Where warming hits home

Times Staff Writer

GLOBAL warming has a taste in this village. It is the taste of salt.

Only a few years ago, water from the local pond was fresh and sweet on Samit Biswas’ tongue. It quenched his family’s thirst and cleansed their bodies.

But drinking a cupful now leaves a briny flavor in his mouth. Tiny white crystals sprout on Biswas’ skin after he bathes and in his clothes after his wife washes them.

The change, international scientists say, is the result of intensified flooding caused by shifting climate patterns. Warmer weather and rising oceans are sending seawater surging up Bangladesh’s rivers in greater volume and frequency, experts say, overflowing and seeping into the soil and water supply of thousands of people.

Their lives are being squeezed by distant lands they have seen only on television -- America, China and Russia at the top of the list -- whose carbon emissions are pushing temperatures and sea levels upward. This month, a long-awaited report by the United Nations said global warming fueled by human activity could lift temperatures by 8 degrees and the ocean’s surface by 23 inches by 2100.


Here in southwestern Bangladesh, the bleak future forecast by the report is already becoming reality, bringing misery along with it.

The heavier than usual floods have wiped out homes and paddy fields. They have increased the salinity of the water, which is contaminating wells, killing trees and slowly poisoning the mangrove jungle that forms a barrier against the Bay of Bengal.

If sea levels continue to rise at their present rate, by the time Biswas, 35, retires from his job as a teacher, the only home he has known will be swamped, overrun by the ocean with the force of an unstoppable army. That, in turn, will trigger another kind of flood: millions of displaced residents desperate for a place to live.

“It will be a disaster,” Biswas said.

Bangladesh, a densely crowded and painfully poor nation, contributes only a minuscule amount to the greenhouse gases slowly smothering the planet. But a combination of geography and demography puts it among the countries experts predict will be hit hardest as Earth heats up.

Nearly 150 million people, the equivalent of about half the U.S. population, live packed in an area the size of Iowa and about as flat. Home to where the mighty Brahmaputra, Ganges and Meghna rivers meet, most of Bangladesh is a vast delta of alluvial plains that are barely above sea level, making it prone to flooding from waterways swollen by rain, snowmelt from the Himalayas and increased infiltration of the ocean.

Global warming trends have already exacerbated that, and the situation will probably get worse, scientists say.

“A little increase in temperature, a little climate change, has a magnified impact here,” said A. Atiq Rahman, director of the Bangladesh Center for Advanced Studies -- the country’s leading environmental research group -- in Dhaka, the capital. “That’s what makes the population here so vulnerable.”

OTHER low-lying countries also are at risk, including the Netherlands and tiny islands in the South Pacific that could eventually be swallowed by the expanding oceans. But the population of these countries is only a fraction of that of Bangladesh.

If the sea here rises by a foot, which some researchers say could happen by 2040, the resulting damage would set back Bangladesh’s progress by 30 years, Rahman said. As much as 12% of the population would be made homeless.

A 3-foot rise by century’s end -- a possible scenario if the polar ice caps melt at a more rapid pace -- would wreak havoc in Bangladesh on an apocalyptic, Atlantis-like scale, according to scientific projections.

A quarter of the country would be submerged. Dhaka, now in the center of the nation, would sit within 60 miles of the coast, where boats would float above the underwater remnants of countless town squares, markets, houses and schools. As many as 30 million people would become refugees in their own land, many of them subsistence farmers with nothing left to subsist on.

“Tomorrow’s poverty will be far worse than today’s,” Rahman said.

For years, the government either denied or downplayed the danger posed by global warming. Bangladesh is hardly unique in that regard; many accuse the U.S. of doing the same. Rahman recalls overhearing officials ridicule him as a madman when he warned that Bangladesh risked being inundated.

But the weight of scientific opinion has grown, as has evidence that climate patterns are shifting and producing harmful effects in this region. Politicians who had previously dismissed global warming as a far-off problem are starting to see it as a clear and present danger.

“Part of it is sheer reality hitting you on the head -- there’s stronger floods, more frequent floods,” Rahman said. “Now the game is much clearer. The connection ... has been proven beyond a reasonable doubt.”

Three years ago, the government set up a climate-change unit in its Environment Ministry, but it employs only a handful of staff and depends largely on Britain for funding.

Lately officials have also begun appealing to wealthy, fossil-fuel-consuming nations such as Japan and the countries of the European Union to help Bangladesh prepare for a catastrophe it has few resources to combat.

“Lives in Bangladesh will be devastated through no fault of the people concerned,” Sabihuddin Ahmed, the ambassador to Britain and a former Environment Ministry official, wrote in the Guardian newspaper in September.

For people in the West, Ahmed said, the onslaught of global warming may seem decades away. In Bangladesh, “the future has arrived.”

Here in the coastal southwest, in an area called Munshiganj close to the Indian border and the famed Sundarbans mangrove forest, grizzled farmers describe the relentless encroachment of the sea.

Thirty years ago, an embankment built to hem in the tidal rivers around them was sufficient to protect villagers from major inundations. Now they estimate that the high-tide mark has climbed 10 feet, and breaches such as one that happened in September, which swamped hundreds of homes, have become depressingly common.

“The water came up to here,” said Iman Ali Gain, sweeping his hand up to his chest as scores of men behind him hauled baskets of gloppy gray soil to repair the dike. “We were afraid when we saw it.”

LIKE many, perhaps most, Munshiganj residents, Gain, 65, does not understand concepts such as carbon footprints, greenhouse gases, the ozone layer or melting ice caps. The vast majority of the people in this area are illiterate; only one in five has finished primary school.

But Gain knows how his life has changed over the last several years because of new environmental conditions. He once grew rice to support himself and his family, but his harvests started shrinking as the salinity of the water increased. To cope, he followed the example of many of his neighbors and switched to shrimp farming, a way to take advantage of the salty water washing over the fields.

For the first time in Munshiganj, shrimp farming occupies more of the cultivable land than do traditional crops.

Though the shift has enabled some villagers to survive, it has created other headaches. Because it is less labor-intensive, shrimp farming has boosted unemployment. Thousands of residents have migrated to other parts of Bangladesh or India in search of work.

Worse yet, deliberately trapping so much briny water to raise shrimp has increased the sodium concentration in the soil, which aggravates the salinity creeping into drinking-water supplies.

“From ancient times, our people used [local] ponds for drinking water. Now they need to go four to five kilometers to collect sweet water,” said Mohon Kumar Mondal, a local environmental activist who is trying to promote awareness of and adaptation to climate change.

The small pond here in the village of Bhamia draws women with their jars from surrounding villages that used to have their own, or closer, sources of drinking water. But Bhamia’s pond is becoming more saline, and the nearest abundant source of untainted fresh water is nearly fives miles away.

Residents report an increase in health problems such as diarrhea, skin diseases and dysentery. The salty water has also killed many of the palm and date trees that once lent a fecund beauty to the sunbaked landscape.

THOSE here who are strongly religious, a mix of Muslims and Hindus, have tended to ascribe the changes in climate and the natural disasters befalling them to God, Mondal said.

Perhaps it is punishment for their impiety, the people murmur; perhaps, with repentance and prayer, God will relent and spare them the heavier floods, the stronger cyclones and the hotter summers they are experiencing. And perhaps there will be more fresh water to slake their thirst.

A geographer with a master’s degree, Mondal, 31, knows humans are responsible for the problem that is making life more difficult here -- and threatens to make it impossible if the temperatures and the oceans keep rising.

And so it is to humans, especially those in developed societies, that he issues his plea.

“I request people, please understand the situation of the Earth. Please make your decisions according to the situation,” Mondal said. “And please think of poor people like us, who have not created greenhouse gases. Please think of our situation.”


Chu was recently on assignment in Bhamia.