COP26: By 2100, Bangladesh may drown, Pakistan likely to face severe water shortage, fear experts

COP26 2

Alok Sharma, the President of COP26, the mega make or break climate negotiation event currently underway in Glasgow, in a speech given at UNESCO Headquarters in Paris on October 12 warned “Paris promised, Glasgow must deliver.” He ends his opening speech to COP26 on October 31 on a hopeful note saying, “We can launch a decade of ever increasing ambition and action. And, together, we can seize the enormous opportunities for green growth, for good green jobs, for cheaper, cleaner power.”

To find out whether they shared Sharma’s view, I spoke to representatives of two of India’s neighbours—Pakistan and Bangladesh, who are currently in Glasgow attending the COP26 meeting, and researched a bit into their plight.

Bangladesh drowned

By 2100, nearly a quarter of Bangladesh may be under the sea making more than 50 million Bangladeshis living in the Sundarbans area (the world’s largest mangrove forest spread along the Bangladesh and West Bengal coast) climate refugees (people who will lose their homes and livelihoods permanently because of climate change impacts). A combination of several factors—subsidence of the Sundarbans, tidal range amplification in the estuaries, and decrease of freshwater discharge—will contribute to sea rise in the Sundarbans that may be significantly higher than the predicted global average sea rise of about 1 metre. Using tools available on the Climate Central website, maps of the Bangladesh coast were generated for different sea rise heights. Bangladesh will be eaten by the sea bit by bit and nearly a quarter of it may well disappear by 2100.

Tariq Karim, former Bangladesh High Commissioner to India, estimates that 50 million Bangladeshi climate refugees would leave the country by 2050. That number will swell by the 21st Century end, and will trigger considerable stress and possibly conflict in South Asia. Being extremely poor, these climate refugees will be forced to migrate to North Bangladesh and into neighbouring countries. Having lost their livelihood, they will be subject to all manner of indignity and abuse—unemployment, disease, child trafficking, etc, in the refugee camps.

Qazi Khohuzzaman Ahmad, an economist and a COP26 negotiator for Bangladesh, whom I met in COP26 says that sea ingress has turned water for drinking and irrigation saline in the Sundarbans area. With sea rise, the mangroves forests of the Sundarbans will erode, and with it the protection they offer Bangladesh against cyclonic storm surges will diminish. Building a sea wall will cost US$ 30 billion, and even that is a temporary solution. Who will give Bangladesh this money? He sees no solution for Bangladesh’s plight except to build high rises. But will they stand up to the relentless onslaught of an angry sea that will only get angrier with time? And is there a solution for lost agricultural lands?

Mujibur Rahman, a farmer from Shariat, a place close to Bangladesh’s capital, Dhaka, has a solution. He feels that India should accept climate refugees from Bangladesh. And why not? For no fault of theirs, Bangladesh will suffer disproportionately. With a global population share of 2.1%, Bangladesh’s contribution to current global emissions is 0.24% and its cumulative emissions (emissions between 1751-2020) are 0.09%.

Parched Pakistan

While climate change will exacerbate the ravages of excess water, Pakistan will be plagued by a reverse problem—severe water shortage. Pakistan has one major river—the Indus. Sixty percent its water is from snow and glacier melt as it originates in the Karakorum ranges, a cold and dry region that gets little precipitation, and is therefore more dependent on melts. In contrast, the Ganga and the Brahmaputra receive only 10-20 % of their water from melts as they originate in the wetter Central and Eastern Himalayas.

As the glaciers melt, water discharge in the Indus will initially increase, followed by a decline, causing large parts of Pakistan to become severely water stressed. This will compromise water and food security of about over 40 million people living in the Indus basin. The fate of these people in future is still not well understood.

The World Resources Institute and World Bank assessed the risk of water stress, hunger and drought in Pakistan and said that the country will be severely water stressed and at high risk of having repeated and severe droughts. Large portions of Central and Northwestern Pakistan will be moderately-to-severely water stressed, with the region above Islamabad and close to Karachi particularly severely stressed, and the population at risk of hunger is expected to be 12.6%. By 2050, barring some areas bordering India, most of Pakistan will be under a moderate drought risk, and Central Pakistan will be at high risk.

Does Pakistan have a solution? “No,” says Mohammad Arif Goheer, who works as the Principal Scientific Officer in the Global Change Impact Studies Centre, Ministry of Climate Change, Pakistan, who is attending COP26. He believes that while the Pakistan Government is aware of the high risk that water stress will cause in the near future, there has been no effort to study its severity or its impact. Already the frequency of Glacial Lake Outburst floods (GLOFS occur when meltwater from glaciers increases the mass of water in glacial lakes and break their moraine dam, releasing millions of tonnes of water causing sweep away villages for 100-150 km downstream). In 2-3 decades, Punjab and Sindh provinces will be slugging it out for the much reduced flow in the Indus.

Again for no fault of their, Pakistan will be a victim of severe water crisis. With a 3% share of the global population, Pakistan contributes to current and cumulative emissions of just 0.6% and 0.3%, respectively. Being a nation with more resources, should India help? As a country that believes in vasudaiva kutumbakam (the whole world is a family), of course India should help Pakistan on humanitarian grounds. Bangladesh and Pakistan are learning that they cannot tackle climate change on their own. But nor can India, and in the future it will require help from other countries to tackle climate change impacts.

Sagar Dhara is a climate activist

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