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Bitter Truth,Our vulnerability to climate change


Md. Asadullah Khan

The 17th Conference of the Parties (COP 17) to UNFCC does not offer much hope of striking an accord as the US and other industrialised countries are reluctant to come up with $100 billion Green Climate Fund because of lack of consensus on fund management as well as financial crisis in the industrialised world. Progress in the UN climate talks during the last one decade has been painfully slow, ending in a deadlock as short term economic interests rather than protecting our environment and people’s well being dominate decision making.

Despite the fact that greenhouse gases (GHG) pose serious harm to humans, it is true that without them the world would have been unable to sustain life as we know it. The problem is that humans are producing GHG by burning fossil fuels. The preponderance of scientific thought today sees the next 100 years as a time of traumatic environmental change. The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) projected a rise in average global temperature of about 1- 3.5 degrees Celsius by 2100, but there has been a rise of about 2 degrees Celsius since 1990.

The impact of warming on water and water bodies is severe. Rising sea level, the result of melting polar icecaps and water expansion, is the most widely expected consequence of a warming world. IPCC forecasts that the world’s oceans will rise anywhere from 15 to 95 cm by 2100. This may not sound like much, but it will be enough to rob a low lying nation like Bangladesh of over 20% of its arable land, other than turning 30 million coastal people into environmental refugees.

The worst has already started playing out. Seas have risen by 25 cm this century. More thermal expansion of sea water and glacier melting will push oceans up further. Seas rising by millimeters and lands warming by fractions of degrees might not sound too much but, in the giant thermometer that is the earth, it might be enough to change life forever. A half-metre sea rise, for instance, will be enough to wipe out India’s or Bangladesh’s coastal areas.

Because of such unusual melting, a huge amount of water along with silt and mud will flow through the rivers of Bangladesh, but as a consequence of heavy sediment deposit on the beds of the rivers they have lost the capacity to retain water in the monsoon season, resulting in heavy flooding of the plain land and affecting habitat, agriculture, livelihood and living of the people. With the river bed of Kobadek pushed up because of sediment deposit, vast areas of Jessore, Satkhira, and Khulna have now become a watery mass.

If temperature rise continues, soil will become drier. Rice and crop production could fall, which indicates an ominous future for a crop-deficit area like Bangladesh. Even at the low end of the scale mentioned above, rising waters would increase coastal erosion and heighten the damaging effects of hurricanes and coastal storms.

Bangladesh’s contribution to global warming in respect of carbon emission is only 0.3 tons per person per year, while America pumps 20 tons of climate-warming CO2 into the atmosphere, Canada 16.4 tons and Europe averages between 10 to 12 tons. Unhappily, our country continues to pay a heavy price in respect of lives and property loss for faults committed by others.

The other problem is that encroaching salt water can contaminate water supplies and fresh water ponds that coastal villages depend on. The rising ocean finds it easier to make its way inland as the level of coastal rivers and streams drops. The threat of contaminated water supplies is perhaps the most serious problem posed by the rising sea levels.

If the world warms up by even a few degrees, tropical diseases could follow. And if the world warms by 5 to 9 degrees, estimates IPCC, 60% of the population will live in malaria zone. Weeds and crop diseases will also thrive in a warmer world where fewer regions will experience harsh winters that keep pest populations in check.

Leaders and policy makers must try to understand how various ecosystems interact. Deforestation in mountains can worsen floods in grasslands or agricultural land below, as was the case in China, India and Bangladesh in 1998. Humans have hurt coastal/marine ecosystems by draining wetlands, trawling oceans for fish and destroying reefs and lagoons. We also damage ecosystems indirectly as rivers transport effluents and by-products of agriculture, industry, urban areas, logging and dams to the coast.

Burning of forests and unregulated timber harvesting have destroyed forests in all parts of the world, leaving no potential carbon sink in the developed regions. Ominous signs are everywhere. Initially spread over 6,000 sq.km, the Sundarbans, a beautiful mangrove forest, is now reduced to about 3600 sq.km. The magnificent forest, home to many wild species, and other tree covers in the country are fast disappearing because of human greed.

Home to two-thirds of all species, forests temper climate and capture and store water. The timber from the forests has been a useful tool for economic development, no doubt. But the way we are clearing forests spells disaster for the country. The fact is: forests store 40% of emitted carbon and can slow down the build-up of CO2 in the atmosphere. Unhappily, demographic pressure and increased urbanisation have shrunk acres of farmland at 1% a year. And the forest land that was originally estimated to be 2.2 million hectares covering only 15% has now shrunk to 8%, resulting in serious imbalance of the ecosystem.

One EPA model shows increased CO2 concentrations of 30% to 150% by 2100, contributing to further rise in global temperature by about 6.4 degree Centigrade during the 21st century. There has been an appreciable decrease in snow cover in the Northern Hemisphere and floating ice in the Arctic Ocean. Evidence suggests that sea levels have risen by 10 to 20 cm and precipitation over landfills has increased by 0.1% over the past one hundred years.

Continued rise in sea levels could have devastating effects on islands that lie only a few metres or less above sea level. The Maldives, for example, have a mean height of 1 m above sea level. Inevitably, the adverse effect of climate change in Bangladesh is grimmer. Research reports indicate that about 36,000 sq km in Bangladesh out of 1,47,570 sq. km face an uncertain and grim future. This means that sea levels will rise, obliterating Khulna, Barisal, parts of Noakhali and island districts of Chittagong.

If this trend continues, it will wreak havoc on our economy because of increased saline intrusion on our farmland affecting our agriculture. Consequently, the number of environmental refugees will increase, and one estimate by some international agencies suggests that these sorts of calamities might displace about 40 million people.

Much to our bewilderment, the Copenhagen climate change meet ended with no binding legal treaty. With no tangible positive signals coming from the discussions centering around the forthcoming Durban climate change meet with regard to limiting carbon emission and with no positive steps towards creating a Green Climate Fund of $100 billion per year for poor nations, especially the vulnerable countries, by 2012, global warming and consequent climatic upheaval will make life, living and agricultural activities horrendously difficult. Most ominously, the shortage of fresh water could signal a profound crisis for us.

On the home front, reports are rife about the lack of transparency in managing the climate fund that the government has instituted. The fund of Tk.14.6 billion instituted by the government in 2009 could hardly be used because of alleged corruption and nepotism in project selection.

The writer is a columnist of The Daily Star.

[The Daily Star, Saturday, November 26, 2011]

E-mail: aukhandk@gmail.com


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