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The hungry tide

  • Published at 05:03 pm May 20th, 2018
  • Last updated at 06:03 pm May 20th, 2018
Syed Zakir Hossain

Adapting to rising sea levels

The Earth is getting warmer; the antarctic ice is melting. Scientists expect that by the end of this century, many low-lying districts of Bangladesh will be permanently inundated; the agricultural lands in these districts will be lost. 

It has been estimated that 50 million Bangladeshis will lose their homes and farms; they will then move to cities in search of work. As cities expand to accommodate millions of migrants, they will swallow up even more agricultural land. 

At some point, Bangladesh will become permanently dependent on imported rice. Our long-term goal should be to create enough industrial jobs to ensure that the poor are employed, and can afford to buy imported rice. This will require careful planning.

Dhaka and Chittagong, the traditional destination for migrants from the countryside, cannot accommodate 50 million migrants. The slums which house the working class of Dhaka are unlivable; Chittagong has already expanded to risky hillsides. The flow of migrants must be diverted to alternative urban destinations.

Fortunately, the government is setting up several Special Economic Zones (SEZs) in different districts. As factories and mills are built in these SEZs, each SEZ will become the nucleus of an industrial city. The government should encourage this growth by investing in public services near each SEZ. 

The employees of each SEZ will need government schools, universities, hospitals, magistrate courts, and of course infrastructure like roads, sewage, railways, and power distribution. 

As climate change and population growth will probably create 50 million migrants, we need to create 20 industrial cities which will house and employ a total population of 50 million people. The infrastructure required for 20 industrial cities will probably require the government to invest about 20 billion dollars. 

Fortunately, the government can finance this by taxing fossil fuels (oil, gas, and coal). Burning fossil fuels caused the crisis of rising sea levels, so it makes sense to tax fossil fuels to raise money for adaptation.

Creating industrial cities is not just a matter of building infrastructure; private capital will be required to set up factories in the new cities. The private sector will probably require about 50 billion dollars to set up 10,000 factories (at an average investment of $5 million per factory). 

The best way to ensure that these investments are made is to attract foreign capital to Bangladesh. It is time to make the Taka convertible for capital account transactions (transfers of assets), and to let the currency float freely. Foreign financial institutions will then have the confidence to lend large amounts of money to Bangladeshi banks. 

Once new industrial cities have been created, and modern factories have been built there with foreign capital, Bangladeshis who lose their land will naturally move to these cities to find employment. 

Bangladesh will have successfully transformed into an industrial economy; preventing hunger will then be a simple matter of adjusting the minimum wage to ensure that the average working family can afford imported rice. 

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

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