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02/11/2013

Q&A: Raveena Aulakh on Bangladesh's climate change

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Two major cyclones, Sidr and Aila, within 18 months, have wrecked havoc on Bangladesh's coastal area. An island off the Bay of Bengal. Elders say they see the coastline changing slowly and subtly. (Raveena Aulakh/Toronto Star)

“Climate change has wrecked everything,” Shamisur Gazi, 86.

Rising sea levels could flood 17 per cent of Bangladesh and create between 20 million and 30 million refugees, experts say.  The Star's environment reporter Raveena Aulakh recently travelled to the country to look at how climate change is affecting one of the world’s most densely populated countries and its people.
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Q: In the piece, you write "Bangladeshis, like others in developing countries, are least responsible for climate change but among the worst affected by it."  Do you believe that Bangladeshis feel they have no control over how this will play out?


A: This tiny country is not going down without a fight. The government is allocating money for cyclone shelters and to devise storm early-warning systems. Its scientists have developed salt and drought-resistant rice strains. Its farmers are constructing houses on plinths to withstand floods; tanks to harvest salt-free rainwater. Others are fattening crabs and growing chillies to make up for the lost rice crops.


Bangladesh is contributing a fraction of the global greenhouse gas emissions but it’s trying to bring that further down, too. It’s a testament to the country’s commitment to fight climate change.


Q: Do you feel North Americans and Europeans truly grasp the severity of this problem and how climate change in Bangladesh will affect their own lives in North America and Europe?


A: Not really. Because it’s happening far away on different continents, it’s hard for people in the western world to understand the implications or what it could mean for them. Food prices will shoot up as large swathes of land are rendered useless because of climate change. That will cause conflict but migration will likely be the biggest reason: experts have said repeatedly climate change refugees could lead to the next big conflict in the world as they search for food, water and safety. Where will those people go? How will countries in Europe and North America keep that many people out?


Q: How would you describe rural Bangladeshis? Are they a resilient people?


A: They are. As I wrote in the story, cyclones and severe storms are not uncommon to Bangladesh. Most of the land is barely above sea level so storms sweep across the country without obstacles and tidal surges batter the coast. People lose everything. In the past, Bangladeshis in the coastal area would have built new huts, bought more livestock, stockpiled food and carried on with their lives. It’s harder for them now because they know things are changing and will likely never be the same again.
 

Q: What will happen to Bangladesh in the future?


A: It is hard to say. Climate change signs are all there: sea-levels are rising, cyclones are more frequent, monsoons not as potent. And people are already leaving the coastal areas. Bangladesh will not disappear like the Maldives will in 100 years or so but the country will have to take extraordinary steps to adapt to what definitely will be a new way of life.

Q: People from rural communities are heading to the capital, Dhaka, for work. How would you describe Dhaka?


A:Dhaka is a sea of people, a cacophony of noise. There are water bodies everywhere — ponds, streams and the city sits on the banks of Buriganga river. Traffic, at best, is chaotic. Cars, buses, trucks and rickshaws wrestle for space on the streets every hour of the day. Most streets are encroached by vendors selling vegetables, fruits or peanuts as they spill on to the roads.


There is construction where you look: bridges are being built, shiny towers are going up, homes are being constructed. Even as construction carries on, slums continue to proliferate. At least 40 per cent of the 17 million population of the country lives in little hovels in slums.


But for all the poverty, Bangladeshis still welcome people into their homes.

Raveena Aulakh is the Toronto Star's environment reports. She is intrigued by climate change and its impact, now and long-term. Her last World Weekly feature looked at Follow her on Twitter @raveenaaulakh


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