Bangladesh is paying a cruel price for the west's excesses

By Veena Khaleque, country director for Practical Action in Bangladesh (THE GUARDIAN, 07/12/06):

While the west puzzles over ways to curb future climate change, in the developing world the present climate change is being felt already, and there is nothing abstract about it. Every year an estimated 150,000 people die as a result of global warming - mainly through natural disasters, disease and malnutrition - and the toll is rising exponentially. There is much talk, but little is done.The industrialised world has pumped huge amounts of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, setting us on a course where a global temperature rise of at least two degrees Celsius is inevitable. That may not sound much, but for people here in Bangladesh those two degrees amount to a catastrophe.

The average Briton produces 48 times more carbon dioxide than someone living Bangladesh. And yet it is here that the impact of those emissions is being felt. Bangladesh is one of the world's largest deltas, formed by a dense network of 230 unstable rivers; most of the country is less than 10 metres above sea level. It is also one of the poorest countries in the world: 50% of our population lives in poverty, 51% of our children are malnourished. A low economic capacity, inadequate infrastructure and a higher dependence on a natural-resource base exacerbate our vulnerability.

Scientists tell us that the most profoundly damaging impact of climate change in Bangladesh will take form in floods, salinity intrusion and droughts, all of which will drastically affect crop productivity and food security. We will also face riverbank erosion, sea water level rise and lack of fresh water in the coastal zones. The prognosis is more extreme floods in a country already devastated by floods; less food for a country in which half our children already don't have enough to eat; and less clean water for a country where waterborne diseases are already responsible for 24% of all deaths.

The last two decades have witnessed ever more frequent and intense flooding. In 2004, 38% of our country was ravaged by floods, which destroyed more than three quarters of our crops, left 10 million people homeless, and in their wake diseases such as dysentery and diarrhoea. It is the equivalent of the Thames flooding Westminster, the South Bank and the City of London repeatedly, washing away businesses and homes, leaving families desperate and desolate and some people dead.

The poor are hit hardest by climate change, as the recent Stern review noted. Poverty forces people to live in makeshift homes; when disaster strikes they have no way of rebuilding. Of every 100 deaths caused by a natural disaster, 97 are in the developing world.

Were the Earth to warm by just one degree Celsius, 11% of Bangladesh would be submerged, putting the lives of 55 million people in danger. Most scientists - including the UK government's David King - expect a two-degree increase. I find it almost impossible to imagine how the poor of Bangladesh will cope.

It is not just Bangladesh. Across the globe, there are fierce droughts, threats to water resources, more intense hurricanes, rising sea levels - the list goes on. How many millions - or billions - of lives must be put at risk before we are prepared to act?

We need to make a deal. We will work to enhance our efforts to help people adapt their lives to the reality of climate change. But you, too, must make a commitment, a firm commitment, to reduce carbon emissions year-on-year. Waiting for other rich countries to fall into line before taking action is not good enough.

Developed nations and governments must put aside self-interest and ensure that developing countries are a priority. It is the poor who are most profoundly affected by climate change, so it is their development that must take precedence.

This is very different from how it is now. I followed the recent United Nations talks in Nairobi with great anticipation. I was disappointed, left with the news that the adaptation fund - money poor countries are entitled to under the Kyoto agreement - has been put on hold for another 12 months. The amount, in any case, is pitiful. At around £220m, the fund is totally insufficient to meet the needs of even one country.

The recently published Bangladesh National Adaptation Programme of Action recommends strategies focusing on coastal forestation, provision of drinking water to coastal communities, education, the protection of urban infrastructure, and scientific research and development to protect crops.

We are doing our bit. However, if richer countries do not change their way of life, and do it now, input from our organisation and others will not be able to protect these communities from the devastating, deadly effects of climate change.