Today we’re flying over Bangladesh, a country home to two of the largest river deltas – the Gagnes and Brahmaprutra. Bangladesh has been in the news recently for violent protests against its autocratic leaders, as well as being the site of the Rohingya refugee crisis. However, today we’re looking at Bangladesh through the lens of the Envisat’s satellite. The above image was taken more than ten years ago by Envisat’s Medium Resolution Imaging Spectrometer (MERIS). In this image we can see Bangladesh’s delicate coast line, and the strong rivers cutting through the country.
Two-thirds of Bangladesh rises less than 5 meters above sea level. More than a quarter of Bangladesh’s 168-million people live along its coast; they are extremely vulnerable to the effects of sea level rise. Many have seen their homes and land wash away.
Sea level rise is one of the main consequences of climate change. As global temperatures increase, the heat affects the seas in two ways. First, glaciers and ice sheets melt adding more liquid water to the oceans. This is especially pertinent to Bangladesh, where ice from the Himalayas melts into the Bengal Sea. Second, as global temperature increase, sea water expands due to thermal expansion. More than 80% of the heat generated by global warming is trapped by the sea. If global warming continues at its current rate, sea levels will rise another 2.5 meters by the end of the century.
There are many consequences to rising sea levels. In Bangladesh, monsoon season has become more intense with a current average of 7 monsoons every season, where 1 used to be the norm. Flooding has become devastating; homes and land along the coast have been literally swept away by rising tides. Rising waters also affects farming; as salt water seeps into the soil, most crops die. This greatly impacts villages along the coast who grow their own rice and vegetables. Many Bangladeshis have moved to Dhaka, hoping to escape the rising water and make a new life.
Those that do find work and shelter in Dhaka consider themselves fortunate. The situation, and current global warming trends, are not getting better. Bangladesh, and its neighbors India and Myanmar, should be focused on relief efforts for current and future climate refugees. However, international and internal tensions keep Bangladesh in a worsening situation. For example, India controls the major dams along the rivers, the largest Dam is called the The Farakka Barrage. During the dry season, India holds the dams, keeping fresh water upstream causing droughts downstream in Bangladesh; however, during the monsoon season they open the dam causing major flooding events downstream.
The situation becomes even more frustrating when Bangladesh’s major defense against the climate crisis comes under threat. Bangladesh’s Sundarbans is the largest Mangrove Forest in the world, it’s the home an impressive amount of wildlife including the endangered Bengal Tiger. But the forest is not just valuable for its biodiversity, it’s Bangladesh’s primary defense against sea level rise. The Sundarbans act as a wall against high winds and waters, they protect the coastline from surges in the tides, and lessen the impacts of damaging storms and floods. However, they are not impenetrable. As sea levels continue to rise the Sundarbans could be at risk of being submerged. The region should be protected with the utmost care. However, the Bangladeshi and Indian government have begun projects to build electric coal power plants within the Sundarbans area, to support the countries need for energy and technological progress.
Whether to prioritize national development over ecological security is a problem unique to most non-Western countries who have found themselves on the frontlines of a climate crisis, without having caused it. It will take an unseen level of strength, unity, and care on behalf of the international community and the leaders of Bangladesh to ensure the livelihoods of the Bangladeshis, to protect its natural resources, as well as to ensure the country’s growth.