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Where warming hits home

Salty drinking water may be just the beginning in Bangladesh, where rising oceans could displace millions by century's end.

February 21, 2007|Henry Chu | Times Staff Writer

Bhamia, Bangladesh — 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."

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