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Keeping our heads above water

  • Published at 12:54 pm May 17th, 2017
  • Last updated at 01:08 pm May 17th, 2017
Keeping our heads above water

It is widely known that Bangladesh will suffer greatly due to rising sea levels as the Antarctic ice gradually melts.

Greenhouse gases emitted over the centuries since the industrial revolution have already warmed the planet, making some sea level rise inevitable; no one knows how much.

In an article available on the IUCN website, “Climate Change Induced Migration in Bangladesh,” Abul Kalam Md Iqbal Faruk writes that “about 15 million people in Bangladesh alone could be on the move by 2050 because of climate change causing the worst migration in human history.”

In another article available on the Scientific American website, “The Unfolding Tragedy of Climate Change in Bangladesh,” Robert Glennon writes that “some scientists project a five-to-six foot rise by 2100, which would displace perhaps 50 million people.”

Bangladesh must prepare for these dire scenarios. In Bangladesh, rural families who are displaced from their lands usually move to large cities like Dhaka and Chittagong in search of work; industrial jobs are concentrated in these two cities.

Unplanned growth has already made Dhaka unliveable for the unfortunate working class who are crammed into slums; Chittagong is in danger of going down the same path.

It is quite obvious that these two cities will not be able to absorb 15 million migrants by 2050, or 50 million migrants by 2100.

The obvious solution is for Bangladesh to plan the growth of several small towns into large industrial cities, so that Bangladeshis who become landless will have somewhere to go (other than Dhaka and Chittagong).

We should pick at least 20 small towns and develop them into large cities over the coming decades.

Each of these towns should grow into a city of 750,000 people by 2050; in other words, the 20 towns should accommodate a total of 15 million migrants by 2050.

Subsequently, each of these towns should grow further into a city of 2.5 million people by 2100; in effect, the 20 towns should accommodate a total of 50 million migrants by 2100.

Which towns should be grown into large cities?

The government has wisely begun to set up special economic zones (SEZs) in many districts. It would make a lot of sense to set up a public hospital, a public university, government schools, and a power plant in the town nearest to each SEZ; that would effectively turn each new SEZ into the nucleus for a new city. Educational and medical services and power supply should grow as a town becomes industrialised and its population grows; otherwise the town becomes unliveable.

We have known for decades about the problem presented by rising sea levels. We must start preparing to face this problem in a rational manner

Which towns should not be turned into industrial cities?

We need to recognise that many low-lying towns could become permanently flooded as sea levels rise; many climate scientists feel that the sea level is likely to rise three or four metres in the next century or two.

Keeping low-lying cities above water will require huge investments in building dykes and embankments. Some low-lying cities will eventually be abandoned; no one will want to live in a city which is permanently flooded. With this in mind, we should not plan to expand those cities and towns which are already in danger of being inundated by rising sea levels. All the towns which are selected for expansion should be at least five metres above sea level.

How can we pay for all this?

Developing 20 small towns into 20 industrial cities could easily require infrastructure investments of $20 billion (Tk160,000 crore); after all, each city will need a big investment in roads, water and sewer lines, electric lines, power plant, sewage treatment plant, and solid waste landfill.

I assume that gas lines will not be needed, as our gas-fields appear to be quickly running out of natural gas; in the future most households and businesses will probably be burning cylinders of imported gas.

How can the government raise Tk160,000cr?

Most tax revenue is collected through VAT and import duties. In Bangladesh, taxes on consumption (like VAT and import duties) have proven easier to collect than income taxes. One obvious way to raise money is to tax fossil fuels (gas, coal, and oil).

Global warming is mostly caused by CO2 emissions from burning fossil fuels; it makes sense to tax fossil fuels in order to give companies an incentive to invest in renewable energy.

Bangladesh should impose taxes on fossil fuels, and also pressure foreign governments to do the same. All economists agree that taxing fossil fuels is the best way to slow down global warming.

We have known for decades about the problem presented by rising sea levels. We must start preparing to face this problem in a rational manner.

Millions of Bangladeshis will lose their homes and their lands, and be forced to migrate; we must create cities where they will find work, and have a reasonable quality of life.

Zahin Hasan is a businessman, and a member of the board of directors of Dhaka Tribune.

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