Monday, June 26, 2017

Portugal, Bangladesh, climate change, governance and disasters: compare and contrast

Climate change, or global warming, has, for well over a century, been recognised as increasing average temperatures on Earth, as well as extremes. More recently there has been recognition of other phenomena: heavy rain, intensified droughts, sea level rise and even lightning, including in the Arctic. Dry lightning - sometimes with thousands of flashes a day - is credited with help setting part of the Tasmanian highlands alight in 2016.

Even more recently there has been recognition of the likely social effects of climate change including population displacement and migration,* famine and undernutrition, and war and conflict. There is also growing understanding of the risks to infrastructure. Already, intense heat is making flights from some high altitude locations uneconomic. Mobile phones don't work as well in intense heat, railway lines can buckle. Extreme heat also harms the capacity of emergency workers, especially if in high humidity.

In June 2017, two complex phenomena happened, each with scores of deaths, each related to climate change, but also to poor governance, one in Portugal, one in Bangladesh.

Fires in Portugal: three days of national mourning

On June 18, 2017, 62 people died from burns from a forest fire in Portugal, mainly trapped in cars trying to flee. The fires, in poorly regulated eucalyptus plantations, were triggered by extreme heat, low humidity and "dry lightning" (an electrical storm without rain).

Portugal declared 3 days of national mourning.  

Landslides in Bangladesh: scarcely noticed at the national level

On about June 15, 2017, at least 156 people died from landslides after record-breaking monsoonal rain in the Rangamati district of the Chittagong Hills Tracts of Bangladesh. This loss of life is not purely climate change related. It is in part due to aggressive government policies including deforestation, erosion, and an incredibly high rate of recent population growth. According to official Bangladeshi census data the population of the district increased by almost 50% from 1991 to 2011. 

This population increase is not largely due to a high birth rate (though the birth rate is high) but the "transmigration" from the Bengali plains to the Chittagong Hill Tracts. This is effectively a form of land grabbing, a brutal and familiar story of the displacement of Indigenous people, underway in this part of Bangladesh since before partition with India (1947) but accelerating since the 1970s. It has been supported by the Bangladeshi army and other instruments of state. A fundamental driver, of course, is high population pressure on the plains.

As a result of poverty and rapid population growth, many people in the
Chittagong Hills Tracts, both migrant and Indigenous, have been forced to build flimsy houses on unstable hills and in vulnerable locations. This is poorly regulated, if at all. For decades, state resources have favoured the military and the settlers, at the expense of the Indigenous people who are increasingly displaced.

Vulnerable housing: Chittagong Hill Tracts. Source
In Bangladesh, unlike in Portugal, there was little attention paid by the state.** Prime minister Hasina went overseas. Both she and the opposition leader (Khaleda Zia) expressed their condolences for four members of the military who were killed (the military's statement implied these deaths were during active rescue work, but locals say the hillock of their camp collapsed and they were buried), but they said little if anything about the others who were killed. Although Bangladesh received condolence messages from India, Russia, Japan and elsewhere mainstream Australian media appears to have not noticed the landslide deaths.

All the road connections to Rangamati were initially cut due to the wide scale of the landslides. Rangamati could only be reached by water from the Kaptai reservoir. The electricity supply was slow to return, food prices were high, compounded by a shortage of food, fuel and drinking water as well as other essentials. There is fear of an outbreak of water-borne diseases. Parts of Moanoghar, a charity which BODHI supports, were flooded, but the children were moved to safer buildings. Some houses were destroyed near Moanoghar and the adjacent road. Reports: here and here.


An earlier arson attack in the Chittagong Hills in June 2017 (over 150 houses burned) was also scarcely reported in Australia outside of social media. A newspaper report linked the arson to the alleged murder of local Awami League leader Nurul Islam Nayan by two Indigenous men. Two Chakma men were arrested. I have no idea if they are guilty or innocent, but the burning of these houses cannot be justified. At least one Indigenous woman was burned to death.

A woman amid her burnt home in Tintila tries to salvage whatever small things she can. Photo: Prabir Das/Anvil Chakma

We are shortly to send $5,000 to Moanoghar to help. Due to the urgency, approval from the Bangladeshi government (to receive foreign funds) is expected to be much faster than normal. 

The wider significance

Those who have more resources in this world generally have more of its political and other forms of power. They even shape the history books.

Claims of overpopulation are generally dismissed by those with power, including in the scientific literature. The capacity of ingenuity to solve problems is exaggerated. Of course, ingenuity helps, but often ingenuity (and aggression) is used to appropriate resources formerly controlled by others, whether in the British Empire, America, Tibet or the Chittagong Hills.

Climate change, by reducing the increase in crop yields, by eating away at coastal land, and by making an increasing fraction of the planet uninhabitable, including through heat and storms, is reducing the arable land which humans need. Ingenuity (eg desalination, vertical farming and
hydroponics) is only a partial compensation. In the future, while population growth and climate change worsen, more conflict must be expected. This situation could easily get out of control, generating global catastrophe.

We need to act intelligently, co-operatively, and rapidly to reduce this slow burning planetary emergency.


* The work of Norman Myers (who I once met at a three day workshop to mark seven billion day, run by the Foundation for the Future) was for decades criticised as alarmist, not only by climate denialists, but by also by some leading migration experts. My impression is that this criticism is diminishing as sea level rise forecasts and other factors, such as extreme heat, grow increasingly dire.

** This is based on material supplied to me by Bengali speakers. I do not have the resources to check the Bangladeshi media, especially by searching in Bengali. I did search in English, finding a reference to the death of the four soldiers but nothing else.

*** BODHI and BODHI Australia are the NGOs I co-founded in 1989.