Bangladesh: a voice for the vulnerable

The world’s least-developed countries suffer the worst effects of climate change, yet they contribute little to its creation and have scant influence in international forums. That may be about to change, John Vidal reports.

In September 2007, Fakhruddin Ahmed, chief adviser (or head) of the interim government of Bangladesh, stood in the United Nations General Assembly in New York City and appealed on behalf of all the most vulnerable countries in the world for help and justice to cope with climate change. "This year, we in Bangladesh have witnessed one of the worst floods in recent times … there is little we can do to prevent significant damage … a one-metre sea-level rise will submerge about one-third of Bangladesh, uprooting 25 million to 30 million people,” he said.

“I speak for Bangladesh and many other countries on the threshold of a climatic Armageddon," Ahmed added.

All his fears were justified. Within months, the super cyclone (or hurricane) Sidr had devastated southern Bangladesh. Sweeping off the Bay of Bengal and making landfall at a speed of 223 kilometres per hour, it was one of the biggest storms ever measured in Bangladesh, stronger even than the one in 1991, when at least 138,000 people died.

This time, more than 3,000 people perished and seven million were adversely affected. There would have been far more deaths had it not been for the string of shelters that have been built all along the coast, and the precise, early warning given by Bangladesh’s meteorological office.

In March 2008, Ahmed was in London to see prime minister Gordon Brown and the development secretary for the United Kingdom, Douglas Alexander. Ahmed appealed for help directly from Britain on behalf of Bangladesh and the other 50 least developed countries (LDCs) in the world. "There is every reason to feel angry and upset," he said. "The least developed are suffering the most. It is unfair. We are suffering the most from climate change, but we did not contribute [to it] at all. We are prepared to do our part, but we require, and demand, access to a large amount of investment, resources and technologies that will be needed to adapt."

Ahmed came to the UK because Bangladesh and the LDCs know they are in real danger of being left out of the rolling global climate talks that will run right through to an intended global post-Kyoto deal in Copenhagen in December 2009. The LDCs comprise the most vulnerable people on earth, yet they are not invited to sit either at the high table of the Group of Eight (G8) countries, nor do they have any international political clout like China and India. They are not on former UK prime minister Tony Blair’s agenda to bring together the big emitters, and they are not invited by president George W Bush for parallel US talks.

These innocent victims of climate change do not have the resources to send people to all the international meetings and have effectively fallen off the diplomatic map, left to fight for themselves in the certainty that they will be the most affected by climate change.

Bangladesh, encouraged by Britain, wants to pick up the leadership challenge. As the largest LDC, with 145 million people, and with its extreme vulnerability, it certainly has the authority. For the last four years it has been chair of the LDCs.

Now, says Ahmed, it is time to speak out loudly. "We, the LDCs, are preparing ourselves,” he says. “We need a development path that leads away from disasters. We must work on it together. Developed countries must share the responsibility."

He wants and expects Britain to help: "[Brown] has been strong. Britain has given [us] vocal support. We are planning an international conference in London [in May], focussing on climate change and Bangladesh. Now the UK must take a lead role with other [developed] countries. We are not asking for aid."

Ahmed himself was instrumental in the LDCs getting an investment fund at the United Nations’s 2007 climate change conference in Bali, but says no country has yet contributed. He will not quantify how large it eventually should be, except to say that Bangladesh needs nearly US$3.5 billion over the next five to seven years to strengthen its coastal and river embankments.

But he knows that the rich countries’ record on helping the poorest is dreadful. In 2002, at the Johannesburg Earth Summit — the World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD) — they pledged more than US$1 billion to enable poor and vulnerable countries to predict and plan ahead for the effects of global warming, as well as to fund flood defences. Less thanUS$180 million of the promised money has been delivered.

Anger is mounting in Bangladesh and elsewhere at the global injustice that is being perpetrated, says Atiq Rahman, director of the Bangladesh Centre for Advanced Studies (BCAS), the leading think-tank in Bangladesh.

Rahman, one of the world’s most respected development thinkers, and a lead author with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), warns: "We expect the severity of extreme events to increase. Their frequency will also increase. At least 20% of the country will be inundated with salt water, so our food system will collapse. Some 20 million people will be displaced over time. When the next cyclone comes, it will penetrate further and it will kill more people. The refugees have started. People are moving already. The tides are getting higher. All this translates into catastrophe.

"Rich countries do not have the right to inundate us. Governments plan five years ahead, but climate change needs 20 to 30 years. For the victims, they plan one day ahead. It is one of the greatest intellectual challenges ever faced."

Saleem Huq, a lead author of the IPCC’s latest report on adaptation and sustainable development, is head of climate change at the London-based International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED). He argues that a profound shift is taking place in the way climate change is perceived. From what was originally a purely environmental issue, it is now one of global justice — "or, more correctly, global injustice".

"One group of people — namely, those who consume the most, particularly in wealthier countries — have caused the problem, and another group — namely, poor people, especially in poorer countries — will suffer the brunt of the adverse consequences in the near term," he says. "The issue goes beyond mitigation alone, though mitigation is urgent to prevent even greater and more catastrophic problems in 50 years’ time. And it goes beyond adaptation, such as helping people prepare for the unavoidable impacts in the next few decades. A major challenge now is to find ways to compensate people for the damage that has already been done."

In March 2008, Britain promised to help the LDCs make their case, offering money for them to get to negotiations and to host a climate conference about Bangladesh’s vulnerability, in London in May. "We understand the severity of the problem. We need a development path that leads away from disaster," Ahmed said.

Copyright Guardian News & Media Ltd 2008

Homepage photo by IRRI Images