When it comes to climate change vulnerability, it sometimes seems as if all eyes are on Bangladesh. New Security Beat’s Jacob Glass has interviewed Saleemul Huq, senior fellow at the International Institute for Environment and Development in London, former executive director of the Bangladesh Center for Advanced Studies, and lead author of two chapters on adaptation and sustainable development in the IPCC’s third and fourth assessment reports.
What have been the observable effects of climate change in Bangladesh?
Bangladesh has a lot of problems with salinity intrusion in the coastal areas. It has drought in the northwestern part of the country; it has floods in the central part; it suffers from cyclones; and is a rapidly urbanizing country. It’s difficult to say these are definitely happening because of climate change, but one can say that they will be exacerbated by climate change. It is early days yet, and most of the climatic impacts are in the future, rather than at the moment.
Bangladesh is one of the most densely populated countries in the world and yet relies heavily on subsistence agriculture.
How has food production kept up with the growing population thus far?
There have been a lot of modifications made to the rice varieties to make them more resistant and able to be used more effectively following floods, droughts, or salinity changes. Our research scientists have also developed short-duration rice strains so that if farms are flooded, they can be replanted and still produce a crop.
Do you think food diversification makes Bangladesh more resilient to environmental changes?
Absolutely. The basic strategy on food has to be diversification. Agricultural diversification is one strategy for becoming more resilient, so you don’t put all your eggs in one basket with one simple crop. A transition from a dependence on rice to more fish is needed. Fish is an important source of protein and commercial employment for people, and that is growing very, very fast.
How does aquaculture factor into Bangladesh’s production of food? What is the nature of the growing aquaculture sector?
From a nutritional aspect, fish has become a significant source of protein for the diet of almost all Bangladeshis.
First, there is the coastal belt where shrimp farming is occurring. This generally tends to be large-scale, commercial production for export. The growing of shrimp in saline conditions has become an adaptation to the condition of salinity in those areas, and has become a significant export market for the country. It has generated export earnings and employment.
The second success story is just simple freshwater aquaculture in ponds, mostly on homesteads. These are mostly small-scale operations, where people have acquired knowledge and technology for getting fingerlings [baby fish], growing fingerlings, and then selling them in the market. This has grown very fast.
What are some of the negative aspects related to the expansion of coastal belt, commercial-scale shrimp farms?
The main negative aspect is that in order to grow shrimp, they actually have to allow saltwater to come in. So it comes inside the shrimp farm, but it also affects the surrounding areas, and the surrounding vegetation dies.
Socially, what also happens is that the owners of these large farmers tend to be rich people coming from the city. They are not local people. They employ a few people to guard their land and bring the guards in from outside. So they don’t actually generate employment locally, and the local people’s land becomes saline and it becomes difficult for them to live and survive there. There has been quite a lot of social unrest between people who used to live in these areas and the owners of the shrimp farms.
What are some of your hopes and fears, looking ahead to Bangladesh’s environmental challenges in the years ahead?
The fear is that climate change will exacerbate already existing risks for food shortages, damage crops, and increase rural to urban migration. These are trends that are already happening and are likely to be adversely affected by climate change
The other side of that coin is more hopeful. As a country, Bangladesh is very aware of this problem. From the government, down to civil society, to our researchers, we are now taking steps to deal with it. We are not sitting idle. We are fighting. We are coming up with solutions. Bangladeshis in general are a very, very resilient people, so my hope and faith lies in that resilience and our ability to overcome adversity.
That is the story here – the resilience, not the vulnerability. Bangladeshis are vulnerable, but they are also extremely resilient, and that resilience is what will help us tackle these adverse conditions that climate change is bringing to us and overcome them in the long run.
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