On the Frontline of Global Warming

I am in Chittagong. A pretty name, isn’t? Like something from a children’s story book.

Well, despite its name, Chittagong is not such a pretty place. It is the second largest town of Bangladesh. And Bangladesh is a country that you have to feel sorry for. It was born out of blood, as they say, only 37 years ago. It won its national identity, its national status, through a ferocious struggle with Pakistan, after the failure of a partition that created a Muslim state on either side of India, with two regions more separated by cultures than united by a religion.

Since its birth in 1971, it has suffered disaster after disaster. It has been hit by numerous cyclones that rage in from the Bay of Bengal – a destructive one every three years, it seems. The worst have killed up to half a million people.

Then there are the annual floods. Bangladesh is a massive floodplain. It is here that Asia’s two largest rivers, the Ganges and the Brahmaputra, join to form the world’s largest delta. The average height of Bangladesh is less than ten metres. In the monsoon season, up to 70% of the country is under water.

There were serious floods last July and again in September. Then in November there was the cyclone Sidr, killing up to 10,000 people. All this has been going on for centuries of course. It is not only to do with the lie of the land; there is something about a funnel effect in the Bay of Bengal that I don’t really understand.

The answer is not the building of higher dykes, as in Holland or in the fenlands of England where I come from. Because the farmers of rice, the staple crop in Bangladesh, actually depend on the annual flooding. So they need flood control, not flood prevention.

But the biggest threat to Bangladesh now is global warming. If the scientists predictions are correct, then in the next thirty years or so 13% of the country’s land mass could be lost – and up to 13 million people displaced. This town of Chittagong, where I am now writing this piece – a town of four million people and many acres of buildings – could well be inundated and disappear.

For the last two weeks, though, I have been on much higher ground – in the Chittagong Hill Tracts. These are the border lands – to the east bordering India and Myanmar. They mark a distinct cultural divide, because the indigenous peoples of the CHT are of Sino-Tibetan origin, and their eclectic religions are Hinduism and Buddhism, rather than the more austere Islamic religion of the Bengali peoples of the plains.

The CHT is a beautiful region, with roads that wind up through the green hills and with towns that fringe highland lakes. The traditional forest villages are very picturesque, with their bamboo homesteads and bamboo bridges crossing mountain streams. And the Chakma women of the Rangamati district, where I spent most of my time, wear a striking thami skirt of deep blue with a bold red stripe.

Within the indigenous communities, not subject to the restrictions on alcohol that are strictly upheld in the plains, you can also find – if you have the right introductions – the local rice wine. It goes down well with the spicy meat and fish dishes. But it has a very potent after-kick.

It would be all too easy to call this an idyllic place – which would be to overlook the poverty and to ignore the hard political issues related to the promotion of national unity and the preservation of cultural diversity.

And now there is an infestation of rats. When in travelled to Khagrachari to the north of CHT, I found a team from the World Food Programme investigating the situation. They told me that such an increase in numbers happens in this region roughly every 50 years – when the bamboo forests come into blossom. The seeds are high in protein and, when the rats eat them, they breed four times faster than normal. Then they move into people’s fields and eat their crops. There is also a risk of plague.

They may have no reason to fear the floods, but the people of the Hill Tracts have much else to contend with.

Published in Kenya’s Daily Nation