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Bangladesh: Climate Change to Increase Hunger and Malnutrition

This post was commissioned as part of a Pulitzer Center/Global Voices Online series on Food Insecurity. These reports draw on multimedia reporting featured on the Pulitzer Gateway to Food Insecurity and bloggers discussing the issues worldwide.

As governments gear up for the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP17) in Durban, South Africa, which starts today, experts are warning that among climate change's greatest consequences in developing countries such as Bangladesh are risks to the agriculture sector, including an increased risk of hunger, malnutrition and food insecurity.

Hunger and malnutrition on the rise

A Bangladeshi farmer re-transplanting his field due to flooding. Image by Flickr user IRRI Images (CC BY 2.0).

A Bangladeshi farmer re-transplanting his field due to flooding. Image by Flickr user IRRI Images (CC BY 2.0).

Forecasts predict that climate change could reduce agricultural production and increase food prices, raising the risk of hunger and malnutrition. A World Food Programme report says that by 2050, climate change is expected to increase the number of hungry people by 10 to 20 percent, and the number of malnourished children is expected to increase by 24 million – 21 percent more than without the effect of climate change.

Most of the increase is expected in Sub-Saharan Africa and parts of South Asia and Central America, as detailed in these maps. Already, the report says, natural disasters are more frequent and intense, land and water are becoming more scarce and difficult to access and it is getting harder to achieve increases in agricultural productivity.

At least ten countries are highly vulnerable to a climate-related food crisis, an ActionAid report released last month showed. Among the five most vulnerable countries, alongside the Democratic Republic of Congo, Burundi, South Africa and Haiti, is Bangladesh. Composed largely of low-lying land and islands with a high density population, little arable land, and frequent natural disasters, Bangladesh has been described as the “'ground zero’ at the intersection of climate change and food security” by bloggers from the World Bank and Aid Data.

Mirza Galib, a lecturer at Bangladesh's Primeasia University, expands on the potential implications in The Daily Star:

Scientists tell us that the most profoundly damaging impact of climate change in Bangladesh will take form in floods, salinity intrusion and droughts, all of which will drastically affect crop productivity and food security. We will also face riverbank erosion, sea water level rise and lack of fresh water in the coastal zones. The prognosis is more extreme floods in a country already devastated by floods; less food for our country in which half our children already don't have enough to eat; and less clean water for where waterborne diseases are already responsible for 24 percent of all deaths.

Bangladesh has made progress in reducing hunger, with its number of undernourished people dropping to 27 percent as of January 2011, and its annual rice production tripling over three decades. But since agriculture is a key economic industry, making up nearly 20 percent of Bangladesh's gross domestic product (GDP) and 65 percent of the labor force according to a World Bank report, climate change threatens to erode these gains.

A blog post on Farming First elaborates:

Climate change is predicted to reduce rice production, Bangladesh’s main crop, and increase the country’s reliance on other crops and imported food grains. Crop production is potentially set to decline for at least one crop in each region…Overall, agricultural GDP in Bangladesh is projected to be 3.1 percent lower each year as a result of climate change.

Call for action

While the Bangladeshi government has some good adaptation plans in place, to further help combat climate change's impact on agriculture, the ActionAid report calls for efforts such as greater investment in small farms in poor countries, the immediate delivery of “climate cash” to help poor farmers climate-proof their agriculture, creating a system of pan-regional food reserves, and binding cuts in rich countries’ carbon emissions.

The World Food Programme report estimates that substantial international action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions could halve the increase of hunger from climate change.

ActionAid also wants to eliminate biofuel targets that are driving “land grabs” in developing countries. In a September roundtable session with bloggers, former United States President Bill Clinton said he also opposed countries such as China and Saudi Arabia buying and leasing land in developing countries, as this undermines long-term agricultural sustainability. Instead, he proposed a food sustainability model to improve food security and help developing countries build their own agricultural capacity. During the session he said:

The U.S. and Canada and Europe, because we have the capacity to produce big [food] surpluses, and Brazil and Argentina, the only places on Earth with 20 feet of topsoil…, we should offer longer-term contracts to the Chinese, the Saudis and others for basic grains at prices that will guarantee decent profits, but not exhorbant ones, and stop price spikes but keep prices high enough to get investment into agricultural activities in Africa, Latin America, Southeast Asia…Until you develop a sustainable agricultural framework in these countries, they not are going to benefit.

Shammunul Islam and M Mizanur Rahman, in a post for Bangladesh's New Age, also call for sustainable agriculture, since agriculture is a contributor to the greenhouse gas effect. Sahidul Haque, in an opinion piece for Bangladesh's The Financial Express, says more higher yielding seeds are also needed, as well as varieties that can grow in drought and saline conditions. Researcher Winston Yu, in a Q&A by Gudrun Freese on the blog earthscan, says fortunately many of the current solutions to minimize climate change's impact on Bangladesh, whether it's flood management or new crop varieties, will also benefit the country in the future.

To improve awareness of climate change issues among Bangladeshis, as well as voice their stories of climate change, gender and food sovereignty, two groups have organized a climate change caravan that is currently traveling across the country. One hope is that these stories will help motivate solutions from Western countries, which often use a much larger share of the world's food, water, energy and carbon than developing countries, according to the ActionAid report. For example, each U.S. citizen consumes an average of 260 pounds of meat per year, about 40 times more than the average Bangladeshi.

Natasha Haider elaborates on this discrepancy in her blog:

Bangladesh has one of the lowest per capita carbon dioxide emissions in the world. There are two principal reasons for such low emissions. First, Bangladesh does not have many energy intensive industries such as steel and aluminum manufacturing. Second, nearly 70 percent of the commercial primary energy comes from natural gas. Therefore, the solution to global warming is largely out of its hands and lies with developed countries or rapidly industrializing ones, mostly in the West.

In the meantime, Nazifa Islam, blogging on South Asian Generation Next, says Bangladesh has already become an innovative source of solutions:

While developed countries are scratching their heads over how to reverse climate change or how to deal with it, Bangladesh already has a head start. From growing rice in saline waters to creating mobile homes, the people of this nation are calling upon every innovative idea to assist in survival. If anything, the most terribly affected place has become a “thinkbowl” for solutions to climate change. Prone to natural disasters from what seems like the beginning of time, Bangladesh has become very good at dealing with all that Mother Nature decides to throw at her, bending like bamboo but never breaking.

5 comments

  • Robert Sutton

    A Clear call to action… but I fear that world leaders are preoccupied.

    When we can see a country population of 20+ million slipping further in poverty and suffering from malnutrition we might expect to see concrete action plans. But the world seems to be lacking vision and leadership, (and is losing heart?) as leaders duck and weave to juggle national and political concerns and the economic crisis.

    I fear that mouths will go hungry and once again a time to act will pass with no real leadership or action.

  • […] by Juhie Bhatia, Global […]

  • Rick Stewart

    We could spend enormous amounts of money trying to reverse climate change, only to be unsuccessful. Why not do something we know works – open our borders to anyone from Bangladesh who wants to immigrate? We could even subsidize the plane fare, on a sliding scale based on income/wealth, to avoid leaving poor people behind.

    It worked quite well for us (USA) from 1790 through 1882.

    My state of Iowa, if we just went to the population density of Massachusetts, could absorb 31,842,285 new citizens, without losing any substantial amount of farmland.

  • […] Such a press of people would be hard to manage at the best of times yet, despite making great strides since the military dictatorship of the 1970s and 1980s, Bangladesh’s political scene remains “volatile”[3]. Interwoven with bouts of religious extremism[4] Bangladesh’s parliamentary democracy suffers from widespread “legal harassment and police brutality” by those in power, and frequent “national strikes and street violence” by those that aren’t[5]. The World Bank has asserted that “among Bangladesh’s most significant obstacles to growth are poor governance and weak public institutions”[6]. These self-inflicted political impediments not only hamper the country’s ability to deal with the disasters it already has, but also prevent it preparing for those impacts of climate change that are largely yet to come. The economy is a similar story. Bangladesh remains a developing nation, its per capita income in 2010 was $641 compared to the world average of $8,985[7], and poverty is rife. Almost half of the population exist on less than one dollar a day[8]. But these figures belie even greater weaknesses in Bangladesh’s economy that derive from its dependence on agriculture – which comprises nearly 20% of GDP and a huge 65% of the labour force[9]. […]

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