Bangladesh’s Land-Use Study is a Model for the World

Bangladesh’s land-use is a major cause of climate change. Find out why a new study provides a model for policymakers worldwide.

In the 1980s, when music channels began to catch on, I remember watching the epic Concert for Bangladesh at a house party with some friends.

We all knew about the concerts from 1971, and some of us had bought the live album. The broadcast gave us our first chance to view the concert film on video.

The concert was a defining moment in the history of Bangladesh. It raised western awareness of the plight of refugees from the 1971 genocide during the Bangladesh Liberation War. 

The concerts raised about a quarter of a million dollars for UNICEF in the country. Although there were scandals around the money from the live album, it delivered millions of dollars to Bangladesh.

Wrongly Perceive Bangladesh as a Poor, Backward Country

Sadly, the concert is just about all that many of my generation know about Bangladesh. Many of us don’t even know precisely why the show took place. We still wrongly perceive Bangladesh as a poor, backward country that needs our help.

Throughout the 70s and 80s, that was reasonably accurate. The news about Bangladesh’s land-use during those years was mainly floods, famines, political unrest and military takeovers.

That started changing when Bangladesh became a democracy with a mixed economy in 1991. Life expectancy is up by ten years, and universal education has created a skilled workforce.

Poverty Rate in Bangladesh Has Fallen from 57% to 22%

The poverty rate in Bangladesh is down from 57% to 22%. Today, Bangladesh has one of the world’s fastest-growing economies, second only to India in South Asia.

Readers may have heard about the garment factory that collapsed in 2016. That was inexcusable, but it has led to some of the best working conditions in the world in the facilities that are springing up.

That growth presents new challenges.  Although birth rates are declining, Bangladesh has a very high population for its size, putting enormous pressure on its natural resources.

For example, Bangladesh’s land-use will have wiped out the Sundarbans forest by 2060. The Sundarbans are the largest mangrove forest in the world and a World Heritage Site. As always, this will increase carbon emissions and climate change. 

Bangladesh is Especially Vulnerable to Climate Change

Geography makes Bangladesh vulnerable to climate change. It’s home to the Ganges Delta, the largest river delta in the world. The country lies on the Bay of Bengal, and the Brahmaputra, Ganges, and Meghna rivers converge there.

Global warming melts the snows in the Himalayas. The runoff flows into the rivers and worsens the country’s infamous flooding.

Most of Bangladesh is less than 15 feet above sea level. Traditionally, Bangladesh has focused on agricultural production on the cultivated lands with rich soil deposits from the Ganges Delta.

One Metre Sea Rise Would Submerge 20% of Bangladesh

Global sea levels could rise by as much as two-and-a-half metres by 2100. Even a one-metre rise would swamp a fifth of Bangladesh.

Such a rise would displace over 50 million people living along the rivers. Our current Syrian refugee crisis involves about three million displaced persons.

Scientists are addressing this. The journal Regional Environmental Change published a study last week showing how physical and economic changes drive Bangladesh’s land-use.

Physical and Economic Changes Drive Bangladesh’s Land-Use

The study combines satellite images with census results. Professor Atul Jain and postdoctoral researcher Xiaoming Xu of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign led the research team.

There are two main findings. First, about 11% of forestland in Bangladesh gave way to shrub-land, farmland and urban areas between 2000 and 2010.

Professor Jain explained why. “Extreme climate events, such as drought and flood, changes in urban and rural population and economic conditions are driving the changes from forest shrubland and in the southeast region of Bangladesh.”

“Earn Their Living by Using Land, Lumber and Fuel”

He went on to explain the economic drivers of deforestation. “Here, the locals earn their livelihood by using land, lumber and fuel resources from forests.”

Still, the team recommends some basic land-use policies to address the loss of the Sundarbans. As Professor Jain put it, “deforestation may be controlled by implementing simple policies such as road improvement, which can provide the people with a means to obtain alternative fuels and livelihoods that are not as dependent on forests.”

The other major finding is that the area of ponds, lakes and rivers in Bangladesh grew by 9% between 2000 and 2010. This growth was mainly in the southwestern coastal region.

Shift from Rice Farming to Saltwater Shrimp Ponds

The increase in water bodies comes from a shift from traditional rice farming to saltwater shrimp ponds. Once again, the main driver of this is economics.

Professor Jain’s explanation is straight forward. “Shrimp farming is 12 times more profitable than rice cultivation in this country.”

The problem with creating saltwater shrimp ponds in these areas is that the salt seeps into the soil on agricultural land and ruins it. The study explains how Bangladesh’s land use policy can also address this issue.

As Floods Worsen, More People Turn to Aquaculture

“Policies need to be developed that encourage the development of saltwater aquaculture only in the regions with favourable conditions to prevent further soil degradation.” It’s a vicious cycle because, as floods worsen, more people turn to aquaculture at the expense of cropland.

This Bangladesh land-use study is ground-breaking because it combines economics with physical geography in its conclusions. This approach can provide essential new tools for policymakers in that country.

It also provides a model for climate policy worldwide. Resistance to fighting climate change usually arises for economic reasons.

Land and Sea Use is the Number One Threat

The United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) has found that land and sea use is the number one threat to our environment. In a report from last September, it called for worldwide land restoration to enable future sustainable development.

That means that all other countries should apply the techniques from this study. The threats provided to policymakers in Bangladesh go beyond the Ganges Delta.

Globally, most countries have cash-based land-use practices that devastate the environment. All nations need to find ways to combine disciplines like the University of Illinois team.

We always have more to learn if we dare to know.
Learn more:
Integrating satellite and socioeconomic data to improve climate change policy
Dynamics and drivers of land use and land cover changes in Bangladesh
The Unfolding Tragedy of Climate Change in Bangladesh
Climate Crisis Becomes Undeniable
Finding New Ways to Share the Land
Climate Wars in Australia are a Microcosm


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