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MIT Technology Review

Saving Bangladesh from Global Warming

Researchers seek fine-scale impact maps for a nation endangered by climate change.

When it comes to climate change, Bangladesh–with 140 million mostly poor residents and low-lying coastal geography–is among the most vulnerable nations on Earth. As part of the country’s effort to prepare and adapt, Bangladesh government agencies are attempting to take global projections of climate change and turn them into highly local predictions.

Climate concern: Researchers in Bangladesh are trying to develop more-precise predictions of how climate change will increase the chances of droughts and floods, like this one in the capital city of Dhaka in 1988.

“The idea is to use historical data, as well as future projections on climate change, to generate a picture of future changes in Bangladesh in a finer grid resolution,” says Mozaharul Alam, a research fellow at the Bangladesh Center for Advanced Studies, in Dhaka.

Typically, global climate models show projected temperature and precipitation changes at a very coarse scale that isn’t very helpful at a local level. Climate models used by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change have a grid scale–think of it as pixel-size–of 200 kilometers by 200 kilometers.

But smaller grid scales, meaning those down to 50 kilometers or lower, would show where temperature, drought, and flooding could be particularly acute within a country. Bangladesh is in the middle of a three-year effort to produce such maps, and it expects to complete them in 2008, Alam says.

Already, some preliminary maps [see below] have been made that show areas where droughts, for example, are expected to get worse in Bangladesh. Even a marginal increase in sea level, hurricane strength, storm surge height, or drought extent could have a staggering human toll.

Bangladesh is one of 48 countries on a United Nations list of least developed countries. The UN provided $200,000 for each of these nations to, first, perform a high-level assessment of how climate change will affect them, and then draw up a list of priority projects. Now the nations are competing for about $115 million to implement adaptation measures over the next three to five years.

Some work is already under way in Bangladesh. In certain areas, coasts are being planted with mangrove trees and other species that could help stanch erosion and provide a bulwark against storms. Some early-warning systems and shelters are in place to protect against hurricanes. In addition, nonprofit groups are trying to advance grassroots efforts to get more people to build floating vegetable gardens that can withstand floods, and plant crops that mature in shorter periods–the better for harvesting before floods come.

Still, of course, such efforts could be easily swamped by the effects of global warming. “The scale of those activities we are doing on the ground is not enough if we compare it against the scale of the problem,” acknowledges Alam. “So there is a huge need to scale up the activities.”

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This interactive map of Bangladesh shows how the current May-through-August drought could afflict larger areas of Bangladesh as global temperatures rise. The first image shows the current drought extent, with red indicating areas with the most severe drought. The second image shows how the areas of most-severe drought might expand assuming a 2 °C temperature increase. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change estimates that the coming century will see a temperature increase of between 1.1 and 2.9 °C under a lower emissions scenario.

Credit: Bangladesh Center for Advanced Studies/Technology Review