Bangladesh is set to disappear under the waves by the end of the century - A special report by Johann HariThe Independent, Friday, 20 June 2008
Bangladesh, the most crowded nation on earth, is set to disappear under the waves by the end of this century – and we will be to blame. Johann Hari took a journey to see for himself how western profligacy and indifference have sealed the fate of 150 million people went to see for himself the spreading misery and destruction as the ocean reclaims the land on which so many millions depend
This spring, I took a month-long road trip across a country that we – you, me and everyone we know – are killing. One day, not long into my journey, I travelled over tiny ridges and groaning bridges on the back of a motorbike to reach the remote village of Munshigonj. The surviving villagers – gaunt, creased people – were sitting by a stagnant pond. They told me, slowly, what we have done to them.
Ten years ago, the village began to die. First, many of the trees turned a strange brownish-yellow colour and rotted. Then the rice paddies stopped growing and festered in the water. Then the fish floated to the surface of the rivers, gasping. Then many of the animals began to die. Then many of the children began to die.
The waters flowing through Munshigonj – which had once been sweet and clear and teeming with life – had turned salty and dead.
Arita Rani, a 25-year-old, sat looking at the salt water, swaddled in a blue sari and her grief. "We couldn't drink the water from the river, because it was suddenly full of salt and made us sick," she said. "So I had to give my children water from this pond. I knew it was a bad idea. People wash in this pond. It's dirty. So we all got dysentery." She keeps staring at its surface. "I have had it for 10 years now. You feel weak all the time, and you have terrible stomach pains. You need to run to the toilet 10 times a day. My boy Shupria was seven and he had this for his whole life. He was so weak, and kept getting coughs and fevers. And then one morning..."
Her mother interrupted the trailing silence. "He died," she said. Now Arita's surviving three-year-old, Ashik, is sick, too. He is sprawled on his back on the floor. He keeps collapsing; his eyes are watery and distant. His distended stomach feels like a balloon pumped full of water. "Why did this happen?" Arita asked.
It is happening because of us. Every flight, every hamburger, every coal power plant, ends here, with this. Bangladesh is a flat, low-lying land made of silt, squeezed in between the melting mountains of the Himalayas and the rising seas of the Bay of Bengal. As the world warms, the sea is swelling – and wiping Bangladesh off the map.
Deep below the ground of Munshigonj and thousands of villages like it, salt water is swelling up. It is this process – called "saline inundation" – that killed their trees and their fields and contaminated their drinking water. Some farmers have shifted from growing rice to farming shrimp – but that employs less than a quarter of the people, and it makes them dependent on a fickle export market. The scientific evidence shows that unless we change now, this salt water will keep rising and rising, until everything here is ocean.
I decided to embark on this trip when, sitting in my air-conditioned flat in London, I noticed a strange and seemingly impossible detail in a scientific report. The International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) – whose predictions have consistently turned out to be underestimates – said that Bangladesh is on course to lose 17 per cent of its land and 30 per cent of its food production by 2050. For America, this would be equivalent to California and New York State drowning, and the entire mid-West turning salty and barren.
Surely this couldn't be right? How could more than 20 million Bangladeshis be turned into refugees so suddenly and so silently? I dug deeper, hoping it would be disproved – and found that many climatologists think the IPCC is way too optimistic about Bangladesh. I turned to Professor James Hansen, the director of NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies, whose climate calculations have proved to be more accurate than anybody else's. He believes the melting of the Greenland ice cap being picked up by his satellites today, now, suggests we are facing a 2.5-metre rise in sea levels this century – which would drown Bangladesh entirely. When I heard this, I knew I had to go, and see.
1. The edge of a cliff
The first thing that happens when you arrive in Dhaka is that you stop. And wait. And wait. And all you see around you are cars, and all you hear is screaming. Bangladesh's capital is in permanent shrieking gridlock, with miles of rickshaws and mobile heaps of rust. The traffic advances by inches and by howling. Each driver screams himself hoarse announcing – that was my lane! Stay there! Stop moving! Go back! Go forward! It is a good-natured shrieking: everybody knows that this is what you do in Dhaka. If you are lucky, you enter a slipstream of traffic that moves for a minute – until the jams back up and the screaming begins once more.
Around you, this megalopolis of 20 million people seems to be screaming itself conscious. People burn rubbish by the roadside, or loll in the rivers. Children with skin deformities that look like infected burns try to thrust maps or sweets into your hand. Rickshaw drivers with thighs of steel pedal furiously as whole families cling on and offer their own high-volume traffic commentary to the groaning driver, and the groaning city.
I wanted to wade through all this chaos to find Bangladesh's climate scientists, who are toiling in the crannies of the city to figure out what – if anything – can be saved.
Dr Atiq Rahman's office in downtown Dhaka is a nest of scientific reports and books that, at every question, he dives into to reel off figures. He is a tidy, grey-moustached man who speaks English very fast, as if he is running out of time.
"It is clear from all the data we are gathering here in Bangladesh that the IPCC predictions were much too conservative," he said. He should know: he is one of the IPCC's leading members, and the UN has given him an award for his unusually prescient predictions. His work is used as one of the standard textbooks across the world, including at Oxford and Harvard. "We are facing a catastrophe in this country. We are talking about an absolutely massive displacement of human beings."
He handed me shafts of scientific studies as he explained: "This is the ground zero of global warming." He listed the effects. The seas are rising, so land is being claimed from the outside. (The largest island in the country, Bhola, has lost half its land in the past decade.) The rivers are super-charged, becoming wider and wider, so land is being claimed from within. (Erosion is up by 40%.) Cyclones are becoming more intense and more violent (2007 was the worst year on record for intense hurricanes here). And salt water is rendering the land barren. (The rate of saline inundation has trebled in the past 20 years.) "There is no question," Dr Rahman said, "that this is being caused primarily by human action. This is way outside natural variation. If you really want people in the West to understand the effect they are having here, it's simple. From now on, we need to have a system where for every 10,000 tons of carbon you emit, you have to take a Bangladeshi family to live with you. It is your responsibility." In the past, he has called it "climatic genocide."
The worst-case scenario, Dr Rahman said, is if one of the world's land-based ice-sheets breaks up. "Then we lose 70 to 80 per cent of our land, including Dhaka. It's a different world, and we're not on it. The evidence from Jim Hansen shows this is becoming more likely – and it can happen quickly and irreversibly. My best understanding of the evidence is that this will probably happen towards the end of the lifetime of babies born today."
I walked out in the ceaseless churning noise of Dhaka. Everywhere I looked, people were building and making and living: my eyes skimmed up higher and higher and find more and more activity. A team of workers were building a house; behind and above them, children were sewing mattresses on a roof; behind and above them, more men were building taller buildings. This is the most cramped country on earth: 150 million people living in an area the size of Iowa. Could all this life really be continuing on the crumbling edge of a cliff?
2. 'It is like the Bay is angry'
I was hurtling through the darkness at 120 mph with my new driver, Shambrat. He was red-eyed from chewing pan, a leaf-stimulant that makes you buzz, and I could see nothing except the tiny pools of light cast by the car. They showed we were on narrow roads, darting between rice paddies and emptied shack-towns, in the midnight silence. I kept trying to put on my seatbelt, but every time Shambrat would cry, "You no need seatbelt! I good driver!" and burst into hysterical giggles . . .