Kudos Again to National Geographic – Bangladesh as a Study in Climate Change

We both enjoy visiting exotic places. In the near future we hope to add to our travel resume . . . big time. Over the years we have learned that the term “exotic” is a relative one. If you are a Zimbabwean, having elephants for neighbors isn’t all that unique. But having the New York City subway system running under your apartment building might be. One place we don’t expect to add to our itinerary – especially after reading the current National Geographic magazine – is Bangladesh, one of the world’s most crowded, and poverty-ridden, countries.

            Bangladeshis’ lifestyles are pretty much at the whim of climate and sea changes. And it would be hard to convince a resident of Dhaka, its capital and largest city, that climate isn’t changing. So, although almost none of the climate change affecting Bangladesh is of its own making – Americans use something like 80 times the atmosphere-screwing energy, per capita, as Bangladeshis – they are intimately affected by the consequences of too many people; and too many relatively rich, fossil fuel-sucking individuals. 

            As part of its year-long series “Seven Billion,” about overpopulation, National Geographic reporter Don Belt offers a snapshot (and lots of fascinating pictures from photographer Jonas Bendiksen) in the May 2011 issue of the unique lifestyles that climate variations have induced in that country. Imagine a little more than half the population of the United States living in a country the size of Georgia, with  most of the population living in, and adjacent to, a huge river delta that is subject to rising and falling ocean levels. Now you’re getting a rough idea what Bangladesh’s geography and demographics are about. Those water levels change in accordance not only with tides, but cyclones, monsoons, and chronically rising sea levels.

            Within 40 years, Bangladesh’s population is likely to increase from its current 164 million to 220 million – the U.S. population in 1977.

            Now, stir this into the pot: a significant portion of its landmass is likely to be underwater by 2050. As global warming melts the Arctic ice cap, the seas, in this case, the Indian Ocean,  will likely rise a few feet. That, in turn, will flood out 10 to 30 million Bangladeshis, making them part of a quarter-billion climate refugees worldwide, many of whom, like those in Bangladesh, coming from poor, low-lying countries. Demographers are already calling this the largest mass migration in human history.

Bangladesh flooding. Photo courtesy Inhabitat.org

                        This will drive rural agricultural dwellers into the big, overcrowded cities. Dhaka is already one of the largest, most densely populated, and slum strewn cities in the world. The migration, according to Maj. Gen. Muniruzzaman of the Bangladesh Institute of Peace and Security Studies, “will overwhelm not just our limited land and resources, but our government, our institutions, and our borders.”

            Except for its southern shoreline, Bangladesh is almost totally surrounded by India’s long eastern arm. Flooding may motivate climate refugees to illegally cross the border into India. India is so fearful of such an influx, that it is building a barbed wire security fence along the 2,500 mile border. Sound familiar? India has already shot people attempting to cross the border illegally.

            For information sake alone, we strongly urge our readers to peruse the NG article about the totally unique weather-driven chronically migratory lifestyles of millions of poor Bangladeshis. The stories go too far afield for us to cover here. The descriptions and photos are downright fascinating and eye-opening. But here is one situation we cannot resist sharing. The mangrove forests of its southwestern coast are under increasing population and environmental pressures. This has forced the resident tiger population to look for easier prey. The coastal town of Munshiganj, whose farms have been invaded by periodic influxes of saltwater, is rebuilding once again. But its residents have suffered fatal attacks by the tigers which, like the town’s residents, have been victimized by fearsome weather events.

            So what does this have to do with us Americans? As Samir Ranjan Gayen, executive director of a Munshiganj non-governmental organization says, “You should take a picture of this place and show it to people driving big cars in your country. Tell them it’s a preview of what south Florida will look like in 40 years.” In other words, if humans keep polluting the air with any variety of emissions that further global warming (and no one does that better than Americans), the seas will continue to rise and we will be screwing ourselves, especially those of us who live in low-lying coastal communities. And remember, many of America’s largest metropolitan areas lie on or near the seas.

            As the world’s middle classes increase, the demand for all kinds of goods rises as well, further contributing to the  deterioration of our ecosystem. There are quite simply too many people.  And there is an irony in Bangladesh that is, and will expand to, much more of the developing world. The government has greatly expanded education, knowing that educated people produce fewer children. As fertility rates have declined, health care has expanded. So while families are producing fewer kids, infant mortality has dropped by more than 50 percent since 1990. So in spite of smaller families, Bangladesh sees its population grow.

            The lesson here is: we are all residents of this planet. We share an interlinking ecosystem. And there are Enough of Us; in fact, too many.

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