Bangladesh keeps its own head above water

Rob Bruce
November 10, 2016

When 500,000 Bangladeshis fled to huge concrete shelters to escape Cyclone Roanu in May this year, it was hardly reported by the global media. And although these shelters and warning systems have cut the death rate from super cyclones by 99%, few outside the region are aware of this amazing progress (primarily because the shelters were designed and built by Bangladeshis themselves, and also because few people died...thankfully!).

Bangladeshis recognised long ago that climate change would cause stronger and more destructive cyclones, so they acted quickly to prevent their own country from drowning. The interesting account of a nation's self determination and innovation to deal with natural chaos is told in a new book - Bangladesh Confronts Climate Change: Keeping Our Heads Above Water - written by Manoj Roy, Joseph Hanlon and David Hulme.

More than three decades ago Bangladeshi scientists recognised that global warming would produce more destructive cyclones, heavier rain, and more serious floods. When you combine that with a rising sea level in a region where one-tenth of the land is less than 2 metres above sea level, local scientists had no option but to find innovative ways of dealing with this perfect storm. 

First, they prioritised international climate change talks, sending skilled teams that mixed the best government and non-governmental experts. Bangladeshis played a key role in the Paris climate summit last year in which industrialised countries agreed new cuts in greenhouse gases.

Second, they accelerated programmes to deal with environmental damage, which they knew would be made worse by climate change. For example, new rice varieties have made the country self-sufficient, but even newer strains will deal with higher heat and salt intrusion. And it is not just the agronomists and engineers. Local people realised that in a living delta with millions of tonnes of silt being deposited annually, it is possible to raise the land to match sea level rise.

Bangladesh Confronts Climate Change: Keeping Our Heads Above Water shows how Bangladeshis are committed to keeping their heads above water by being innovative and creative actors, not helpless victims just waiting for aid. It's available to buy from Anthem Press.