Vulnerability and Accountability – why is the UK helping Bangladesh adapt to climate change?
As Cyclone Aila recently swept through Bangladesh and the eastern state of West Bengal, killing more than 200 people and making at least 500,000 people homeless (BBC, 27 May 2009), the vulnerability of Bangladesh to the effects of climate change, can be clearly seen.
Of all the possible impacts of climate change, the indirect effect of a major eustatic rise in sea level (global inundation) perhaps gives the greatest cause for concern. Any such sea level rise is likely to have a disproportionately large effect on some of the world’s most vulnerable countries – notably Bangladesh. This case study examines some of the steps Bangladesh is taking – with some British financial assistance – to adapt to the challenge of climate change. The article also asks whether countries like Britain have a responsibility to do even more to help poorer nations with future adaptation measures.
Life at the front-line: bringing climate change aid to vulnerable Bangladesh
Do rich nations have an obligation to help poorer ones fight climate change?
AS/A2 essay tips
Britain is giving £75m ($133m) to Bangladesh to help it tackle the worst impacts of climate change. The money will be spent on special adaptation measures to protect houses, schools and farms against flooding - and also the introduction of more resilient crop strains.
Bangladesh is a country where poverty is widespread. 150 million people live there, with an average GDP per capita of just $1,300 and a very low Human Development Index score (the nation is ranked 140th). Bangladesh is also a terribly vulnerable country, with much of its land close to sea level on the Ganges delta.
The IPCC (Inter-Governmental Panel on Climate Change) has projected major eustatic changes in sea-level over the next 100 years if CO2(e) levels continue to climb towards the danger level of 550 parts per million (ppm). It has long been recognised that any sea level rise will have a disproportionately bigger effect on some countries than others. The worst effects will be felt by those that are:
coastal and low-lying (thus at greatest risk of flooding)
poor and highly-populated (thus lacking a capacity to cope).
According to this logic, Bangladesh – the world’s 7th most populous country and also one of its poorest - must be seen as highly vulnerable in relation to the effects of climate change.
Not only will a small rise in sea-level inundate large areas of Bangladesh, but it will also mean that high tides driven by tropical storms will be able to flood areas much further inland (the devastating impacts of Cyclone Nargis on Burma in 2008 showed just how far inland tides can penetrate, when low-pressure cyclones and driving winds elevate local sea levels).
The new measures announced by the UK are intended to lower vulnerability by raising resilience - something the Bangladesh government has already been concentrating its resources on (resilience is an ability to cope with change while continuing to function normally; it is a word that is increasingly coupled with risk and vulnerability as part of the analysis of flood hazard impacts).
According to BBC News (10 September 2008), examples of ways in which money will be spent to boost resilience include:
ensuring that schools can be built on raised stilts and platforms, meaning that flood waters (especially during hurricane and monsoon seasons) can pass safely beneath and not lead to long-term interrupted schooling. Safeguarding the education of its human resources is crucial, if the country is to be lifted out of poverty.
building multi-purpose cyclone shelters that could also act as clinics or schools.
raising the level of polders (sea defences) in the Bay of Bengal, and increasing the height of embankments that protect residential areas or lands where crops are grown
the introduction of seeds tolerant to salt or arsenic
Arsenic is a special problem in Bangladesh, where many regions are already using water from tube wells that is contaminated with arsenic, a legacy of previous rural development initiatives. Greater flooding would be certain to mobilise arsenic further.
BBC News (10 September 2008) reported a Bangladesh government spokesman saying: ‘Least Developed Countries (LDCs), including Bangladesh, need immediate international support to build their resilience to global warming and climate change.’
The UN already has established two funds - the Least Developed Countries and Special Climate Change funds - to raise money to help countries such as Bangladesh to adapt, but the amounts of money pledged have been small. According to the BBC, Oxfam believes that about $50 billion per year is needed to help other poor and vulnerable nations ‘climate-proof’ their societies and economies.
Bangladesh’s arsenic problem
Geographers at Cambridge have recently been investigating the widespread problem of arsenic-polluted water supplies. Occurring naturally in groundwater due to geological factors, over two hundred instances of arsenic contamination of groundwater due to natural causes have been recognised from 60 countries in five continents.
Bangladesh is a country where the problem is especially concerning. The full extent of arsenic-safe deep aquifers and their recharge mechanism across Bangladesh remains unclear and available water quality data are of poor quality. As such, there is great uncertainty over what the effects of increased coastal flooding would be in terms of the mobilisation of arsenic compounds – but clearly a shift towards arsenic-resistant crops, as the BBC has reported, seems entirely sensible.
Read an article on the causes of arsenic contamination in Bangladesh by Richard Wilson
The Financial Times (15 September 2008) published a special report looking at the fundamental disagreements emerging between the developed and developing world about where the responsibility for tackling climate change lies. Should the world’s richest nations take a greater share of the blame – and try harder to introduce mitigation measures that will help everyone?
The collapse of the Doha trade round in the summer of 2008 showed an emerging rift between the rich world and the rapidly emerging economies (and LDCs) in climate change discourse.
Many people are used to thinking that the most important division in climate change negotiations has been between the US and the rest of the world, thanks to US refusals to ratify the Kyoto climate change agreement. However, the US finally seems to be taking steps towards agreeing to targets for CO2 reduction. The new worry instead is what is happening (or not happening!) in India, Brazil, South Africa, Mexico and China – amongst others.
The Financial Times (15 September 2008) reported that the five countries referred to above ‘recently drafted a statement that called for rich countries to take on a much more onerous goal of cutting emissions by between 80 and 95 per cent by the middle of the century, compared with 1990 levels. This would allow developing countries, whose greenhouse gas output is rising rapidly, to continue to increase their emissions for longer, while still obeying scientific advice.’
Developing countries want to see the rich world make bigger contributions to emissions cuts. China and India keep pointing out to European and US politicians that Asia’s emissions are still far lower than the rich world when measured in per capita terms. They argue that the countries that industrialised first should accept greater responsibility for the current high CO2 level of 387 ppm (significantly higher than the imagined ‘natural’ value of around 280 ppm).
The President of Brazil speaks his mind about climate change
“The poorest and most vulnerable countries – which contribute the least to these phenomena – are, and will continue to be, the hardest hit. Climate change is, therefore, a complex problem that requires global action, taken urgently and in a spirit of solidarity.
“We know that the proportion of global emissions coming from developing countries will increase in the future as a result of development itself. However, in the name of equity in global action, it is the rich countries that must take the lead. After all, global warming is the result of a historic accumulation of emissions, generated by the countries that were first to industrialise.
“Scientific studies demonstrate that the average increase in global temperatures since the pre-industrial age is predominantly the result of emissions caused by decades of industrial activity. At the same time, developed countries have the biggest concentration of financial and technological resources needed for the mitigation of climate change.
“The developed nations need to be more ambitious in their efforts. But this is not the message that we are hearing. Considering the mitigation targets established by the Kyoto Protocol, we face a worrying situation. Many countries have followed patterns of emissions that are incompatible with the commitments they have assumed.”
Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (President of Brazil), quoted by the Financial Times (15 September 2008)
According to the President of Brazil, ‘it is the rich countries that must take the lead in the fight against climate change’. To what extent do you agree with his statement?
This is a question that can be answered in a number of very different ways.
Firstly, there is an obvious common-sense argument – which is that the very poorest countries may not have any money to help (some discussion of GDP figures for the world’s LDCs might impress someone reading your essay).
A second argument might be that some poorer countries have an awful lot to lose to lose, meaning there is a moral imperative to help them. Nations like Bangladesh are very exposed to the worst effects of sea-level rises as well as possible increases in the meteorological hazard of cyclones. Alternatively, think about possible impacts of a warmer world on already arid regions of Africa like Ethiopia and Sudan.
A third, and slightly more complicated argument, is the one that you have read in this case study which hinges upon having a long-view of world economic development. The early industrialisers like the UK have been polluting for centuries; while the emerging BRICs are only just beginning to fully develop their economies, improve water and heating for all of their citizens – should they be expected to make economic sacrifices before they have reached the same standard of living found in Europe?
To gain a high-level mark in this essay, you could try and write a structured account that deals in turn with each of these arguments and uses supporting details, facts and concepts taken from the case study.
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