time to act and increases the odds of success.
World leaders tend to talk about stopping climate change. It would help poor farmers enormously if it could only be slowed down.
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