Global warming may heat up conflicts, too
Surviving in a warmer world, Part 6: The worst effects of climate change may destabilize regions that were already shaky. The prime example: Bangladesh.
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"This is a very precarious piece of geography," says Adil Najam, one of the lead authors of the last two reports from the UN-sponsored Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. "What we are talking about is an intensification of this to levels taking it even more out of control."Skip to next paragraph
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Even now, many Bangladeshis cannot cope. Last month, Selim Hossain Howladar's home vanished, swept away by the 150-m.p.h. winds of cyclone Sidr. "I have seen so many cyclones in my lifetime, but I have never seen anything that could flatten entire villages like it has done this time," says Mr. Howladar, a fisherman from the village of coastal village of Sarankhola.
Where Howladar's house used to be is now just a clearing. The trawler he bought last year with a loan was torn to pieces by the storm. "I don't even have a fishing net," he says. "What can I do but move to the city?"
In the north of the country, the story is the same. Three years ago, 25 Hindu families lived in the border village of Itapota. Now only one remains. Floods have driven off the rest, who are looking for work across the border in India.
"When you have nothing left to lose, does it matter where you live?" asks Haripada, patriarch of the last remaining Hindu family in his village. "You live where you think you might find work and earn some money."
Evidence suggests that current migration is mostly toward the capital, Dhaka, but people from border districts are increasingly going to India for seasonal employment.
"Bangladesh is so densely populated," says Ainun Nishat, head of the World Conservation Union office in Bangladesh, "as climate-change impacts cause food shortages and lack of employment, desperation will drive people far afield to seek out a means of survival."
The population shifts could exacerbate security issues beyond Bangladesh's borders.
For now, Bangladesh's Islamists are largely confined to a narrow band of remote hills in the extreme southeast. But if global warming creates more "dead land" – abandoned because it has been made infertile by sea-level rise, it could "create space for [terrorists] to operate," says Peter Ogden of the Center for American Progress, who cowrote a study titled "The Security Implications of Climate Change."
More stress for a stressed nation
That would be an unwelcome development for a country frequently under duress. In its 36 years of independence, Bangladesh has had 14 governments – four of which were replaced by military coups. The current government is again under military stewardship, with civilian leaders being rounded up on corruption charges.
"This is an added stress on a country that doesn't necessarily have the capacity" to deal with it, Mr. Ogden says.
More certainly any increase in migration will increase competition for land, water, and jobs. In India, the border district of Dhubri is already being pushed to its limits. Many of the environmental trends that stress Bangladesh are present here, too. For instance, Dhubri is losing huge swaths of land each year to the wandering course of the Brahmaputra River.
Like many in Bangladesh, Ramzan Ali has lost his livelihood because of it. He squats on an embankment of silt above what used to be his farmland. Today it is under water. Of the four acres he once had, he now has less than one, and that is fallow because of siltation. The family's only income comes from his son, who works in a mill in Dhubri town.
Squeezed by erosion and the arrival of Bangladeshi migrants, other families have had to move upriver permanently – where, ironically, they, too, are seen by the people there as Bangladeshis. According to recent voting records, 99 percent of the residents in the area nearest the Bangladeshi border are migrants.
"Our land is shrinking," says Abdul Hamid Sheikh, standing in a shallow skiff that ferries locals to the river island of Bhasani Char. "If this migration continues, it will affect us, too."
Experts expect the effects to intensify as global warming intensifies, with more Bangladeshis being forced into India.