Bangladesh's Rising Seas, Erosion Robs Climate Change Refugees of Everything, Again and Again

Pam Wright
Published: November 10, 2017

Men look out onto a river that was a farmer's field in the Kalashuna village in Gaibandha district of Bangladesh.
(Allison Joyce/Getty Images)

Low-lying Bangladesh is one of the most vulnerable countries in the world to climate change, and its coastal people face daily uncertainty as rising seas and erosion snatch away their land.

According to Deutsche Welle, some 26,000 families in Bangladesh lose their homes and way of life to climate-driven erosion every year.

Small islets, known as "chars," are particularly hard-hit, as are the more than 4 million people who live on them. Erosion from rising seas and storm surge continually changes the landscape, with islets becoming submerged every year and new ones forming, forcing thousands to flee to new chars as theirs disappear.

In recent years, between 50,000 and 200,000 people were forced to relocate because of river erosion, Scientific American reported.

Bangladeshi resident Ayesha Begum and her family are an example of what thousands experience in the country. Deutsche Welle reports that after having to flee her home on one of Bangladesh's chars, her family was uprooted and moved to another islet. She said they had nothing upon arrival.

"There were no roads, no drinking water and life was very difficult," she said.

In response to the ever-growing threat to its people, the government and NGOs are working to help families like Begum's. They have built roads and other infrastructure, provide education and small loans, as well as land ownership, Deutsche Welle reported.

"It was a relief to know we have our own land, our own house," said Begum.

Begum and her family's plight will become ever more common as sea levels rise in the coming decades.

A 2013 analysis by John Pethick, a former professor of coastal science at Newcastle University in England studying climate change in Bangladesh, found that high tides in Bangladesh were rising 10 times faster than the global average. He predicted that by 2100, sea levels there would rise by 13 feet. This does not bode well for the low-lying country, considering 25 percent of its land mass lies just 7 feet above sea level, while another 70 percent is only at 15 feet above sea level.

His analysis was received with skepticism by local government officials.

"The reaction among Bangladeshi government officials has been to tell me that I must be wrong," he told the New York Times in 2014. "That’s completely understandable, but it also means they have no hope of preparing themselves."

According to a NOAA report released in January, a worst-case scenario calls for a 10- to 12-foot rise in sea levels by 2100, below Pethick's projections but still daunting for the country.

While scientists continue to grapple with just how much the sea will rise, they agree it's going to rise. Even a mere 3-foot rise would submerge nearly 20 percent of the country, forcing more than 30 million people to flee, according to Scientific American. A 5- to 6-foot rise by 2100 would displace as many as 50 million people.

Adding to the tragedy is the country's lack of culpability in creating the problem. While it's not free of greenhouse gas emissions — no country is — Bangladesh is one of the lower producers of carbon emissions, the driving force behind global warming, producing 0.36 percent of the total CO2 released into the atmosphere globally, according to Scientific American.

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