Bangladesh faces mass displacement from sea level rise

A few weeks ago, we reported on the existential crisis facing many Island nations South Pacific such as Kiribati, Tuvalu, and Vanuatu. While those Islands are indeed at risk of being completely lost to the sea, their populations are generally quite small, usually home to a few hundred thousand people or fewer. In terms of raw numbers of people affected, there is a much more serious threat present along the Ganges delta in Bangladesh, which is home to more than 125 million people. Even a few feet of sea level rise could cause mass displacement, property damage, and even death.

Sundarbans

The Ganges Delta fills most of the Bangladeshi nation. Sea level rise here would be catastrophic.

Some in Bangladesh are already facing the kinds of dangerous weather conditions usually predicted as our “year 2100” scenario: frequent and more violent cyclones that can rip through a village in mere hours, more frequent flooding, which brings with the standing water a host of waterborne diseases and parasites. Some Bangladeshis have been left so destitute from these constant upheavals that they are forced to sell their own children into bonded servitude, where at least they know the children will be fed.

The Ganges Delta fills most of the Bangladeshi landscape, its fertile banks provide suitable land for the nation’s farmers. However, this suitable land means that about two thirds of Bangladesh’s population lives very close to the banks of the Delta. Sea level rise of just a few feet is could displace more than 18 million people by the year 2054 (which is the population of Kiribati 180 times over).

More than half of Bangladesh is lower than 10 meters in elevation. Courtesy of the Center for International Earth Science Information Network, Columbia University.

More than half of Bangladesh is lower than 10 meters in elevation. Courtesy of the Center for International Earth Science Information Network, Columbia University.

The threat to Bangladesh is far more severe in the context of recent studies. A study out of Oregon State University released a few weeks ago told us that even 2 degrees of warming could cause up to 18 feet of Sea level rise. We reported on that in the context of South Florida being underwater, but Bangladesh could face an even more pressing crisis. More than half of their country is classified as low-elevation (below 10 meters). including the incredibly densely packed capital city of Dhaka, home to more than 14 million people.

With the majority of the developed world’s leaders agreed that 2 degrees Celsius is an acceptable threshold to shoot for in setting emissions goals (even the COP21 conference in Paris aims to keep warming to no more than 2 degrees Celsius), it does not seem that relief will come for the millions of Bangladeshis living in the shadow of being uprooted and forced to move inland. However, the effects of such a large displacement of “climate refugees” will ripple throughout South Asia and the World.

Climate change is increasingly presented as a problem for “future generations”, for the year 2100, for “our grandkids”. For Bangladeshis, climate change was a problem yesterday, is one today, and will be one tomorrow.