2016 has been a tough year. Brexit. Fidel Castro. Andrew Sachs. From the politically catastrophic to the downright depressing, as the year drew to a close there didn’t seem all that much to smile about.
One issue that springs to mind, however, is US President Trump’s supposed (and now evidently illusory) backtracking on climate change. After making a lot of noise (as he does) about how global warming is somehow fictional, the man seemed to come to some partial sense (an unprecedented event) on at least keeping an “open mind” on such matters, even to the point of apparently being willing to listen to experts on the issue.
We know how that’s turning out. Yet, bizarrely, this got me thinking about a piece of art. As peculiar as that seems (given that Trump and artistry seem about as likely a duo as Boris Yeltsin and sobriety) I recall some years ago hearing about a particular exhibit, water-born no less, that holds striking relevance to the issue of climate change and its ongoing severity.
Floating alongside the banks of Lake Carter, UK, the piece consisted of a bamboo frame hosting what appears at first to be a make-shift garden. A bedding of artificial grass. A picket fence, also. Red roses and a privet hedge. If all this seems a little surreal, closer inspection revealed the entire piece was arranged to represent the green and red flag of Bangladesh. And the entire purpose of this seemingly peculiar display is to convey a single message; Bangladesh is sinking.
Christine Dawson’s curious display possibly no longer exists. But the message retains vital relevance. Bangladesh IS sinking, and has remained a focal point for climate catastrophe for some time.
There’s a good reason why. As sea levels rise, the already low-lying landmass is doubly threatened, with the silt intensive soil proving ill-suited to withstanding saturation by the high salt yielding water. Much of Bangladesh is less than five or so metres above sea level, constituting one of the most vulnerable areas on the planet when it comes to potentially devastating environmental change.
This is further compounded by the salinisation of the soil as sea water permeates the landscape, in the process endangering vital sources of fresh water. In brief, we’re looking at as an escalating scenario where fresh water dependent aquatic life dies off and soil is rendered barren. No fish and no crops either.
Flooding is, it must be said, a natural course of events in this region. A large segment of the land involved is classified as a flood plain, with the monsoons being a regular occurrence for the locals since time immemorial. Yet this has been undeniably compounded by the as yet unchecked course of climate change. The desolation of previously fertile land is a case in point.
In 2014, five out of nineteen of Bangladesh’s coastal districts were experiencing serious problems, with half of the existing arable land found to have unacceptably high levels of salt. Attempts to compensate with hardier crops have thus far met with mixed results, something expected to be rendered fruitless altogether if existing trends continue. In some regions, total agricultural production is believed to have been cut in half.
Thus far the rate of despoliation is frankly alarming, with over six thousand additional hectors of soil being affected each year. This raises a natural concern, that being hunger. Out of a total population of over one hundred and fifty million, around a third of those are reputed to have trouble obtaining adequate food. Around forty one percent of Bangladeshi infants suffer from malnutrition. Whilst this is in part due to disconcertingly high rates of poverty, mounting food insecurity due to environmental factors is a growing concern. Simply put, salty soil, combined with poverty, does not make for a well fed population.
Water is Life.
Yet there are additional worries. As rivers become are inundated with salt, they become increasingly unusable as a means for obtaining drinkable water. In small doses a little extra salt may be bearable. You don’t need to be a doctor, however, to realise that high blood pressure from too much salt can lead to serious health problems. Indeed, a 2011 study carried out within the coastal zones of Bangladesh revealed that swathes of the population appeared to be suffering from dangerously high blood pressure, compounding or creating additional issues such as heart disease.
Pregnant women, also, were found to be at heightened risk. Medical facilities in coastal areas, specifically, have reputed to have reported a numerical increase in patients diagnosed with “pre-eclampsia”; itself a condition causing complications in pregnancy directly associated with raised blood pressure due to repeat consumption of fluids from compromised water sources.
Whilst the condition is treatable, worst case scenarios involve the onset of serious repercussions involving dangerous, in some instances fatal, seizures. Stunted intrauterine growth, premature birth and liver and blood problems are also all associated with increased salt consumption and pre-eclampsia, and, unsurprisingly, are notably present in coastal regions.
This isn’t a small scale phenomenon. Additional research undertaken last year found that some thirty five million people in Bangladesh were at risk from the salinisation of local water sources. This also (and perhaps unsurprisingly) intersects with wide scale economic privation, where impoverished communities, being without means of importing fresh water from elsewhere, remain reliant on local sources already affected by rising sea levels.
Indeed, poverty is more than evident here, with some 9.9 million individuals in the south west alone being officially classed as below the poverty line. Whereas this is seriously bad news in any context, when coupled with increased water salinisation it proves a redoubled malady, as those already without means are rendered unable to provide for themselves given the growing unsuitability of local water sources for use in agriculture.
This confirms earlier findings linked to climate change, specifically. As much as some might like to persist in their fantasies that climate change is somehow a “myth”, river salinity in the southern districts of Bangladesh has increased by forty eight percent from the mid-twentieth century onwards. Coupled with a corresponding rise in CO2 levels (and the undeniable fact that sea levels have simply risen) climate change deniers seem to have little room for manoeuvre. All the same, they persist.
There are a few other factors to consider, however. Given the situation along the coast, some appear to have attempted to escape the situation by fleeting further inland. The rural areas of the country have long suffered from a lack of development and employment opportunities, something that constitutes a natural “push” factor in causing migration to urban locales. What is quite specific in this instance, however, is just how climate change is playing a sizeable or even decisive role.
An extensive study from 2013 directed citied fresh water salinity as a prime cause behind the movement of persons from impoverished rural areas, coupled with river erosion, overt increases in sea level and the depletion of crops. In the latter case, this is causing a partial switch from farming to fishing, in the process contributing to additional problems as over fishing renders entire areas devoid of marine life. Whereas any of these occurrences would be calamitous in their own right, when combined they apply even greater pressure on areas long accustomed to both poverty and hardship.
Given that youth unemployment in Bangladesh is exceptionally high, immigration from rural areas into the cities may also be serving to compound an already unbearable burden. Jobs may be hard to come by, and the influx from outside the urban centres shows little sign of abating. As of 2014, it was estimated that around one and a half million of the five million slum dwellers in the capital, Dhaka, had moved there to escape conditions along the coast. Taking all of the above into account, the situation seems clear. Climate change is a reality. Bangladesh proves that.
Yet such things may be easy enough to ignore within the confines of the global north. After all, economically as well as environmentally we are often largely shielded from many of the events otherwise devastating lives elsewhere.
This cannot, however, allow us to forget the role our respective nations play in their contribution to degrading the global ecosystem. With the alarming exception of China, the “first world” easily contributes the lion’s share of harmful pollutants contributing to environmental destruction.
Given the wide scale presence of western capital across the globe, the role western business interests play in exacerbating the situation in areas far outside of their nation of origin is also worth scrutiny. It doesn’t take a genius to work out that foreign investment tends to be drawn to areas with “business friendly” governments endeavouring to cut through red tape on labour costs or environmental protection. The results are often a veritable nightmare for those caught in the middle.
Industrial agriculture and the incessant consumption of animal products has also been well documented for the catastrophic role it continues to play in the ongoing environmental crisis. Coupled with government intransigence (the erratic Trump administration being a case in point) it may be time to look beyond petitioning generally uncaring institutions for solutions.
At the risk of being accused of “radicalism” a more holistic, far-reaching method may be necessary, one that challenges our far reaching societal/political en-pass whilst proposing a more sustainable, indeed mutually respectful, approach to the planet and its myriad inhabitants. I personally view the theory and practice of social ecology to be one such potential solution. I’d encourage any and all to investigate further.
What is for certain, however, is that we can’t afford to equivocate. Last year an Arctic hunk of ice the size of my country of birth (UK) thawed out; a terrifying event that again serves to reinforce the calamity we are facing. Radical, even seemingly “utopian” measures may thus no longer seem so unworkable. Given the severity of the situation they may be just what we need.
Daniel Read is a UK-based journalist specialising in human rights and international affairs. He originally studied journalism at Kingston University, London, prior to obtaining post-graduate degrees in both human rights and global politics. He blogs at uncommonsense.me and tweets at @DanielTRead.