Submerged houses, displaced families and miles and miles of flood water. This is the scene which can be found in most of northern and southern Bangladesh, at present. Above average rainfalls in this monsoon season coupled with water diverted from India has led some to speculate that the flood in 2017 may rival that of 1988. Bangladesh being one of the largest deltas on earth is particularly prone to natural disasters. This leads to hundreds being killed, thousands losing their homes and being displaced and billions incurred in financial losses. In a 2015 report by Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics titled ‘Bangladesh Disaster Related Statistics: 2015’ reveals that the country suffered losses amounting to $2.33 billion from 2009 to 2014.
The future looks bleaker since an expected 3-foot rise in the sea levels will most likely plunge could displace a significant portion of the population. And to add insult to injury Bangladesh is not even a responsible for this global change. It only contributes about 0.3% of the global emissions. But that hasn’t stopped the government’s efforts to push for cleaner fuel to decelerate the effects of climate change. I say ‘decelerate’ and not ‘completely halt’ climate change because that would be naivety on my part. The Government of Bangladesh (GoB) hopes to produce ethanol from some of the grains the country produces such as broken rice and molasses. Ethanol, with its benefits of being easily producible and usage of locally produced grains, are a boon for countries looking to reduce their Greenhouse Gas (GHG) emissions and excess of grain production. In fact, according to growthenergy.org, a website representing the producers and supporters of ethanol in the USA, ethanol reduces GHG emissions by 59% relative to gasoline.
However, I must reiterate the part of excess grain production. Our country is a net importer of grains and a move towards producing ethanol has been termed as ‘suicidal’ by Moshiur Rahman, who convenes the Bangladesh Poultry Industries Coordination Committee. Currently, Bangladesh only produces half of the maize it requires while importing the rest from USA and Brazil. Similarly, we also import molasses and rice. A rise in the demand for these grains means a direct impact on the food prices which we all know will disproportionately affect the poor and the lower middle-class income groups. With such a heinous impact on food security and prices, does ‘going green’ really add value to the life our citizens? Food security is a major issue of climate change with an absolute impact on for key areas: food availability, food access, food utilization and food stability.
Bangladesh is already on the precipice of being the worst afflicted region due to the irrevocable change to its food production capacity. Agriculture plays a vital role in the economy by accounting for 20% of the GDP and 65% of the labor force according to World Bank reports. But environmental degradation poses the risk of detracting all forms of economic benefit. Severe environmental degradation, due to population pressure on marginal lands will eventually lead to a fall in productivity in food production and per capita production.
To make matters worse, the cultivation of marginal lands is largely done by lower income groups; a group who can least afford to bear the losses of producing in these low-quality land. Thus overuse and changes in resource quality place further pressures on the scarce land and water resources thus further confirming the lives of these people to the vicious circle of poverty.
Bangladesh’s Vision 2021 and the consequent Perspective Plan aims to achieve complete food sufficiency for the population by 2021. In addition to this, the global community along with Bangladesh have adopted the second Sustainable Development Goal (SDG), or SDG 2, which aims to “end hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition, and promote sustainable agriculture” by 2030.
But while the GoB has gamely made promises of adapting the SDGs, policy decisions need to be revised to ensure that we achieve our SDG’s with the same speed and effectiveness that we had for the Millennium Development Goals. To start with, we need to address the financial incapability of the poor farmers. The government already had policies and programs in place which extends agriculture credit to farmers, but more often than not, it is the farmers with who already have large land who benefits from this. Furthermore, ‘almost 30% of the households do not own any land and another 30% own only up to half an acre.’1
Overhauling the existing land ownership related policies is another factor which can significantly change things for the better. ‘Tenancy farming is order of the day. People who own land largely don’t do farming while people who don’t own land mostly do the job as lessees’2. The end result of this is growing income disparity between the two groups in the rural regions and the social evils which follow when income disparity exists.
Another reason for growing food insecurity is the discrepancy between high food demand and limited choice scenario. Resources such as land are scarce while food demand continues to rise with the rising population rates. This also means greater demand for housing, roads, and industries which are simply taking away the farming lands. But the government has tried to be proactive with their environmental policies. In 2009, Bangladesh Climate Change Strategy and Action Plan (BCCSAP) was created which added to the country’s list of climate related interventions through effective policies and projects. The BCCSAP is a 10-year program which is dedicated to building the readiness of the systems to confront the aftermaths of climate change. ‘In order to cope with the threats to food security, efforts have been concentrated on community-level adaptation, agricultural technological extension, surveillance systems installation to track patterns of weather, pests, and diseases, and sanitation program implementation (BCCSAP, 2009)’3
However, here is the problem with BCCSAP. Almost nine years into its existence, no efforts have been made to upgrade its disaster management system. Given that this program looks into the problem of food security for Bangladesh, that is indeed a worrying thought. Nonetheless, not all is lost just yet. Bangladesh has made great strides in achieving its MDG’s and with proper policy implementation, investing in technology and quick thinking we can hopefully do the same with the SDG’s.
For instance, ‘in 2013, Asian Development Bank (ADB) inaugurated a $2.5 million experimental program to introduce crop insurance to Bangladeshi farmers. Supported by the Japan Fund for Poverty Reduction and Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency and the Bangladesh government – will design and carry out the trial of WIBCI (Weather Index Based Crop Insurance) aimed at the small and destitute farmers who are in the most danger of losing everything to hostile environmental factors.’4
The insurance would enable a farmer to retrieve remuneration from the insurer when calamities occur. This form of safeguard would enable farmers to plan and save for long term despite their harvests being destroyed by tumultuous weather. One other way is to deal with the food shortage would be to scale up the public grain storage system. Most farmers do not have access to proper storage facilities which forces them to trade their entire harvest in bulk, leaving none for selling or consumption during disastrous times. ‘Currently, grain storage capacity provided by the Bangladesh Government is 1.62 million tons, provided mainly through conventional granaries and warehouses where the typical shelf-life of grain is less than 1 year.’5
Climate change, bad neighbors or poor governance: who are we to blame for all natural calamities? Perhaps, we should stop with the finger pointing and start coming up with solutions to better equip our citizens to fight these catastrophes. Government also needs to have cohesive relief plan for the victims which would act as some form of safety net for them. Frequent update of government disaster management policies is also advisable. And for all of us who are safe (till now) in our comfortable homes, maybe we should loosen our purse and heart strings and reach out to those who needs it the most.
1 Food security: It’s not only about production, The Daily Star, February 04, 2016
2 Same as 1
3 Climate Change and Food Security, The Daily Star, February 26, 2017
4 Proposed Grant Assistance People’s Republic of Bangladesh: Pilot Project on Weather Index-Based Crop Insurance, ADB, March 2013