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At the mercy of climate change

Earth News: Bangladesh

Climate Change Alert

It is more exposed than any other country to global warming. And a series of unusual events - from dying trees to freak weather - suggest its impact is already being felt. Justin Huggler reports from the Sundarbans nature reserve

Feb 19, 2007
The Sundarbans nature reserve in Bangladesh's south-west is one of the last untouched places on Earth. But the trees in the Sundarbans have suddenly started dying. And not just that: they have started DYING IN A WAY NOBODY HAS SEEN BEFORE, from the top down. Nobody is sure what the cause is, but the country's leading scientists think the trees are dying because, in recent years, the water has turned from fresh to salty. The Sundarbans is a massive mangrove swamp, and the sea has begun encroaching. What we are seeing may be one of the first casualties of rising sea levels caused by global warming. Farmers in coastal areas who used to grow rice have switched to farming prawns, after the water in their paddy fields got too salty. Then there were the deaths of thousands of fishermen off Bangladesh last summer. The Bay of Bengal was UNUSUALLY rough. Usually, the authorities only issue a storm warning to fishermen to stay at home once or twice a year. In 2006, four warnings were issued in the space of two months. Every warning meant the fishermen lost valuable days at sea. When the last warning came, they could not afford to stay ashore and went to sea anyway. The weather in Bangladesh is going crazy. Last week, a freak tornado struck. Tornadoes occur regularly in Bangladesh - but usually only in the tornado season, in April. A tornado in February is almost unheard of. Also, there were the strange events of 2004, when the tides in the estuaries of the Ganges, Brahmaputra and Meghna rivers stopped ebbing and flowing. The water level just stayed at high tide. The same year, the capital, Dhaka, was hit by floods so severe the ground floors of most buildings were under water, and a catfish was caught in one of the government buildings. And in 2005, the country had no winter at all. Winter never came - with serious effects on the year's potato crop. This year, too, it has not been as cold as usual. "The direction of the monsoon has changed in the last few years. The depression that brings the rain used to advance north across Bangladesh. Now it is heading west." That could have devastating implications in the event of a tropical cyclone. The rainfall is also increasingly erratic. Bangladesh is particularly vulnerable to climate change. The entire country is basically one vast river delta, and that has always left it at the mercy of weather extremes. And this is in the most densely populated country in the world. "People always come to Bangladesh to talk about rising sea levels. Have you considered that London is the same height above sea level as most of Bangladesh? You have the Thames barrier, and we have our dykes. By the time Bangladesh is flooded, you will have lost London."

From the News Archives
Fears rise for sinking Sundarbans
Sept 15, 2003
The sea is steadily eating into the Sundarbans, the world's largest delta and mangrove forest, threatening an ecological disaster for the Bengal basin region.
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